A Policy for the Arts: “excellence” within the reach of everyone? A contribution to #ArtsPolicy50

NPG x184224; Aneurin Bevan; Jennie Lee

It’s been almost 50 years since Jennie Lee published her white paper A Policy for the Arts – The First Steps (1965). It was Britain’s first state arts policy. Some revere it. For others, the white paper ushered in a period of government instrumentalism in the arts, increasing the powerful influence of the Arts Council. Writer and theatre maker Stella Duffy has called for the arts and culture community to mark the anniversary and is asking people to consider ‘how far we’ve come, how far we HAVEN’T come, what has changed, what else there is to do – what hope is still here for arts for all’ (Duffy, 2015). I thought I’d respond by suggesting that there is little to celebrate in Lee’s white paper. Perhaps things haven’t really changed that much?

First, let’s look at some positive responses to Lee’s A Policy for the Arts. Deborah Bull, a dancer, writer and broadcaster, and director of cultural partnerships at King’s College London, described the 50th anniversary of the white paper as ‘a significant date’ for ‘anyone with an interest in policy and the arts’ in her foreword to the recently published report Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014 (Doeser, 2015, p. 3). The report suggests that without the ‘persistence’ of ‘pioneers’ like Lee, we would not have arrived at the ‘general consensus in the arts sector and government about the value of arts engagement for children and young people’ that we, apparently, have reached today (Doeser, 2015, p. 4). I must point out that the report is not complacent about the tasks still facing arts education in future years.

For recently departed Arts Council England Chief Exec Alan Davey, Lee was a key figure. He singled Lee out for praise in his evangelistic article entitled Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet! (2012):

In the time of Jennie Lee, the first ever Arts Minister, appointed in 1964, we probably reached an equilibrium for the first time: that we fund the best – from wherever it emerges or is shown – and make it available to the most. No dumbing down, no condescending – we make the best art happen and we make sure as many people as possible can benefit from it. That’s what Great Art for Everyone is. That’s why I’ll shout it from the rooftops. (Davey, 2012)

 

Today (25th February 2015), acting CEO of Arts Council England Althea Efunshile blogged that a ‘key theme’ of Lee’s white paper ‘was the better alignment of “excellence” on the one hand and “greater engagement” on the other’ – influences that remain ‘twin pillars’ of Arts Council England’s mission of Great art and culture for everyone (Efunshile, 2015). So it would appear that, for some (perhaps many), the legacy of Jennie Lee lives on – an arts policy that’s worth celebrating. I have some serious reservations…

I wonder whether that, by sticking to an outmoded and weak arts policy that’s now a bit long-in-the-tooth, arts and culture are in danger of missing an opportunity to REALLY redefine how we think about, fund, promote and work within the field and, critically, to rethink arts and culture from the grassroots up, rather than the top down. As a critical theorist, I’m suspicious of policy. The spectres of hierarchy, paternalism, bureaucracy, technocracy, homogeneity, etc. loom behind a thin veil of ‘it’s for the people – for everyone’ rhetoric. Lee’s paper, like current arts policy, is an attempt to democratise the arts. It ignores the more radical ideology of cultural democracy. Present policy wants to get more people to get involved in existing arts and cultural provision – it supports an ‘official culture’ and ignores or belittles other equally valid forms of cultural activities. This causes justifiable concern amongst some people involved in the field, myself included, because, as Eleonora Belfiore pointed out in 2002, ‘the fact that so much of public money goes to art forms the consumption of which is effectively still the reserve of the well-educated and the wealthy (after over 50 years of “pro-access” policies!) is undoubtedly a source of unease’ (Belfiore, 2002, p. 104). I suggest little has changed since Belfiore wrote so candidly. Lee’s white paper was one element in an arts policy that led actually excluded many working class people (and people from many other backgrounds as well). Sophie Hope explained this concisely quite recently:

With their intentions to democratise culture and take “quality art” to the working classes, the TUC, Centre 42 and the Labour government in the 1960s missed the opportunity to recognise cultural democracy by failing to acknowledge or fund the “cultural practices of the working classes” (Hope, 2011, p. 16).

