Socially engaged art – an ‘arts’ perspective

This is the third post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my ongoing PhD research around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The field of contemporary socially engaged art theory is another hotly contested area. There are two main players regularly cited as offering extremes of participatory art practice and experience: Grant Kester and Claire Bishop. Indeed, Toby Lowe has developed a ‘spectrum of participatory arts practice’ based on his reading of the two protagonists’ different perspectives (Lowe, 2012, p. 3) – see illustration below.


Are Kester and Bishop really as diametrically opposed in their readings of socially engaged art as this spectrum, and many other commentators, suggest? Rather like Matarasso and Merli, the ‘Kester/ Bishop’ debate has continued for more than ten years, during which time both academics have written extensively about their positions. However, this review focuses only on their most recent works to focus upon their most current perspectives: Kester’s The One and The Many (2011) and Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012).

Kester situates the rise of socially engaged (or collaborative) art practice as a direct response to the current socio-political milieu dominated by ‘a powerful neoliberal economic order dedicated to eliminating all forms of collective or public resistance (institutional, ideological, and organizational) to the primacy of capital’ (Kester, 2011, p. 5). He sees this ‘as a time of both peril and opportunity, as the dominant political narratives used to explain and justify social and economic inequality, the distribution of resources and opportunities within society, and the relative responsibility of the state to the public at large, are being contested and destabilized’ – circumstances that, like previous moments in the history of modernism, have galvanised a ‘remarkable profusion of contemporary art practices concerned with collective action and civic engagement’ (Kester, 2011, pp. 6-7). Kester’s clear position is that contemporary socially engaged practice disrupts traditional notions of autonomy and the aesthetic but he is also concerned that ethical values are often displaced by some critics who favour techniques such as ‘distanciation and destabilization’ (Kester, 2011, pp. 9-10).

Kester is clear that art theory and criticism must adapt to meet the specific modes of production associated with socially engaged practice, utilising techniques from social sciences to assist in evaluating projects (Kester, 2011, pp. 10-11). Although he is wary of post-structuralism because its ‘concept of a textual politics (centered on a process of critical reading, or decoding)’ may insulate ‘the act of critique… from the exigencies of practice or direct action’ (Kester, 2011, p. 13). Political opposition, activism and site-specificity are referred to throughout The One and The Many as key factors behind the rise of socially engaged art in which practice is ‘centered on immersive interaction and a referential orientation to specific sites of social production’ to develop ‘challenging new collaborative art projects’ that ‘are located on a continuum with forms of cultural activism’ (Kester, 2011, p. 37). This results in multi-faceted practice that Kester believes is challenging to ‘many contemporary critics’ (Kester, 2011, p. 59).

Adopting a common standpoint when discussing development and regeneration policies, Kester expresses concern that authorities frequently link deteriorating infrastructure to economic and political ideologies of moral decline to the need for more control of the working class (Kester, 2011, p. 16). He is critical of international development aid and supportive of dependency theorists – a process he believes is driven by subordination to global capitalism, thereby decreasing autonomy in ‘developing’ countries (Kester, 2011, p. 117). A significant proportion of The One and The Many then investigates examples of ‘good’ participatory art projects (Dialogue, Park Fiction, Project Row Houses, etc.) that utilise ‘dialogic’ and ‘collaborative’ arts practice effectively to promote local autonomy, and examples of ‘bad’ practice (Superflex) where artists seem to reinforce Western superiority over developing countries with a missionary zeal.

The One and The Many also explores how community arts in the UK and Europe became institutionalised as part of 1990s urban regeneration strategy, resulting in the movement becoming ‘largely uncoupled from its roots in local activism’ (Kester, 2011, p. 197). Kester characterises Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? as the ‘bellwether expression of New Labour cultural policy’ that supported their ‘rhetoric of “social inclusion”’ by promoting “participation” in the arts as a tool for “self-determination” – a vehicle for social change ‘“planned” and administered by the state, on behalf of the disenfranchised’ – rather than instigated ‘by the constituents of the state, in response to their own demands and in resistance to the various complicities and interdependencies that define the state’s relationship to the market’ (Kester, 2011, p. 198). Kester’s implied support for social activism appears, however, to favour a soft and slow approach that recognises ‘there is no art practice that avoids all forms of co-option, compromise, or complicity’ (Kester, 2011, p. 2); concluding that socially engaged art should not seek to be revolutionary but should facilitate social change via a ‘slow process of learning and un-learning’ (Kester, 2011, p. 227).

