Time to drop innovation? Socially engaged art is not The Latest Thing…

Elizabeth Grady began a discussion on the ‘innovative’ socially engaged network a blade of grass entitled The Latest Thing. I contributed via Twitter then wrote Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes) in response to what I felt was a move towards attempting to position socially engaged art as ‘innovative’. Grady recently responded to my post and to Jethro Brice in a post oddly titled Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New. Her response to my concerns about socially engaged art using ‘innovation’ as a descriptor of ‘the latest thing’ in this field of practice is, for me, deeply problematic. Put simply, I feel she misses the point. Innovation is an undoubtedly ubiquitous word today. Innovation is linked (as I described in my previous post on a blade of grass) to notions of introducing new ‘things’; novelties. It has been widely appropriated by neoliberalism, positivist sciences and capitalism as a positive term meaning new and, by inference, better.

In my original post, I argued that there is no benefit in relating socially engaged art to such an ideologically stained word.  Grady responded by stating that ‘to tie it [innovation] irretrievably to neoliberalism is to deny its elemental power and independent relationship to creativity’. I would argue that to use innovation as a means of describing ‘new’ forms of socially engaged practice (labelled in a comment at the bottom of one of the previous posts by Grady as ‘the best’), or any forms of socially engaged practice for that matter, ties the practice irretrievably (albeit unintentionally) to notions of novelty and artifice and, in so doing, denies the field its unique attributes of being a form of critical and independent social practice. Artistic creativity (by artists and people taking part) still happens in social practice but instead of simply describing the relationships, experiences and art works produced in this process, we substitute creativity for innovation. For me, there is no clear reason or benefit to use a ‘new’ word for the same thing (or set of things), especially a word that carries such obvious neoliberal baggage.


Baron Prášil, Karel Zeman, Film still, 1961

To then attempt to liberate the word innovation from this baggage, as Grady does in her most recent post, is surely senseless. She is positive and hopeful that ‘by dissociating it [innovation] from a market-driven entrepreneurial perspective, we can perhaps recuperate both beauty and usefulness for the term’. I ask why? Why seek to do this? Why not use other, less ideologically laden words? Why actually argue about words at all? Our field of practice is about social justice, about independent interventions with people using all sorts of artistic and supradisciplinary techniques, about places, about people – not words. Isn’t it? Well, I would argue: yes and no. Words like innovation don’t matter to people taking part in socially engaged art; they do matter when we attempt to define or explain our practice amongst ourselves within the field or to others with an interest in the field (institutions, funders, potential commissioners, other disciplines, etc.)

For Grady, the solution to re-appropriating the word innovation for the (supposed) benefit of socially engaged art lies, surprisingly, in ‘old-fashioned art historical formal analysis’, which she argues is ‘one area of innovation which is not necessarily tied to a neoliberal agenda’. Really? The nineteenth-century formalism of the avowed ‘will-to-art’ positivist Alois Riegl? Or perhaps, straddling the centuries, the formalism of ‘father of art history’ (now disavowed by many art historians) Heinrich Wölfflin? Or what about Bloomsbury favourite Roger Fry? Or, the classic left-right formalist proto-neoliberal turncoat, Clement Greenberg? A man who believed modernist art was separate from history, society and politics? Greenberg, promoter of artistic autonomy; of art-for-art’s-sake? To be blunt: formal analysis is a deeply singular form of art historical criticism – a form that discards social, historical and political perspectives; a form entirely at odds with (at least for me) the principles of socially engaged art. Formalism is also an approach that was used to critique older forms of art. As a critical theorist, formalism is positivist, elitist and monolithic. It, for me, has no place in attempting to describe or analyse socially engaged art practice. And formalism can hardly be considered innovative!

Grady expands her rationale by explaining that, for her, formalism asks: ‘What is the form taken by the work, and what are the characteristics of that form? For a painting, you might say it’s color, line, composition, etc…’ She continues: ‘For socially engaged art I would say it [formal analysis] comes closer to the proximity of artists to various kinds of relationships. Who are the partners? To what degree does partnership happen? Who are the co-creators of the work? The participants? The contours of a project’s relationships are the “form” a socially engaged artwork takes, and its aesthetics are predicated on the qualities (and quality) of those relationships.’ I am horrified that Grady should claim formalism could be a potential guiding light for analysing ‘innovative’ socially engaged art. It cannot. Sociological, psychological, anthropological, ethnographic, critical approaches can be useful ways of thinking about socially engaged art, alongside cultural studies, critical theory, etc. But economics, no. Formalism, most certainly not.

So, I propose:



My contribution to article about socially engaged art for Museums Journal, October 2014


I’m very pleased to have been included in an article by Simon Stephens in October’s edition of Museums Journal entitled People Power.  It’s an interesting piece with a range of differing perspectives about social practice.

Click the image above or here to read the PDF.

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO – three provocations at Arts Council England national office

What a week.  A great week.  A deeply challenging week.  A week which saw me invited to Arts Council England’s HQ in Bloomsbury Street, London, thanks to CidaCo and Anamaria Wills in particular, to present a resilience lab to almost thirty people from arts organisations from Birmingham and South East London.  I co-presented the afternoon with the lovely Sue Ball.  We were encouraged to be challenging, provocative.  I presented three provocations.  They were:



First, I briefly like to say what a lovely, super hi-tech place ACE national office is.  Superb facilities.  Coffee was a bit weak though…

Anamaria introduced me as a ‘loud, pick-a-fight-with-anyone Geordie’…  She ended the afternoon claiming I was a Marxist (I’m not)…

Anyway, the three presentations are available online (by clicking the pics or links below) for comment, criticism, sharing, whatever…  The first presentation features An Introduction to the Arts – a poem by the brilliant Luke Wright who kindly gave his permission and good wishes for my endeavours.  Thanks Luke.

Please view them with notes (bottom left corner) enabled so you can read my provocations (most of my slides are just pictures).










A bonfire of the vanities: is resilience & sustainability in the arts simply adding new fuel to old fires?


There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.

The first option is safest.  It’s also a consultant’s dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures.  It’s about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.

Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them.  This is partly because there is still a ‘toolkit’ mentality where best is… well… ‘best practice’.  Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst ‘helping’ new start ups following in their ways – become like them.  The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy.  This is sustainability with a degree of ‘selected openness’ – a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for ‘expanding the stock’ – like planting new forests using tried and tested species.

And these first two perspectives form today’s dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today.  Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations.  It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly.  I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today’s attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable.  This is because many of those driving ‘change’ want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change.  Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities – in other words individual people – are at the bottom of a pecking order.  This is natural.  This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work.  But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.

But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability.  This approach is about accepting life cycles.  Old fires will eventually die out.  Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely.  New fires in new places can be worrying – they may spread – they may get out of control!  But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here.  No bonfire of the vanities.  But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say ‘ecosystem’).  Indeed, this is how many of today’s established organisations began – as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working.  Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable – further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example.  This is not what I mean.  I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within.  This is not audience development, this is true participation.  It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want.  It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.

So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world.  Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations?  Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow.  They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.

And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too?  We must remember that the constant segregation of ‘things we do’ and ‘creative things we do’ is to some extent a modern construct.  Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. – yes – but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc.  This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).

So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability?  Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires.  Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction.  This can be exciting.  It is difficult to measure and predict.  But then so is life (really…)

In terms of my doctoral research question: ‘Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?’  I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing – responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us – keep renewing itself.  I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action.  Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone?