Arise street-crack Buddleias–why socially engaged artists must attempt to storm the citadels

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I was invited to attend Storming the Citadels? Changing attitudes and frameworks to arts practices and research in community settings by Sophie Hope. As an admirer of Sophie’s research and a believer in many of the demands made in Owen Kelly’s classic 1984 text Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, I travelled to Bloomsbury, London as a hopeful participant in an outpouring of revolutionary fervour. I read Slavoj Žižek’s It’s the Political Economy, Stupid! (2013) on the train. I reflected upon my feelings that Jeremy Corbyn might really be a last hope, not just for British (English?) politics but perhaps for art and cultural democracy. This was the first day of my return to research following my paternity leave. Six months of no research. Six months of joyfully privileged time spend with my new son, daughter and wife.

I also re-read Su Braden’s Artists and People (1978) – another classic example of inspiring writing about the community art movement. I pondered on why the privatised East Coast Trains service was a somehow unsatisfying experience when compared to travelling on effectively the same nationalised service not long ago. I was ready to be inspired by finally meeting and hearing from Su Braden as well as a host of other exciting speakers. Would this be the moment when we started talking seriously about tearing down the citadels brick by brick?

I guess my expectations are best described by a couple of Owen Kelly quotes. Firstly, his assertion that we must ‘describe accurately the shapes of the relevant citadels, and to indicate both the importance, and the real possibility, of taking them by storm’ felt as pressing now as it was back in 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 6). Like Kelly, I have a growing sense that, like the community artists, many within the field of participatory arts (perhaps even socially engaged art too) have ceased to think and act like ‘threatening revolutionaries’ in favour of directly and indirectly working for state institutions as ‘primitive guides whose role [is] to lead people through the badlands to the citadels of culture’ (Kelly, 1984, p. 25). Could we, following Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Žižek, find the strength to invest in ‘banks of rage’ in sufficient quantities to bring about our emancipation or would we, like so many other leftist movements, fail to accrue enough ‘rage-capital’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 26)?

When I arrived, I noticed several paintings on the walls bearing the initials ‘VB’. Vanessa Bell? In the Keynes Library at Birkbeck? This was the original haunt of the Bloomsbury group. A place steeped in modernist history. Its grandeur and heritage seemed to jar with any notion of storming citadels. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps we must be on the inside? Can you storm citadels from the inside, I wondered? The ‘long table’ dinner party style conversation format also seemed a little off-putting; perhaps too polite.

STOP. SCENE SET. MOVE ON.

THIS IS NOT A DETAILED REVIEW.

PAGES OF NOTES.

PARE BACK.

SNIPPETS.

THAT’LL BE ENOUGH.

Ok. So here’s a flavour of what happened during an intensive day storming (or, perhaps, norming). Threads. Leading somewhere. Several directions. Sometimes I felt hopeful; often frustrated; increasingly uncomfortable. More on that later.

Research pairing five ‘community art pioneers’ with five current practitioners suggested an increasingly formalised practice; made safe; less critical; increasingly technical and bureaucratic; less politicised; more focused on target groups with specific identities; more short-term projects; outcomes expected; boxes must be ticked. Perhaps things may not have moved on very much? Community arts may have provided a ‘mouth piece for communities’. THINKS: Not sure.

Participatory work commissioned by large arts institutions and funded by Arts Council England contrasted with a concern that institutions ‘destroy innovation by distilling information’, creating artists as ‘delivery agents’. Much work in the field today seems to be short-term, ‘fast-turnaround’. Common theme: New Labour were responsible. Discomfort at thoughts of large arts organisations competing for funding with small youth work groups. Artist or activist first? Training in conflict resolution? [THINKS: No thanks.] Do we always ‘give funders exactly what they want’ – or are there degrees of subversion?

Instrumentalism (THE ‘I’ word). Great interjection: ‘We were about social change. But now the world seems worse!’ What went wrong? Was GLC funding really open and positive? Could this model work today? As practitioners, we ‘must be more than accessories to gentrification’. Perhaps we need to ‘radically rethink the role of community’. Outreach (THE ‘O’ word) – ‘putting a person (artist) in there’. [THINKS: Is this the participatory arts equivalent to ‘boots on the ground’?] Co-production (A ‘now’ word). Neoliberalism (THE ‘£’ word). Gentrification (again) followed by ‘creating a space’. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an artist on every street corner?’ [GRIMACES. THEN THINKS: no.]

