Radical arts activism, sustainability by renewal & social justice: refining doctoral research via critical theory towards a working hypothesis

This post is a first draft of part of my doctoral research methodology.  I have been developing my thinking using a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives that are both complementary and conflicting.  This has led to the development of a research design founded on a working hypothesis that (hopefully) better expresses the nature of my research than the (deliberately ironic) research question might.  Discussion of relevant theoretical approaches and methods will follow soon.

As always, comments and criticism are always encouraged…

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Research question

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

The research question is obviously ambiguous; deeply problematic. This is intentional. It is undoubtedly a tricky question that alludes to the many critical issues facing the burgeoning field of ‘participation in the arts’. As described in greater detail below, this research is underpinned by critical theory that oscillates between the modernism of The Frankfurt School, its philosophical predecessors, and the critical aspects of postmodernism. In this sense, the research question can be read as an ironic representation of the complexities and abstruseness of our present socio-political milieu. A position perhaps mirrored by current manifestations of ‘the culture industry’ and by increasing state interventions into that field. The question mimics the ‘cultural newspeak’ that might emanate from today’s UK government departments and quasi-governmental organisations; developed vivaciously by arrayed policy-makers and advisory panels; repeated parrot-fashion by arts institutions and ‘arts leaders’. In this, perhaps flippant, sense, the answer to the research question is undoubtedly, ‘YES!

However, this research does not aim to verify state claims for ‘participation in the arts’ as a panacea for all social (and, perhaps even, political) malady. It seeks to challenge these claims; to explore possible theoretical, ethical, political and practical alternatives that may shake the status-quo, maybe even fracture the present, ambiguous discourse around ‘participatory arts’. Clearly, then, it is essential that terms such as ‘participatory arts’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are coherently defined. These ambiguities are discussed at length in the literature review but it is important they are considered here so that the research has clear direction. To this end, there follows a series of statements about how this research defines what it is and what it is not interested in studying during the in-depth investigation of its chosen case studies. It is obvious, then, that the research question must be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested and refined during the research period. It is also worth noting that the research intention and hypothetical position have been discussed with the case study participants. It is, indeed, on the basis of the initial hypothesis and subsequent discussion around it that they agreed to contribute to this research.

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Refining the research question

As mentioned above, the terms ‘participation’, ‘participatory art’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are incredibly slippery and multifarious. This section aims to briefly discuss some interpretations of these terms to illustrate how they are used to convey a myriad of meanings for an array of political, philosophical, scientific and ethical reasons. It then sets out to explicate the particular perspectives the research seeks to investigate as well as what it does not. At this point, it is important to be clear that the researcher does not wish to imply that the other interpretations are less valid or somehow inferior aspects of ‘participation in the arts’. They are simply different perspectives.

Looking first at ‘participatory art’, the term has been described by various people within the field of ‘the arts’, and with various interests in the field, very differently. Paola Merli, an academic interested in cultural policy, stated in 2002 that participatory art was used as ‘a form of governance’ by the UK government: a tool for ‘promoting social cohesion’; a ‘cultivated cultural activity’ rather than a ‘primary need’ (Merli, 2004 [2002], pp. 17-21). Her position is developed from a critical attack on Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? (1997) in which he describes participatory arts as being able to ‘contribute to social cohesion’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). Whilst Merli is clearly suggesting that participatory art is an apparatus of state instrumentalism – a critical position shared by this research – Matarasso’s report suggests this instrumentalism is distinctly beneficial for both participants and government. However, Merli’s proposition, derived from Bourdieu, that participation in the arts is a ‘nicety’ that fosters cultural satisfaction is, whilst an undoubtedly valid position in many cases, narrow in that it leaves little room for radical, counter-hegemonic arts activism. The situation today is that the UK government and ‘arm’s length’ organisations such as Arts Council England are actively promoting the instrumental and economic benefits of participation in the arts more widely than at the time of the Merli/ Matarasso debate. Arts Council England list seventeen ‘activities’ they currently use for ‘arts-based segmentation analysis’[1] to define and measure ‘arts participation’ as part of their Taking Part surveys which seek to identify and characterise ‘distinct arts consumer types’ in the ‘arts market’ (Arts Council England a, 2014). Interestingly, all the listed activities involve doing and taking part in art. Participatory arts projects are not measured separately. Radical arts activities are not mentioned. Similarly, their recently published report about the benefits of arts to society is also incredibly vague about how they define ‘participation in the arts’ yet it extolls such activities as having many (equally loosely defined) intrinsic, instrumental and economic benefits (Arts Council England b, 2014). So it is clear, perhaps, that, not only is participation in the arts a very broadly defined set of possible activities that does not particularly value participatory or socially engaged projects as meriting specific categorisation or measurement, but it is also deemed to be an important ‘nicety’.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are two other ill-defined aspects of the research question that must be clarified so that a working hypothesis can be constructed. Sustainability is commonly used to describe the need to maintain or improve biological and/ or human productivity and/ or diversity. It is also a term used to describe ideas or other systems that can be defended or upheld. The term is used to relate ‘sustainability’ to ‘ecosystems’ in which economic, social and biological factors are brought together with the aim of ‘developing’ areas of the ecosystem so as to guarantee the continuing of the whole. These factors were developed by the United Nations in 1987 in their Bruntland Report (United Nations, 1987). Interestingly, culture was added as a fourth factor for sustainability and, more recently, the word ‘political’ has replaced ‘social’[2]. The Bruntland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely quoted, describing sustainable development as:

[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(United Nations, 1987)

Sustainability is also a ‘hot topic’ in UK arts policy, although it is, perhaps, most frequently used in relation to the drive towards ‘organisational change’ and ‘adaptive resilience’ in the face of state-imposed cuts to arts funding. Ex-Arts Council England director Mark Robinson is one of the main proponents of this type of arts management interpretation of sustainability. His 2010 report Making adaptive resilience real clearly demonstrates this linkage of the term sustainability to change within the field of the arts, stating, for example, that:

all parts of the sector should collaborate to improve understanding of systems-thinking broadly, and resilience and sustainability issues specifically, through research, publication and debate, training and development

(Robinson, 2010, p. 46)

Clearly, then, ‘sustainability’ is as common in socio-economic development and management as it is in concepts of environmentalism.

Cultural economics researcher Diane Ragsdale challenges the idea that all arts organisations, and large unwieldy institutions in particular, should be sustained at any cost, especially at the expense of smaller, newer organisations and individual artist-led projects (Ragsdale, 2013). Her position is discussed further in the literature review. It is Ragsdale’s ‘bottom up’ contention that this research takes as a point of departure when considering notions around ‘sustaining’ socially engaged arts practice and social justice. Her perspectives align with the desire of this research to test if and how socially engaged arts movements may be able to be self-sustaining, continually diversifying and self-renewing. As such, it is inherently linked to concepts around developing ‘social justice’ rather than a universal notion of ‘social change’. It is possible to consider many shifts in how we live as representing social change. Industrialisation, capitalism, communism, Nazism, welfare reform, privatisation, credit cards, the internet – a few examples of social change. The term is problematic because it is bereft of any moral or ethical philosophical so that anything can be considered to be social change. Social justice, on the other hand, may be considered to be about fairness and equality; an opposition to injustice. As such, the research takes as its starting point the ‘three critical domains of equality and equity’ proposed by the United Nations in 2006 as essential to the notion of social justice: ‘equality of rights’; ‘equality of opportunities’; and ‘equity in living conditions’ (United Nations, 1996, pp. 15-16). Whilst the report is discussed in more detail in the literature review, it is worth highlighting that this research is aligned to the historical roots of the social justice movement described by the United Nations as:

[A concept developed] in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine… an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity… a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists… Of particular importance in the present context is the link between the growing legitimization of the concept of social justice, on the one hand, and the emergence of the social sciences as distinct areas of activity and the creation of economics and sociology as disciplines separate from philosophy (notably moral philosophy), on the other hand. Social justice became more clearly defined when a distinction was drawn between the social sphere and the economic sphere, and grew into a mainstream preoccupation when a number of economists became convinced that it was their duty not only to describe phenomena but also to propose criteria for the distribution of the fruits of human activity.

(United Nations, 1996, p. 12)

Nonetheless, because the responsibilities of ‘administering’ social justice in the UK primarily relies on its technocratic and centralising government, the concept remains a matter of policy and inevitable instrumentalism that is alluded to in the above quote. One aspect of this research will be to work with case study participants by referencing critical perspectives from the UN report to explore how social justice is interpreted and how it is applied ethically and morally by socially engaged arts organisations.

In summary, this research is not interested in further ‘evidencing’ the predominant type of instrumental ‘participatory arts’ described above (and in more detail in the literature review), nor does it consider that all participatory or socially engaged arts activities must always be classified as secondary to some notional typography of ‘primary human needs’. Rather, this research is interested in radically activist arts practice that engages in counter-hegemonic interventions, seeks to develop and/ or enhance awareness of issues surrounding social justice, and/ or produces new ways of thinking about and/ or producing new forms of practice that can be considered self-sustaining. It is from these perspectives that the following working hypothesis has been developed.