 

So I’m suggesting that cultural democracy was side lined by central government arts policy, suppressed in favour of the far less democratic democratisation of culture. Undoubtedly, as David Looseley suggested, Lee ‘brought a change of direction… [b]ut the Arts Council’s position changed little’ (Looseley, 2012, p. 10). This is writ large in the rhetoric of Arts Council England today. Lee, perhaps, in her call for calling for ‘universal access’ to the arts in the 1960s ‘gently rocked the boat rather than setting it on a new course’, fortifying the idea of arts for everyone but allowing old practises to remain relatively unchallenged and unchanged (Lewis, 2014 [1990], p. 87). I believe, as did Justin Lewis, that the roots of UK arts funding lie in ‘the paternalistic conservativism of the 1950s and 1960s’ from which was born an arts policy based upon paradoxical aesthetic values (now often termed ‘quality’) ‘that simultaneously promote elitism and universal accessibility’ (ibid.). I also contest that successive governments have, to varying degrees, maintained the principles enshrined within Lee’s white paper right up until today.

Jennie Lee’s call to make ‘Britain a gayer and more cultivated country’ is revealing. It is, perhaps, calling to make more people more cultivated in officially sponsored forms of official culture. Revealingly, Lee once said that ‘“if the world was made in my image it would be perfect”’, a position that Lawrence Black suggests she concealed ‘in favour of emphasising her “function is merely a permissive one”’ – she ‘played the populist’ (Black, 2006, p. 329). Critically, for Black, Lee’s defended ‘public spending on minority, elite pastimes’ by claiming that ‘improving access to them might have a cultivating trickle-down effect or therapeutic value, combating commercial, mass, American, popular culture’ (ibid. p. 330). She was clear that ‘“before we arrogantly say that any group of our citizens are not capable of appreciating the best in the arts, let us make absolutely certain that we have put the best within their reach”’ (ibid.). This was Lee mirroring the state’s wish to project a liberal tone – ‘permissive not prescriptive’ (ibid. p. 331). Her assertion that ‘“we should be trying to bring the best within reach of all; but at the same time. . . broadening of opportunities should not lead to a lowering of standards”’ was, for Black, a case of maintaining, as Keynes had previously, the ‘equation of culture, civilisation and “high” Western art’ (ibid. p. 331-332).

Following Black, I agree that ‘Lee did not contemplate Britain’s cultural life being moulded in the left’s own image’ and avoided ‘delivering the Arts as radical agency, in favour of enabling access to established providers, mindful of her non-prescriptive role’ (ibid. p. 334). 1960s Labour was, like Blair’s New Labour and, following Ed Miliband’s recent epiphany, current Labour, ‘a convinced advocate of traditional elite culture, liberal and inclusive in purpose’ – supporting exclusive classical arts, softly manipulating art as a welfare policy tool and developing its commercial possibilities (ibid. p. 335-336). I contend that Lee, like Keynes earlier, remain influential in today’s arts and cultural field. A field now rebranded and extended further towards businesses as ‘the Creative Industries’. Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al. saw this coming a very long time ago. For me then, Lee’s white paper was and still is a blueprint for the development of an official state cultural industry based upon the faux ‘democracy’ of the ideology of the democratisation of culture. This is not an anniversary to celebrate (unless you are part of today’s art world status quo). Instead, today marks fifty years of entrenched financial support for elitism and consumerism dressed down with occasional scraps of small-change for ragged grassroots arts and the 99% of artists struggling, as always, to make a living. We struggle for cultural democracy, to tear down the citadels brick by brick, for a truly equitable arts and cultural environment. They respond by building new temples and repair existing ones, by cutting funding to initiatives with potential to engage new audiences in (albeit often flawed) initiatives such as Creative People and Places, by telling everyone to BBC Get Creative! No money – just BBC Get Creative! I suggest we need to carefully consider the history of UK arts policy. To learn from it and make real changes, not just endless reports and new ‘contracts’ written by people with vested interests.