Another great intervention: ‘We’re tiptoeing round the edges, not storming the citadels!’ New Labour again. No participants here. [NODS HEAD.] Another powerful intervention: ‘services no longer exist and artists are being asked to fill the gaps’. [THINKS: so true – ARTISTS AS SOCIAL WORKERS – no!] ‘I’ve been a foot soldier too many times!’ An honest admission.

Science Fiction. Not knowing. Plural readings. Utopian. Questioning common sense ‘truths’. Metaphysical discussions. ‘Is “The Other” a threat or a good?’ Spaces – should they be risk-free or ‘not very safe’? [THINKS: we missed out by not exploring literary parallels in more detail here.]

Bold statements: ‘I don’t see myself as collaborative, participatory and certainly don’t see myself as a community artist’; and ‘What happens when I impose myself on a situation – to be the delivery agent?’ Honest. Powerful descriptions of an artist’s recent practice.

Community art: ‘We knew there was no… pay packet’; but ‘We did storm the citadels’; then ‘Some of us became local councillors’. [THINKS: Wow. Expectation turned upside down.] Dandelions and Roses. The second reference. ‘We toured the country. We weren’t staying.’ Community arts as transient act. At last, ‘Mural, mural or mural?’ Practice as stereotype. Honesty: ‘It was difficult to do anything other than celebrating’. Moment of awakening: ‘Someone said, “When are you going to stop gilding the ghettos?” I was devastated… So we rebelled.’ Association of Community Artists – no one took them seriously. Community arts ‘wasn’t a very big movement’, just ‘a few people making… a lot of noise’. [THINKS: great to hear this historical perspective.] Tory Enterprise Allowance offered community artists a little regular income to make work!

Commissioning ‘social art’ practices today: often artist-led; professionalization; artist as entrepreneur; artist as ‘service provider’; socially engaged art as departure from community art; socially engaged art ‘not a movement’; ‘shared methods – different rationales’. Owen Kelly’s called for ‘smaller haciendas’ (author of Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels (1984)) – ideas apparently ‘not transferable today’. [THINKS: I’m not so sure.] ‘We should distinguish between art and activism’. [THINKS: can we and why?] Question: Should commissioning (of socially engaged art) continue? Answer: Move away from commissioning. [THINKS: seems a bit over simplistic.]

Su Braden: Paris 1968; eccentric private donors and exchange economies; went to Africa; film company; Department for Overseas Development; Action Aid. [EPIPHANY.]

‘We need to work with government.’ [OPENLY DISAGREE.] We ended with my favourite quote from the day: as socially engaged artists we must be ‘violently intellectual’.

OK. SO HERE’S HOW MY MIND INTERPRETTED ALL OF THESE CONVERSATIONS.

Artists and people start out with good intentions – perhaps radical, democratic, autonomous, and even emancipatory.

SLIP.

They attempt to subvert instrumentalism – Trojan Horses, parasites, Robin Hood.

SLIP.

They (perhaps intentionally, perhaps inadvertently) become increasingly complicit with instrumentalism.

SLIP.

They join the status quo – regeneration, institutions, overseas development.

They (sometimes) leave the ‘narrow’ (a quote) field of the arts.

THIS SEEMED TO BE A FAMILIAR PATTERN. A PULL TOWARDS THE CITADELS; FROM MARGINS TO CENTRE. THIS IS NOT, PERHAPS, SOMETHING PARTICULARLY UNIQUE TO THE ARTS.

Perhaps, then, we begin believing we must storm the citadels – to ‘tear them down brick by brick’ so we can build ‘a series of smaller haciendas’, chanting NO MORE CITADELS (Kelly, 1984, p. 138).

Can we avoid this (perhaps inevitable) slide? I’m not sure. This is a work in progress.

I STILL HAVE HOPE.

Things are changing. Neoliberalism is weak. It has been exposed. The art world status quo likewise. Some in the arts say we should move towards economics. It drives all policy at the moment. Comply to survive. I suggest that this is an incredibly short-term way of thinking and doing – defeatist even. We can invest in our cultural bank of rage; combine it with the incredible investments of other movements for social justice and political change. We must define art’s citadels – new and old. The walls are crumbling but THEY are using the debris, OUR debris, to strengthen their defences.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR POLITENESS.