Like many critics writing about socially engaged art, Bishop begins by sifting through the many labels ascribed to this mode of practice. She selects ‘participatory art’ – a term she believes to be less ambiguous than others – and defines the practice as one in which ‘people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and performance’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 1-2). Unlike Kester, who does not favour participatory practices aligned to Bourriaud, Bishop makes it clear that many examples she refers to in Artificial Hells ‘have emerged in the wake of Relational Aesthetics’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 2). Bishop, like Kester and most other writers in the field, associates the ‘return to the social’ with a renewed focus on collaboration, project-based practice and participation; a continuum of ‘attempts to rethink art collectively’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 2-3). She defines key debates about contemporary participatory practice as situated in the ‘tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 3). Bishop is clearly concerned about forms of participatory art that often emphasise ‘process over a definitive image, concept or object’, preferring ‘to value what is invisible: a group dynamic, a social situation, a change of energy, a raised consciousness’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 6). Nonetheless, she concedes that the practice necessitates ‘new ways of analysing art that are no longer linked solely to visuality’ – an interdisciplinary approach – but insists that the aesthetics of ‘form’ and ‘reflections on quality’ must not be subjugated by policy-driven, outcome-based, positivist approaches (Bishop, 2012, p. 7). She underlines this position by stating that, whilst participatory practice should ‘channel art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change’ it must also ‘discuss, analyse and compare this work critically as art, since this is the institutional field in which it is endorsed and disseminated’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 12-13).

In keeping with most other writing about contemporary socially engaged practice, Artificial Hells perceives New Labour’s cultural rhetoric as a means of justifying increased public arts expenditure by focusing on improving society and reducing social exclusion rather than encouraging ‘artistic experimentation and research as values in and of themselves’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 13). Of course, Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? again receives special treatment for making excessive claims to cure all society’s ills that ultimately led to participation in the arts becoming ‘a cornerstone of post-industrial economic policy’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 14). Bishop views the ‘social turn’ as creating ‘concrete goals in art, but also the critical perception that these are more substantial, “real” and important than artistic experiences’ and yet, as she thoughtfully points out, participatory projects are usually not compared directly with other social projects outside of the arts but instead often contested in terms of ‘ethical one-upmanship’ and ‘process over product’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 18-19). Bishop’s differences with Kester intensify with claims that he tends to compassionately identify with the ‘other’, favouring ‘a generalised set of ethical precepts’ over ‘the disruptive specificity of a given practice’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 23-25). Here, Bishop fears a normative stance, based upon consensus and respectful of difference, may become repressive towards social practices exploring ‘disruption, intervention or over-identification’ by labelling them “unethical”; the sceptical opposition to these narratives by critical theorists including Badiou, Rancière and Žižek may offer alternative perspectives, however (Bishop, 2012, p. 25).

Indeed, Bishop’s main argument in Artificial Hells would appear to revolve around a belief that socially engaged art should ‘operate in a space of antagonism or negation vis-à-vis society, a tension that the ideological discourse of creativity reduces to a unified context and instrumentalises for more efficacious profiteering’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 16) by redefining traditional notions of the aesthetic as ‘aisthesis: an autonomous regime of experience that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 18). Her proposition that ‘unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity – can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 26) has profound implications for forms of participatory practice opposing instrumentalism. Focusing upon Rancière’s revision of the aesthetic as aisthesis (Ranciere, 2013 [2011]), Bishop finds a solution to socially engaged arts ‘disavowed relationship to the aesthetic’ in his interpretation of the aesthetic as autonomous experience (Bishop, 2012, pp. 26-27) and the implied ‘ability to think contradiction: the productive contradiction of art’s relationship to social change, which is characterised by the paradox of belief in art’s autonomy and in it being inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 29).