Deveron - All Hail the Returning Hunter(slash)Gatherers, 2011

Working hypothesis

The concept of using a working hypothesis for research based upon critical theory is problematic, particularly for Critical Theorists from The Frankfurt School. This is because, for Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, a hypothesis was considered empiricist – a ‘positivistically reductive mode of inference’ (Strydom, 2011, p. 148). In common with empirical modes of inference, critical theory utilises traditional concepts of deduction and induction but places a critical emphasis upon abduction, rather than deduction, creating space for dialectically imaginative thinking in so doing (ibid.). It has been argued by Habermas (himself referencing the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce) that only abduction can generate new knowledge through a ‘critical process of “determinate negation”’ – a process that must embody ‘ongoing learning’ (MacKendrick, 2008, p. 175). It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and antagonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.


[1] For a list of all seventeen ‘activities’, see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-data/arts-audiences/arts-based-segmentation-research/faqs/#5

[2] For more about these developments, see the original text of United Nations’ Agenda 21 (1992) – accessible via http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=52 – and subsequent UN reaffirmations of support at subsequent ‘Rio’ summits

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The Challenges of Resilience for Cultural Organisations

Interesting new post by Anamaria Wills: can NPOs adapt & remain resilient in a fast changing cultural landscape?

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With the announcement about the next round of NPOs due in a couple of days, I’ve been thinking about Resilience and what it is that makes a resilient organisation. All over England, cultural organisations are facing a period of fundamental change in the ecology of the country’s arts.  Long held beliefs and assumptions about the relationship between the arts and government, the arts and funding, about the nature of arts organisations themselves, are being challenged.  As in other sectors, competitive advantages have become transient. We are facing situations where advantages are copied quickly, technology is just one constant change, our customers seek other alternatives and things move on faster and faster.  In this challenging context, creating clear goals and linking/aligning innovation to more agile strategies for growth, differentiation and disruption is a vital role for CEOs and senior executives.  They cannot abdicate this role.

But for arts organisations, this requires…

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Second post : ‘Occupy artists take message to streets’ from BBC (via @illuminator99) # PhDResearch

illuminator-grievances

Second post : ‘Occupy artists take message to streets’ from BBC (via @illuminator99) # PhDResearch

This link takes you to a really interesting piece by the BBC from 2012 exploring how Occupy use arts as a powerful means of producing counter-hegemonic discourse with big public impact.  Features Illuminator 99%.

Radical counter-hegemonic arts ‘participation’ that critiques instrumentalism by @illuminator99 #PhDResearch

I have been a long-time admirer of the amazingly simple, incredibly expressive and exceptionally impactful work of activist arts movement Illuminator 99%. Their work epitomises, for me, the spirit of Occupy and other non-hierarchical counter-hegemonic movements. This video is the first of two I wish to post to (hopefully) stimulate some discussion around arts, activism and social justice.

A (brief) Critique of LacLau and Mouffe’s Discourse Analysis

Interesting critique of the discourse analysis of Laclau & Mouffe as ‘constructivist idealism’

Struggleswithphilosophy.wordpress

Media as Discourse – Lacau and Mouffe’s social constructivism ‘message without a medium’

In a follow up to a previous post on Deleuze and Guattari’s third major group of strata – alloplastic strata – I will now critique LacLau and Mouffe’s social constructivism. In general, while I see the merits of discourse analysis, I cannot but help feel it is a limited approach to understanding how the world is literally constructed, which is a limitation found in other forms of social constructivism.  The aim of considering Deleuze and Guattari’s model, or diagram, of stratification is it offers one a way out of language-dependent understanding of how the world is constructed and a more comprehensive idea of articulation. Hopefully, Deleuze and Guattari can help to demonstrate the limitations of Laclau and Mouffe specifically and social constructivism in general. 

 

            Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is an example postmodern theorising that…

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This is not a love song – lessons the arts might learn from football

I’m going over to the other side
I’m happy to have and not to have not
Big business is very wise
I’m inside free enterprise

This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
Not a love song

I’m adaptable, I’m adaptable
I’m adaptable and I like my new role
I’m getting better and better
And I have a new goal
I’m changing my ways where money applies

(This is not a love song, Public Image Limited, 1983)

What can the arts learn from football? A lot about developing a connected culture in which children, amateurs and professionals see clear links and participate/ spectate on every level, Nina Simon wrote recently. The world of football is similar to the arts in many ways: taking part, audiences, celebrity and anonymity, economic and intrinsic benefits/ values, large costly buildings and jumpers for goal posts, health and wellbeing, and more. Oh, and let’s not forget finance: public subsidy and big business sponsorship. There’s also, at the ‘top level’, The World Cup and Venice Biennial. Lots of similarities, then. Not all good.