We must realise, following Žižek’s reinterpretation of Hegel, that: ‘WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 27). Act now. Learn from the past. Believe in the commons.

WE ARE ALL EXCLUDED.

This is not for everyone. But then neither is socially engaged art.

citadel

 

REFERENCES:

Kelly, O., 1984. Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels. London: Comedia.

Žižek, S., 2013. It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!. In: G. Sholette & O. Ressler, eds. It’s the Political Economy, Stupid: The Global Financial Crisis in Art and Theory. London: Pluto Press.

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Do we need ‘another name’ for socially engaged art? Erm, No…

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Eavesdropping, Aidan Moesby, Vinyl wall text, 2014

I’m intensely interested in perceptions of socially engaged art: past, present and future practice and theory. My research and practice is about exploring the roots of this practice, its place in societies, its ability to open up potential spaces on a myriad of levels from social to personal, and its potential to help support a shift towards a communitarian society free from the evils of neoliberalism. I am interested in the praxis of social practice – critical reflection (theory) AND social and collective action towards social transformation (practice). So I think about notions of marginality, play, psychodynamics, critical theory, dialectics, social justice, the commons, transition, critical utopias more. Oh, and of course socially engaged practice, like all forms of art and, increasingly, life, is a breeding ground for terminologies. This leads to dissensus – we do not agree; do not need to agree. Tensions are essential in theory and practice. They drive creativity. But, perhaps unfortunately, we need to describe and define what we have done, what we do and what we hope we will do tomorrow. We cannot escape the strictures of our languages. Words always offer liberation whilst they simultaneously hold us hostage.

So when I read this week that, ‘Socially engaged practice could change the world. But first we need another name to describe something that is part of everyday life.’ I was both sceptical and hopeful. I believe that socially engaged art as a form of living and sharing, as a means not an ends, can or might be able to help reenchant our world and, by actively supporting movements for broader social and cultural change, replace a neoliberal hegemony with a truly democratic and communitarian society. My rallying cry remains: THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO! But I am sceptical of why some people feel the need to attempt to rename any arts practice, or anything else in life for that matter. Words are important BUT they are also just words. Theory is bound by words in a manner that practice transcends.

Leo Burtin’s blog for The Guardian was written in response to a recent Devoted and Disgruntled discussion on socially engaged practice in which a satellite group discussed the question: ‘What’s another name for this goddamn arts practice?!’ A brilliant question. But, again, I wonder why some feel the need to rename the practice? Let’s face it, the name is deeply contested anyway with some seeing no (or little) difference between participatory arts, social practice, dialogic practice, transitional practice, and relational art – this list continues. Even activist art can be seen as a form of socially engaged arts practice – or not. In the end, it doesn’t matter on the one (practice-based) hand, yet is deeply important on the other (theoretical) hand. Somewhere in between sits the ‘arms-length’, bureaucratic body – a terribly contrary, sometimes contradictory place. Let’s face it, we all hate naming what we do, don’t we? When working with people, I NEVER use the words ‘socially engaged’, ‘community’ or even ‘art’ at all… Well, at least until people ask if they are doing art, at which point I often ask them if they think they are doing art and whether that matters. But, unfortunately, funders need to get a grip on what they’re being asked to give money for and need boxing ticking, and academics (like me) need to be able to position the practice in terms of broader theoretical frames. So, sometimes we must label ourselves and our work; sometimes there’s no need. Language, like practice, is always contingent.

When it comes to suggesting that socially engaged art or any form of art or, indeed, any singular practice can succeed in ‘creating community’ because ‘community doesn’t happen on its own’, I feel immediately wary. We must be careful not to become messianic; to believe in socially engaged art with a missionary zeal; to believe art can ‘change the world’ or even make ‘the world a better place’. I agree that socially engaged art practice can help people create a potential space where they may envision ‘radical transformation(s)’ and even support people who wish to make these transformations happen. It is not, for me, a vehicle for change, however. Nor, as I have explained above, do we need to worry about needing to ‘free ourselves from the kind of language which alienates other people’. All language can potentially alienate people whilst communicating shared understandings to others. It’s about choosing a language that responds to each situation, each context – a process that must always be different; always specific. A suggestion via Twitter that we should ‘ditch the definitions’ is, unfortunately, a little too simplistic. I am, however, concerned about claims that ‘it is possible to use art to create the kind of society that works for each and every one of us’. The spectre of soft instrumentalism reappears. I’m not sure we should ‘use art’ for any purpose and it would seem that a society that’s for everyone is a rather fanciful, perhaps, liberal ideal. But then language is always difficult…