 

Bibliography

Belfiore, E., 2002. Art As a Means of Alleviating Social Exclusion: Does It Really Work? A Critique of Instrumental Cultural Policies and Social Impact Studies In the UK. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 8(1), pp. 91-106.

Black, L., 2006. ‘Making Britain a Gayer and More Cultivated Country’: Wilson, Lee and the Creative Industries in the 1960s. Contemporary British History, 20(3), pp. 323-342.

Davey, A., 2012. Great Art for Everyone: Is There a Point? You Bet!. [Online]
Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alan-davey/great-art-for-everyone-is_b_2231085.html
[Accessed 11th February 2015].

Doeser, J., 2015. Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014, London: Kings College London.

Duffy, S., 2015. Jennie Lee White Paper Anniversary – 25th February 2015. [Online]
Available at: https://stelladuffy.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/jennie-lee-white-paper-anniversary-25th-february-2015/
[Accessed 11th February 2015].

Efunshile, A., 2015. The Legacy of Jennie Lee. [Online]
Available at: http://blog.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/arts-council-england-blog/legacy-jennie-lee
[Accessed 25th February 2015].

Hope, C. S., 2011. Participating in the ‘Wrong’ Way? Practice Based Research into Cultural Democracy and the Commissioning of Art to Effect Social Change, London: Birkbeck, University of London.

Lewis, J., 2014 [1990]. Art, Culture and Enterprise: The Politics of Art and the Cultural Industries. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Looseley, D., 2012. Notions of the popular in cultural policy: a comparative history of France and Britain. In: D. Looseley, ed. Policy and the Popular. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 5-19.

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Quality in participatory arts: fit for whose purpose & in need of qualification?

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Doctor Faustus in a magic circle, Woodcut, 1648

I have always been perplexed when people talk of “quality”.  It’s a strangely powerful word, given that it is essentially neutral.  Colloquially, people say things like, “He’s a quality player,” meaning that the person has an excellent footballing attribute (or attributes): goal scoring, tackling, whatever.  In science and philosophy, a quality is one element amongst a host of attributes (or qualities) that make up an entity – each quality can be good, bad, etc.  In business, quality refers to fitness for purpose, defined by a company in relation to their chosen target market’s expectations; it is often qualified, internally, by judgments of what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.  Clearly, the word “quality” has different interpretations in different situations but always requires qualification.  So, when I hear the term used in discussions about art or artistic practice, especially when delivered without qualification, I always shrug.

Let’s be honest, quality in art usually means (and is usually qualified as meaning) “excellent” (or at least “good”).  When used without qualification, quality still implies “good” or “excellent”, so why not be honest?  Well, we live in times when “excellence” can sound elitist so, perhaps, it’s best not to say as much.  We also use quality to refer to an aspect of a work of art in relation to its other qualities.  There are qualities in art objects and art processes.  And, of course, we’re well aware of the creeping managerialism that seeks to standardise arts practice with the aim of professionalising the arts (and artists).  This is good for funders and policymakers and good for academia but not necessarily for artists.  And what field of the arts is most prone to attempts at standardisation and professionalisation?  Participatory arts.  So, when I saw Quality in Participatory Art by ex-Helix Arts Chief Exec, Toby Lowe, on the #culturalvalue initiative website, I was intrigued (Lowe, 2015).  This blog post attempts to critically respond to some of the perspectives raised in the essay in the form of a discourse analysis.