Despite concerns about socially engaged art in its ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ instrumentalised forms, Artificial Hells is supportive of participatory arts practice, albeit in more radical forms than envisaged by Matarasso, Merli or Kester. Like Kester, Bishop passionately believes that participatory art can offer emancipation; offering the potential of ‘a communal, collective space of shared social engagement’ and that neoliberal states have effectively harnessed much of the field of social practice for their own ends (Bishop, 2012, pp. 275-277). But she is more pessimistic and radical in her opposition to socially engaged practice that conflates anti-capitalism and ‘the Christian “good soul”’ because such an amalgam leaves ‘no space for perversity, paradox and negation, operations as crucial to aisthesis as dissensus is to the political’ (Bishop, 2012, pp. 39-40). Like others, Bishop mourns the loss of the anti-elitism of the community arts movement and its associated ideology of participation in the arts as a form of empowerment (Bishop, 2012, p. 177). The clear implication is that contemporary participatory art has a tendency towards self-censorship because ‘it is a difficult task to be countercultural while asking for state approval and support’ and a, perhaps unfounded, over cautiousness about participants’ abilities to comprehend ‘disruptive’ modes of practice (Bishop, 2012, pp. 188-190). For Bishop, ‘participatory art today stands without a relation to an existing political project (only a loosely-defined anti-capitalism) and presents itself as oppositional to visual arts by trying to side-step the question of visuality’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 284). A precarious situation of flux that Bishop perceives is only (partially) resolvable if those involved in the field:

‘[P]roduce a viable international alignment of leftist political movements and a reassertion of art’s inventive forms of negation as valuable in their own right. We need to recognise art as a form of experimental activity overlapping with the world, whose negativity may lend support towards a political project (without bearing the sole responsibility for devising and implementing it), and – more radically – we need to support the progressive transformation of existing institutions through the transversal encroachment of ideas whose boldness is related to (and at times greater than) that of artistic imagination’ (Bishop, 2012, p. 284).

Undoubtedly, then, socially engaged art is ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19), shares many commonalities across specific practices and projects, and yet is riven by specific debates ethics, aesthetics and politics. Perhaps, in their recent books, Kester and Bishop may be moving towards a convergence of overall practice whilst maintaining specific differences that are perhaps better left unresolved. There is certainly renewed efforts by practitioners, academics and critics to define the history of socially engaged art and develop of critical language capable of better communicating the nature of this diverse field of practice – something lacking until now (Pasternak, 2012, p. 8). Perhaps a shared language for social practice will only really benefit policy-makers? Perhaps it is enough to experience the ‘symbolic gestures’ of socially engaged interventions to enable ‘powerful and effective methods of change’? (Thompson, 2012, p. 18)

Perhaps contemporary socially engaged art is ‘not an art movement’ in the sense that many critics attribute to the avant-garde movements frequently cited as its ancestors (Situationism, Dada, Constructivism, Fluxus, Conceptualism, etc.), but in fact ‘a new social order – ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power, and span disciplines ranging from urban planning and community work to theatre and the visual arts’ that are ‘non-discipline specific’? (Thompson, 2012, pp. 19-21) Living as Form (2012) expounds the perspective of socially engaged practice as a ‘desire to merge art and life’ – linking this notion to previous moments within the history of the avant-garde (Thompson, 2012, p. 21). To Thompson, the blurring of any boundaries between art and living offer new possibilities that are both deeply interpersonal and essentially political in nature (Thompson, 2012, pp. 21-22). He believes that process-based practice moves the focus away from art as an essentially aesthetic experience but not to the extent to negate its importance completely (Thompson, 2012, pp. 22-23). To Thompson, critical analysis of socially engaged art is essential and offers the following questions as a starting point when attempting to assess such projects:

‘When is a project working? What are its intentions? Who is the intended audience? When is an artist simply using the idea of social work in order to progress her career? Are these socially engaged works perhaps a little too sympathetic with the prevailing values of our time and, thus, make themselves vulnerable to state instrumentalization?’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 32)

To Lind, socially engaged art ‘involves more people than objects’; its intention ‘social and political change’; better placed ‘outside traditional art institutions’ but ‘not entirely foreign to them (Lind, 2012, p. 49). She describes the practice as still a minor part of the arts ecosystem, ‘opposed to the spectacularized and comsumption-oriented mainstream institutions’ so as to retain its independence (Lind, 2012, p. 55). Cruz, also writing in Living as Form, believes the ongoing socio-economic situation necessitates a new, broader approach to artistic practice that includes other disciplines and ‘new conceptions of cultural and economic production (Cruz, 2012, pp. 57-60). In a similar vein to Bishop, he supports radical activism that produces ‘new aesthetic categories that can problematize the relationship of the social, the political, and the formal’ by a coupling of activists with autonomous artists (Cruz, 2012, pp. 60-61). Becker makes this argument in a more idealistic manner by claiming that artists are ‘creating microutopian interventions that allow us to dream back the communities we fear we have lost’ (Becker, 2012, p. 71).

To Holmes, socially engaged art should become one element in a ‘mobile force that oversteps the limits of any professional sphere or disciplinary field, while still drawing on their knowledge and technical capacities’ in a quest to ‘change the forms in which we are living’ (Holmes, 2012, pp. 73-74). His essay in Living as Form suggests this might be achieved using a four-pronged approach incorporating:

Critical research is fundamental to today’s movements, which are always at grips with complex legal, scientific and economic problems. Participatory art is vital to any group taking its issues to the streets, because it stresses a commitment to both representation and lived experience. Networked communications and strategies of mass-media penetration… because ideas and directly embodied struggles just disappear without a megaphone. Finally… the collaborative coordination or “self-organisation” of this whole set of social practices, gathering forces, orchestrating efforts and helping to unleash events and to deal with the consequences’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 74).

Jackson is more conciliatory. Her position makes clear that ‘there is no pure position for socially engaged artmaking’ (Jackson, 2012, p. 86); the question of ‘whether it should be “self-governing” or commit to governance by “external rules”’ is central to its future as a practice in which ‘[a]cts of aesthetic affirmation coincide with equally necessary acts of aesthetic refusal’ (Jackson, 2012, pp. 90-91). McGonagle, in Art of Negotiation (2007), identifies ‘[t]he emergence of another dynamic which hinges on negation and reciprocation, and not just production and consumption’ – an emancipatory move ‘to reconnect art and lived experience as social process’ from a ‘legacy of disconnection between contemporary art and society’ (McGonagle, 2007, pp. 6-7). He ascribes the role of the socially engaged artist as being ‘reconnected to a social continuum and also reconnecting the arts aesthetic and ethical responsibilities… the idea of artist as negotiator’ (McGonagle, 2007, p. 9). In the same book, Reiss further develops the notion of the multi-faceted position of socially engaged artists as straddling the fields of education, activism and research as well as their roles expanding to include becoming role-models and collaborators (Reiss, 2007, p. 12). She perceives ‘participation in the Beuysian sense where the “non-artist” becomes essential in the completion of the art work and in the negotiation of meaning and value in the art process’ (Reiss, 2007, p. 13) but is clear that the practice should remain separate from, and a challenge to, instrumentalist agendas (Reiss, 2007, p. 17).

The Art of Participation takes a much more traditionally arts-based approach when discussing socially engaged practice. Frieling is critical of participatory practice that seeks to create ‘lived’ experience by investing art ‘with nonart or political intent’ (Frieling, 2008, p. 34); particularly artists who make ‘(micro)utopian claims’ (Frieling, 2008, p. 48). Groys’ primary argument is with arts outsiders attempting to influence and ‘transform the fundamental condition of how modern art functions – namely, the radical separation of artists and their public’ (Groys, 2008, p. 19). Whilst, for Atkins, postmodernism has created a general sense of ‘highly individuated indifference, or channelled automatism’ that must be mediated by new forms of participation and new ‘critical perspectives that ensure the possibility of individual and collective engagement’ (Atkins, 2008, p. 64).