To end, I would like to perhaps also query Leo’s suggestion that ‘there is a difference between community arts and socially engaged practice’. In suggesting that ‘community arts demonstrates clear benefits for the participants in a specific community’ whilst ‘socially engaged practice creates its own communities and generates the sort of value that cannot be immediately measured’, I think that Leo has confused the term ‘community art’ (singular; precursor to socially engaged art) with ‘participatory arts’. My research seeks to differentiate ‘participatory arts’ and ‘socially engaged art’ in terms of specificity of intent: the first aims to ‘do’, to ‘take part in’ something (anything); the second ‘to engage in/ with social issues’. Another example of how important language can sometimes be and why we (sometimes) need definitions. Otherwise we might, as Leo perhaps does in his blog, confuse Fun Palaces with socially engaged art practice. We might then begin to ask what would happen to a Fun Palace that ‘grew… into a village, a town, or a city?’ My flippant mind thinks: #FunVillage; #FunTown; #FunCity. Why stop there? #FunWorld?  Ok.  Stop there.

So, I’m sticking with ‘socially engaged art’ (or even ‘social practice’) sometimes; not mentioning any of this other times; and not confusing this practice with ‘participatory arts’ or Fun Palaces. I’m sticking with definitions when needed; ditching the definitions when they’re not needed. Because, for me, we shouldn’t waste time scratching around for a better name for an accepted field of arts practice. We should develop our practice our own way in response to and together with people. Call it whatever you like. Others will always find a label.

THE NATIONAL FUNDING SCHEME IS A SCANDAL. A ‘SCHEME’ IN THE MOST NEGATIVE SENSE. A SCAM.

Michael Landy, Cor! What a Bargain! 1992

Cor! What a Bargain! Michael Landy, 1992

Liz Hill’s revelations about the National Funding Scheme in Arts Professional this week are undoubtedly shocking. How has the art world reacted to the exposé? Almost blanket silence. Any interest from the national press? Nope. Not yet. This silence typifies an arts establishment that happily trumpets any ‘positive’ news about the arts but increasingly closes ranks whenever there’s a whiff of failure or scandal. This story reeks of both failure (not that failure is necessarily a bad thing) and scandal.

I do not wish to rehearse Liz Hill’s detailed work in exposing the on-going affair nor her previous article about the NFS from 2014.  But I feel it only right that I write a little about my feelings as a response to the entire debacle.

Scandalous activities aside (for now). The National Funding Scheme was and still is for me an incredibly insidious attempt to redefine how UK (English?) arts and culture is financially supported. The NFS is not state funding. The NFS is a platform for philanthropic giving to specific causes – once arts and culture, now anything ‘charitable’. It is not national. It does not funding other than in the sense that it distributes money donated to a specific organisation/ project. As payment for their services, NFS keeps almost half of the eligible gift aid. The NFS is then nothing more than another way to give to some organisations; a method more expensive and less charitable than most, it would seem from the recent Arts Professional article. The name was sanctioned by Jeremy Hunt and the DCMS; the ‘charity’ (for that is what the NFS is) is funded by Arts Council England and Creative Scotland. To describe this organisation as the National Funding Scheme is misleading. It suggests that philanthropic giving is (or is destined to become) the primary source of arts (and charitable) giving in the country. This is certainly the intention of Panlogic Limited – one of two private companies who deliver the platform on behalf of the NFS.

Thankfully, it would appear that the NFS is failing badly. Failing to gain a broad base of national ‘partner’ organisations; failing to attract very much in the way of philanthropic giving (excepting a few big name successes); and failing to be financially viable. In short, it’s failing to be a National Funding Scheme. For me, philanthropy will never be a viable form arts funding in the UK. Nor should it ever be considered as a replacement for state funding. I’ve written often enough (as have many others) about the need for state funding of arts and culture to be more democratic and equally distributed but we must defend it against attempts to replace it with philanthropy. No need to worry in the case of the NFS. They’re doing a great job of discrediting state-supported philanthropic giving initiatives. To be clear, I’m not opposed to philanthropic giving. There are many ways already available to give to arts and cultural organisations that are not backed by the state. Fair enough. I just cannot understand why anyone would think it a good idea to pay for something like the NFS. It would seem to be another (expensive) case of literally reinventing the wheel – and not a very good replica at that!