The #culturalvalue initiative curator Eleonora Belfiore introduces the essay by situating “quality” as “… a key criterion to establish where funding should be directed” (Belfiore, 2015).  She immediately follows this by asking: “What is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?” (ibid.).  I think this seemingly naïve position masks her understanding of and role within the debate.  Belfiore makes this clear by placing “quality” amongst the “fundamental questions of arts policy” – a place “where discussions of cultural value usually run aground” (ibid.).  She then points out that, although widely referred to by “policy makers and funders”, they “shy away from defining” what constitutes “quality” in the arts (ibid.).  I wonder how this allegedly ill-defined term can be considered, as Belfiore does, “a key concept in cultural policy” (ibid.)?  Surely, policy should be built on firm foundations, not the slippery mudflats of an artistic estuary with many aesthetic tributaries?  I contest that cultural policy makers know full-well what they mean by “quality”.  They mean “excellent”, “good” or “high”.  These are dangerous words in today’s publicly funded arts world; close to the supposedly bygone days of a “few but roses”.  It is also worth mentioning that when quality is qualified as “excellent”, etc., it creates a dialectic: for every “excellent” there must be (at least one) “poor”; some “fit for purpose” and others “defective”; “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.

Nonetheless, Toby Lowe boldly attempts to make a case for “quality” in “participatory art” – another poorly defined term, as we shall perhaps see…

Lowe begins by stating that “quality” will inevitably be part of the cultural value debate “because we are bound to value the cultural experiences which we feel are good” (Lowe, 2015).  It is immediately apparent that he equates “quality” with “good experiences” (ibid.).  I wonder, however, if it is possible that “we” (itself a slippery term as we shall see later) and other audience members and participants might also find value in experiences we do not make us feel “good”?  Are we really only seeking the “good” in arts and culture?  Lowe then suggests “quality in any arts discipline” is often subjective (ibid.).  I couldn’t agree more.  Yet, once again, “quality” is portrayed as a single entity rather than a host of attributes.  Furthermore, need these “qualities” always be subjective?

We then come to a definition of “participatory arts”.  Lowe describes it as: “meaning the range of arts practice in which an artist (of any medium) facilitates a creative process with people” (ibid.).  This is an exceptionally broad definition and, as a result, deeply problematic – vague.  Owen Kelly warned in 1984 about the dangers of a “‘strategy of vagueness’” the left the community arts movement to be increasingly “led by the funding agencies” (Kelly, 1984, p. 23). Lowe, in his open definition, mimics the non-definition arrived at Harold Baldry’s The Report of the Community Arts Working Party, commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1974. The Baldry Report became “the foundation of the Art Council’s policy towards community arts” until at least 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 15) and, arguably, still remains pretty much in place today.[1] It is here worth remembering that “community art” was reinvented in the 1990s as a “seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’” (Matarasso, 2013, p. 1). For François Matarasso, this transition signalled a move “from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds in Britain today” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 1-2). I could not agree more. Furthermore, “participatory arts”, as is clear from Lowe’s ambiguous (non-)classification, can be considered “neutral and descriptive” – little more than “a method applied to all other forms” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 6-7).[2] I wonder, then, how “participatory arts” practice can, when so broadly “defined”, attempt to begin to describe work within the field as “quality” (meaning, as I have already mentioned, “excellent” or “good”)?

According to Lowe, “participatory arts is the artistic discipline that most frequently asks the question: ‘who gets to make art?’” (Lowe, op. cit.). Expanding on this assertion, Lowe explains that participatory arts:

speaks most regularly of the importance of equality in the cultural voice that people have: who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture? And if the people who are asking these questions aren’t also having conversations about what good work looks like, then the practice that is done in their name will soon become stale and uninteresting (ibid.).

I wonder who is speaking here. Who asks the questions: “Who gets to make art?”, “Who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture?” and “What does good work look like?” Who really gets to “speak” for and on behalf of the disciplinary field of participatory arts? Of course, artists ask these questions frequently but, in the context of cultural policy, they are, perhaps, questions posed by policymakers, academics and ‘arts leaders’ – now well-versed in drowning artists’ voices. What about the public and participants? I don’t believe “they” ask these questions very often (if at all). Also, I’m not entirely sure if “the practice that is done in their name” refers to participants, artists, policymakers, academics, arts leaders, or some, or all. Lowe’s ambiguous statement seems to relate to participatory arts practice doing art in the name of someone; perhaps ‘the people’? I contend that participatory arts are often “done to them” (participants, non-arts people) by us – well-meaning artists or instrumentally rational institutions (arts organisations, funders, policymakers, academics, etc.)