What football does well is undoubtedly present a cultural phenomenon that is accessible at every level. A sport where even the premiership elite are, well, not really that elitist. A game where kids playing in a back lane or park and blokes with hangovers kicking each other as much as the ball are respected. Professionals regularly going into schools for training sessions and awards presentations as well as helping smaller clubs and amateurs fundraise. Football can also be ‘viewed’ live in world class stadiums or patchy local pitches and watched on TV at home or down the pub. Yes, costs of attending a premiership game are prohibitively high for many people; as is a subscription to Sky Sports. But anyone can take part and you don’t hear accusations of amateurism or that’s ‘not football’. Some may say, ‘football is different from art’. Of course, on one level, this is true; yet, on another level, the two activities are similar, essential aspects of our lives.

Like football, the arts is engrained into our daily existence – whether ‘high’ or ‘low’ arts. They both have tiered, hierarchical structures too. The problem is that elitism in the arts means that people taking part in the arts at different levels are perceived of very differently – from billionaire art buyers to attendees of exclusive theatre to student art shows to people sitting watching Corrie. Artistic excellence is paramount at almost every level for many in the arts. It is the winning, not the taking part, that matters. There is little space for amateurism, volunteering (except as ways to keep wage bills down), or even socially engaged arts practice. These are the realms of ‘not arts’ to many within the arts elites (for they are plural, legion). Yet, ‘amateur’ art, art in schools, community art, voluntary art, social practice, etc. offer great experiences and pleasure to many people. The problem is that there is little option for progression (for many) and derision lurks everywhere.

It is therefore essential that we remember that the arts too were once much more connected to life; less elitist than is the case in our present cultural milieu. Artisans were performers and producers, an integral part of everyday life. Festivals were commonplace and many people who may now feel disenfranchised by much of ‘the arts’ today took part. They were key events in the yearly calendar for everyone in communities – they had special meanings and marked special times. Streets and markets were often venues for free theatre and, even when theatre buildings opened, the ‘groundlings’ still formed a substantial sector of the audience of many Elizabethan plays. Sports, like rugby and football, were also integral to the lives of many people. Our neoliberal consumer society today often forgets its past. So too does much of our contemporary arts world. But sports, like football, tend to hold closer ties to their histories as integral to their on-going narratives.

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The darker side of the arts and football (and many other areas of our contemporary lives) is undoubtedly philanthropy and sponsorship. This is not to say that all giving is bad. It is just a warning of the dangers of ‘tagging-on’ brands to activities for purely commercial gain or, worse still, to deliver marketing messages that directly conflict with the activity being ‘supported’. This will be a topic for another post so, for now, let’s just consider BP’s financial support for Tate and The British Museum or tobacco sponsorship of artist residencies in the Caribbean or investment bank and 2008 financial crash ‘Titan’ Merrill Lynch’s project with Tate aimed at regenerating local areas and making places safer. This type of activity is all about ‘realising corporate responsibility outcomes’ – something Arts and Business are promoting heavily as a means to increase philanthropic giving to the arts at the moment – but it mires the arts in corporate complicity. This is different from professional football’s out-and-out clear marketing-for-money deals, not to mention the often essential small-scale sponsorship of local amateur teams by local small businesses who are happy to support their team in return for a little extra local exposure. However, football sponsorship can be dangerously unethical too. Think about the World Cup 2014 with big corporate sponsors including Budweiser, Coca Cola and MacDonalds. The message: play or watch football – drink alcohol and fizzy drinks and eat unhealthy food. Or Wonga and their shirt sponsorship of Newcastle United – buy your season ticket and pay for it with a thousands of percent loan you might end up never repaying! The danger for the arts is that, not only will the ethical and moral concerns about current big arts sponsors affect the independence and critical essence of the arts, but the drive for philanthropic giving may lead to Wonga sponsoring participatory art projects in ‘disadvantaged’ communities, etc.

Nonetheless, forgetting the similar drives for both the arts and football to become increasingly commercialised (at least at their ‘top’ levels), there are, perhaps, lessons the arts might glean from football. It has retained its grassroots up appeal and ethos. Think of (local Toon legends) Gazza, Peter Beardsley, etc. They, like many other people who managed to become professional footballers, had difficult upbringings but became famous (not always just for footballing achievements). They started out playing at school; they were encouraged by sports teachers and (sometimes) parents. They were developed in volunteer-ran ‘boys clubs’ with little funding but loads of commitment to the young lads having a chance in (footballing) life. Professional clubs went there to find ‘new talent’. The professionals paid their dues, coming back to help raise money for the clubs and to help train new generations of possible future pros. Even those who ‘didn’t make it’ still found new friendships and enjoyment in taking part and trying; some stayed to volunteer to help keep the clubs running. If only the same thing could be said about much (not all) of the fractured ‘arts world’ in the UK right now. As Nina Simon pointed out, until fifty years ago soccer was derided in the US – now it is a sport that is increasingly becoming an important national game. It built itself up through grassroots engagement and commitment to accessibility for all. Perhaps we in the UK now need to think seriously about rebuilding the arts from the roots up?