A National Funding Scheme that’s not national nor distribute funding (in the traditional sense of the word). A ‘scheme’ supported by state and other funders with large sums of public money to make arts organisations money that ends up losing lots of public money. A ‘charitable’ organisation that hives off all of its work to two private companies and pays them using public funds then requests more public funds to pay the two private companies even more to apparently fail to deliver on their promises. A business model that requires the siphoning-off of 45% of Gift Aid from donors in order to (potentially) become economically viable. Oh, did I mention that THE SAME PERSON SITS ON THE BOARDS of the NFS and its two private subcontractors!  The NFS, Panlogic and Digital Information and Giving Limited also all share the same office address!!  Public money becomes company income. I could go on but enough for now (almost).

Clearly, there are many people implicated in this sorry tale (some have been named in Liz Hill’s report). How did THEY let this happen? Why didn’t THEY do something? WE NEED A FULL PUBLIC INVESTIGATION!

It riles me to see significant amounts of public arts funding money being wasted on a scheme like the NFS whilst many individual artists cannot get a penny and many arts organisations/ projects are facing cuts. This failure REDUCES arts funding available for other smaller, perhaps grassroots, activities. It is perverse that a scheme (perhaps ludicrously) intended to increase arts revenue ‘nationally’ has actually leeched public money away. It continues to do so. More is apparently needed. This money is predominantly destined to pay companies ran by a man who also heads the NFS.

THE NATIONAL FUNDING SCHEME IS A SCANDAL. A ‘SCHEME’ IN THE MOST NEGATIVE SENSE.  A SCAM.

We cannot and should not stay silent. This affair cannot be allowed to be brushed under the carpet. We must demand an explanation. We are struggling. We need to have faith in the state to do the right thing; to use dwindling state arts funding carefully and wisely…

ARTS & CULTURAL WORKERS–STRUGGLE NOW AGAINST CREEPING NEOLIBERALISM

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The art world’s such a fickle place.  Buzzword after buzzword follows business metaphor upon business metaphor.  Right now, the UK arts and cultural world is apparently ‘waking up’ to inequality.  The art world’s unequal THEY say.  We need diversity THEY say.

Academics wonder if this inequity is a class, race, gender thing.  Politicians and policy makers enthusiastically call for fairer opportunities.  Some say: Art for everyone.  DCMS trumpets the need for diversity then appoints an all male, white and middle aged committee.

I’m bemused.  We all knew state and market-driven arts and culture was highly hierarchical, didn’t we?  We know it still is, don’t we?  Even voluntary or the deeply derogatory ‘amateur’ arts often have hierarchies of one sort or another.  So is inequality in arts and culture really as simple as an issue of social class, gender, race, etc?  On many levels, it’s true that social status opens doors or slams them in our faces.  Arts organisations up and down the land are staffed by graduates, led by middle class arts administrators and filled with well-meaning middle (perhaps even upper) class trustees and board members.  Not all.  The bigger the organisation, the more likely that opportunities narrow.  Smaller organisations tend to be more open.  These are, of course, generalisations.

But big London and national organisations are different.  Their boards are full of wealthy and uber-wealthy people – some are government appointed.  They are sponsored by wealthy banks, hedge funds, etc.  They receive large amounts of state funding.  And now these same organisations and the same people leading them are branching out.  They are setting up all sorts of Creative Industries groups, partnerships and federations.  Others in the field suggest we join them.  Why?  I’m not sure.

THEY ARE ALL THE SAME FEW PEOPLE.  UPPER CLASS BANKERS AND SUPER RICH.  THEY give to the arts of their choice.  They are capitalists.  They are often part of the 1%.  Their calls for greater equality in the arts are hypocritical.

THEY cannot lead the revolution needed to make arts and culture more equal.  THEY do not want to.  Not really.  They are neoliberals.  They band together to create an even more inequitable arts and cultural field.  THEY influence decisions.

People like me are not from their world.  Never will be.  WE see through their nicely presented thin veneers.  WE can only nip at their heels.  Sometimes they like what we do.  Sometimes they tolerate us.  Sometimes they silently squeeze us into line.  Sometimes they quietly attempt to cut us off.  That’s fine.  That’s THEIR game.