Lowe’s contention that “the massive inequality of art-making opportunity” must be addressed by improving access to the arts for “those who have least access to cultural capital” (ibid.) is commonly accepted by many in today’s field of arts and culture; certainly nothing new; virtually uncontested. Yet, positing that “those who have the least… deserve the best” (ibid.) is unusual. Is Lowe here suggesting that everyone deserves to “get to work with the best artists”, using “the best equipment and materials, because their stories matter” (ibid.), or just those most culturally disadvantaged? I support, of course, the need for cultural democracy within arts and culture. The field is still far too unequal – elitist. But should we really be striving for abstract notions such as “the best”? What is “the best”? Who defines it? I wonder if Lowe is unintentionally speaking for them, “the people”, in a rather paternalistic manner, on behalf of (some) of us.

In situating participatory arts as a practice often aligned to (or even, I contest, directed by) social policy, Lowe illustrates how “debate in this area has become infected with the notion that you can judge the quality of the work by the outcomes it produces” (ibid.). The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic.[3] That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment. Of course, there are other ways to define and measure (or experience and know) “quality” or more “the qualities” of a particular work of art – object or process – but that is, perhaps, worthy of another more thorough debate. It is certainly not particularly well-addressed in Lowe’s essay. Instead, he moves quickly to ask “what do we need to do put this right?” (ibid.). The answers, for Lowe, lie in understanding that it’s “critical reflection that makes our practice better” because it’s the “only way we can learn and improve” (ibid.).

Here, we begin to notice the discussion about “quality” morphing into the realm of “best practice” replete with peer reflection tools, “group crits”, open conversations. Nothing wrong with these techniques, but I wonder if Lowe’s approach is not veering here toward the dialogic. Participatory arts is a field fond of dialogic open conversation. Perhaps it is this type of approach that leads Lowe to lament: “Too much of previous discussion about what quality practice looks like in participatory arts has melted away…” (ibid.). His solution is to carefully document the “critical conversations”. But note that “best practice” has shifted again to become “quality practice”. Surely Lowe is talking about good (or best) quality practices here? Do practitioners need this? Well, it depends on whether we want or need more toolkits and better best practice guides. I’m not sure all (or most) artists do and, given the complex relational dynamics between artist and participants and between participants themselves that are so critical to the participatory arts process, whether it will be possible to ‘define’ anything other than a range of necessarily homogenous qualities. What would they then be used for and by whom?

Finally, Lowe summarises key aspects from his own report entitled Critical Conversations: Artists’ reflections on quality in participatory arts practice (Lowe, 2014). Starting with the “theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of participatory practice, which link to relational and dialogical aesthetics”, Lowe goes on to identify authenticity, “rigour”, “good participatory work”, “quality materials and equipment”, “professionalism and rigour”, “rigour, discipline, and professionalism”, amongst an extensive list of characteristics derived from a series of critical conversations with artists. For me, many of these words are reminiscent of management-speak that, whilst undoubtedly important elements of practice, lack any distinction or any form of critical analysis. For Lowe openness is important. He ends his essay by stating:

The more we are each able to be open about the complex judgements we make, and the uncertainties we feel about those judgements, the better all our work will be (ibid.).

I have big problems with “judgements”: a term laden with inferences of power – whether certain or uncertain. Nonetheless, Lowe seems to conclude by suggesting that openness will make participatory arts practice “better” – not “best” nor “excellent” nor “good” – not even “quality”. I conclude that Lowe’s essay actually describes a host of qualities that, whilst often unqualified or misleading qualified, offer insight into the vast array of attributes that affect the process and product of working in participatory arts. It is, however, important to note that what we see in this essay is participatory arts practice in all its anything goes, apolitical finery. There are other, more radical, more issue-based forms of practice in this field – for example, socially engaged art. Whilst socially engaged practice shares many characteristics (dare I say qualities) with participatory practice, the focus is much more sharp; the suspicions of institutions and policies far more acute. For me, this is a distinction I am exploring in my on going PhD research and in my practice. Rest assured, there will be no attempt to define “the quality of socially engaged art”!