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative attempts to generalise the position of participatory arts practice as encompassing ‘the “signature” piece of an artist largely employing her/his audience as low-paid or even unpaid labour to the work of the artist fully integrated within her/his community where questions of ownership and authorship are largely irrelevant’ (Tiller, 2012, p. 7), whilst being equally at home ‘within accepted cultural policy frameworks e.g. schools, museums, galleries and other cultural institutions or working within a much more responsive and ad hoc practice reacting to the immediate needs of those on the very edges of society, e.g. in internal and crossborder conflicts, marginalised communities, with refugees and asylum seekers or development contexts dealing with issues such as sustainability, ecology and health’ (Tiller, 2012, pp. 8-9). ArtWorks’ report clearly seeks to extend participatory arts in every direction but tends, perhaps because many of its stakeholders work for arts institutions and academia, to favour working within ‘the wider context of social, political and economic change’ in an attempt to influence policy-makers (Tiller, 2012, p. 17). It was clear that ArtWorks’ supported an ‘all-inclusive’ approach to socially engaged practices during their 2013 conference, Changing the Conversation. Whilst the conference was not entirely consensual, provocations tended to excitedly promote ‘participation’ as ‘no longer confined to “marginalised” communities or institutional settings’ because ‘contemporary arts practices are re-defining the “participant”, breaking down distinctions between art forms and opening new forms of interactivity and engagement with different audiences, publics and communities’ (Nicholson, 2013, pp. 1-2). The main concern for this ‘participation for all’ outlook was to ensure projects were neither ‘simply taking existing metropolitan audiences to performance spaces they consider “edgy”’ nor using the ‘disadvantaged’ as material to further their artistic ambitions (Nicholson, 2013, p. 2).

Clements, in The Recuperation of Participatory Arts Practices, sees initiatives like ArtWorks as agendas to ‘widen participation’ by breaking down ‘barriers that affect engagement whether associated with class, age, gender, ethnicity, cultural knowledge or even the mythology that creativity is elitist and about special people’; he also acknowledges the practice is capable of being ‘a radicalising process which engenders transformation and emancipation as it can encourage resistance, democracy and citizenship’ (Clements, 2011, p. 19). Referring to 1960s and 1970s community arts movements as positive examples of collective cultural democracy, Clements laments their demise at the hands of state instrumentalism as contiguous to the loss of a ‘radical carnivalesque cultural activism and a broader spectrum of education which encourages self-determinism and cultural democracy’ (Clements, 2011, p. 19). Arguing that socially engaged art should ‘challenge the dominant ideological notion of individualised artistic intention which has traditionally determined engagement and understanding’ (Clements, 2011, p. 20), he criticises many cultural institutions and some established artists for ‘co-opting’ participatory ‘events’ as vehicles of ‘a vacuous mainstream populism and sometime celebrity spectacle de-radicalised as harmless fun’ (Clements, 2011, p. 28). Clements’ scepticism is supported by the rise in simple tick box guidance for those organisations seeking to implement participatory arts projects such as Getting In On the Act published by the James Irving Foundation in 2011 (Brown, et al., 2011) – referred to as ‘good practice’ in ArtWorks: International Next Practice Review (Tiller, 2012). This example of the hegemonic tendency to attempt to subsume counter-cultural movements appears to be directly at odds with the original aims of socially engaged art.

Perhaps, socially engaged practice should, as Gablik stated in 1984, ‘forgo the artifice of the gallery’ and ‘make art for [or with?] ordinary people instead of for other artists’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘discard the incestuous… “stylistic infighting” and begin instead to convey meanings… [for] the people rather than to a dwindling elite’ (Gablik, 1984, p. 28). This perspective, together with Gablik’s depiction of ‘radical art’ as a means to help ‘organise people who can speak for themselves, but lack the vehicles to do so’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 112) by social participation that involves ‘a significant shift from objects to relationships’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 7) may well offer as salient a description as any mentioned above – as relevant today as when first written. Gablik’s insistence that socially engaged practice must begin with community as a basis upon which to build ‘new modes of relatedness, in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 114) still resonates strongly with contemporary debates; a turning away from ‘competitive modes of institutionalised aesthetics’ that may avoid propagating today’s institutionalised ‘dominator system’ by ‘forgoing its rites of production and consumption as a model for making art, its mythology of professionalism and its power archetype of success’ (Gablik, 1992, p. 144).

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