[1] For more information about the Baldry Report, see Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984, pp. 15-20)

[2] For more about the transition from “community art” to “participatory arts”, see All in this together: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011 (Matarasso, 2013)

[3] For detailed analysis of the alignment with art and social work, see, for example, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984)

My life as research: tracing the edges of socially engaged & participatory arts practice

I was asked to present a brief précis of my current research at Northumbria University last week.  I thought it might be of interested to some people.  So here it is.  It’s an edited version of the presentation.  The images are a mix of my own, from my case studies and old film stills.

It is first perhaps worth explaining that this is my second year of research-based doctoral study.

As well as being a PhD candidate, I’m also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator with as strong a literary background as art historical.  I like to create, write, think, antagonise, agonise – although not necessarily in that order.  For me, my research is practice; my practice is research.  There are clear boundaries, blurring only occasionally, perhaps shifting a little with and against my research.  This is good.  For me potentiality often lies around the margins, where tension is an always welcome guest.

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I began my research in October 2013 with a question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Why?  Because I was immersed within the field of participatory (or socially engaged) arts (I still am) and I was agonising over the encroachment of policy-led, New Public Management Newspeak into my practice and, indeed, the broader arts world… ‘Evidence’, ‘resilience’, ‘cultural value’, ‘economic value’, ‘inclusion’, ‘exclusion’, ‘diversity’, ‘sustainability’, ‘well-being’, ‘outputs’, ‘outcomes’ – on and on… Creeping instrumentalism.  Even seemingly positive words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘social change’ suddenly became murky through ubiquity.  My question can be simply modified to become a statement – a mantra – for many interested in this field: PARTICIPATORY ART SUPPORTS SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL CHANGE.  Really?

The research question seems as it is: superficial.  What are ‘participatory arts’? A homogenous entity?  Or does the term represent a broad range of artists working with a myriad of artistic practices spanning everything from face painting to radical political activism?  What is ‘participation’ anyway?  And does the term ‘socially engaged art’ or, even, ‘social practice’ better describe certain forms of issue-based, independently determined making art together with people?  Similarly, ‘sustainability’ can take many forms from ecological concerns to maintaining narrow art world status quos ushered in by an allegedly well-meaning Maynard Keynes.  The paramount question about ‘sustainability’ is: Whose sustainability?  Who or what is being sustained, by whom, for what purpose?  And, of course: What is the role of the state?  Does ‘social change’ relate to state agendas and issues of power?  Could notions of ‘social justice’ provide an ethical alternative?

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‘Participatory arts’ were spurned from the ashes of the Community Arts movement.  A lack of self-organisation and theoretical grounding for their multi-faceted approaches to working with people left them open to incorporation by the state on the one (inclusive) hand and marginalisation by the state on the (radically political) other.  Arts policy played an ever-increasing part in this – it still does.  Nonetheless, socially engaged art developed on the margins of the 1990s art world to represent, perhaps, a return to more radical forms of working with people.  Some call it ‘the latest thing’ – it is not!  The field’s historical and political contexts are deeply rich; profoundly influencing many of today’s socially engaged artists.  If this history is interesting to you, I recommend you read Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels by Owen Kelly (1984)…

SO WHAT’S MY ANGLE?

I am trying to align past and present theory with current socially engaged practice.  By exploring and interrelating theoretical and practical perspectives, I hope to illuminate the field of socially engaged practice AND influence current policymakers.  The notion of Critical Utopias forms a locus for my research.  Taking Herbert Marcuse’s The End of Utopias as a starting point, I’m exploring the notion that utopia was a derogatory term used as a tool for suppression and control.  Yet, when reawakened and set free, utopian thinking might, perhaps, offer real potential for emancipation from the dominant neoliberalism paradigm.  For Tom Moylan, tracing a vein similar to the utopianism of Paulo Freire:

The critical utopias give voice to an emerging radical perception and experience that emphasize process over system, autonomous and marginal activity over the imposed order of a centre, human liberation over white/ phallocentric control, and the interrelationships of nature of human chauvinism… The critical utopias refuse to be restricted by their own traditions, their own systematizing content…

(Moylan, 1986, p. 211)

These perspectives align very closely to critically engaged forms of participatory and social arts practice.

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WHAT’S MY APPROACH?

My approach is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School.  Interdisciplinary in nature, my research attempts to fuse a range of theoretical perspectives, taking the following key tenets of critical theory as points of departure: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse).  Dialectics are central to my thinking.  For me, they, along with many other elements in traditional and contemporary critical theory, offer new ways of understanding our current milieu; of (re)imagining alternatives to the suffocating cloak of neoliberalism.

There are too many other theoretical approaches to cite here.  Suffice to say that they span the Marxist politics of, for example, Frederic Jameson and Chantal Mouffe to the psychoanalytic approaches of Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott.  There are many paths to ‘playing’ and ‘reality’ (or realities).  Compliance is not one.

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So, from my original research question, and, like a good empirical researcher, I produced the following working hypothesis which I am testing and refining during my fieldwork:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic 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.

It is lengthy and wordy but useful to my research.

Critical theory can also be considered, in its weaker sense, a distinctive methodology based upon dialectics.  Following this approach, my methodology rejects ‘the qualitative-quantitative distinction as a way of differentiating methodologies’ and is aware of and opposed to the problematic dominance of ‘societal demands for knowledge that can produce technical control’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994).  It instead seeks ‘a theory of social and cultural reproduction’ that is ‘part of a process of social production’ whilst acknowledging the impossibility of ignoring ‘the history and systematic aspects of research’ (ibid.).

My methods are empirical – ethnographic.  My investigation revolves around intensive field research that is autoethnographic – an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to understand cultural experience.  It challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others, instead treating research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act.  It uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography.  As a method, autoethnography becomes both process and product.

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(I then gave excerpts from my five longitudinal case studies.  A mix of organisations and artists.  They were presented as autoethnographic narrative.  Reflections from my field notes.  I have self-censored them for now…)

As well as the longitudinal case studies, I also have conducted and will undertake more informal discussions with people from across all areas of my research.  Each session has a focus relevant to the person’s relationship to my research.  Although short, these focused discussions form critical aspects of my overall thesis.

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But there are also many fragments. Pieces of conversations with other artists, academics, arts organisations, policymakers, etc. that I collect along the way. They are usually the products of chance occurrence; fleeting words. They are incredibly stimulating and often serve to refocus or challenge my research in incredibly unpredictable ways.

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I love collecting as many artefacts along my journey. Some are useful pieces of evidence; others mementos that may or may not stimulate some memory of past encounters. Unspoken meaning often lies dormant in these objects, waiting to find the right moment… Or perhaps not…

Of course, everything must be validated – verified. My field notes are ‘signed off’ by participants after they have read and made necessary corrections and amendments. This process is incredibly useful in developing relationships and maintaining or reinstating some degree of professional distance.

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I hope my research will be of interest and value to academics, policymakers, socially engaged artists and arts organisations. My thesis will need to navigate a careful path so as to appeal to this diverse range of people. Perhaps my autoethnographic approach will help make the research accessible?

And so, the next year or so of my life will be taken up intensively researching my longitudinal case studies, continuing to develop my focused discussions with other individuals and reading as much about the field, other relevant disciplinary approaches and theory as possible. Talking, experiencing, thinking, writing, reading, doing… Then writing up the final thesis.

My life as research…

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