But we are many.  Dark matter, as Gregory Sholette often describes those outside of the system.  Only a truly culturally democratic world of arts and culture can begin to offer fairness and equality (or equity) for all.  This means ending deeply entrenched status quos, not tinkering around the edges.

The art world is frightening for people like us.  But we cannot stay quiet.  We must say NO.  We must organise however we see fit.

IF WE TRULY BELIEVE IN EQUALITY IN ARTS AND CULTURE, WE MUST STRUGGLE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

We must unearth the roots of inequality in arts and culture, starting with those in the know and their (in)vested interests.  Just as we must do the same in all areas of our deeply unequal neoliberal societies.

Art and (In)equality–a film of my provocation @CREATEglos event on 1st June 2015

I’ve already blogged about the event a little bit and shared my presentation but, as inequality within arts and culture has risen in prominence in the past few days, I thought I would share the film made by CREATEgloucestershire in which I “perform” my provocation.

You can read more about Dr Dave O’Brien’s take on the AHRC report on Inequality and Culture in his blog here.

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Feedback and thoughts always welcome…

Socially engaged art–marginal practices & critical utopias

I delivered this talk about my research to the Northumbria – Sunderland AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training Student Conference on the 1st July 2015 at The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.  It’s about negating a negation – negative dialectics.  It’s also about some of the potentialities that socially engaged art may be able to explore as part of broader movements for social justice and emancipation from the shackles of our present neoliberal regime.

For me, our current technocratic and bureaucratic state is, at every level, unfair, unjust, unequal – not just maintaining status quos but tightening their strange-holds upon our ways of living.  The field of arts and culture is no exception.  It’s mutation (under the hands of politicians, policy-makers, funders, arts and cultural institutions, financial and business backers, etc.) into The Creative Industries is deeply troubling.  Horkheimer and Adorno saw this coming.  Totally administered arts.  Totally administered society.  My work is optimistic and hopeful.  The outcomes are always unknown.  But it is essential that I also explore, through negative dialectics, the acts of negation that have, to a large extent, imposed outside rules and policies upon artists, people, communities in the name of progress, economics, austerity, excellence, or whatever.

Enough said.

Please feel free to either take a look at my presentation online here or by clicking the image below (remember to click the ‘NOTES’ button in the bottom right corner of the PowerPoint Online window); or read a transcript of my talk below.

The images in the presentation are from my five longitudinal studies as well as some of my own.  They are meant to sometimes jar with the text; sometimes complement.  You decide.

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SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART – MARGINAL PRACTICES AND CRITICAL UTOPIAS

Hello. I’m Stephen Pritchard. This is my second year of research-based doctoral study. I am also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator. Five months into a six month period of paternity leave.

[I must not research.]

So, rather than present what you’ve (possibly) already heard me say before, I thought I’d try a more autoethnographic, prosaic form.

Snippets. Thread ends. Scraps of thoughts. Slices of other writing. Holes. Never wholes. Titbits of other talks. Scrambled. Jumbled. Sometimes lucid. Things from around the edges.

5 MONTHS AND NO RESEARCH. [REPEAT: I MUST NOT RESEARCH.]

THINKS: Start a little formally (to begin with…)

RESEARCH QUESTION: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? THIS WILL CHANGE.

The directions of research will not.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “How can art speak the language of a radically different experience, how can it represent the qualitative difference? How can art invoke images and needs of liberation which reach into the depth dimension of human existence, how can it articulate the experience not only of a particular class, but all of the oppressed?”

HYPOTHESIS: 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.

CHANGE IT! Too long. Wordy. Idealistic? NO. Utopian? Marginal practices? YES.

MOYLAN: “This alliance of margins without a center anticipates in both the personal and political dimensions the new values and the new society.”

THEORY: Deeply complex. Interdisciplinary.

Can theories of literary criticism, object relations, aesthetics, Critical Theory, political, contemporary visual culture, more, shed new light on the practice of socially engaged art? I think so.

Critical Utopias offer infinite potentialities.

METHODOLOGY: Critical theory. Dialectics. Autoethnographic – autobiography and ethnography – process AND product. Discourse analysis. Longitudinal studies. Short intensive discussions. Fragments of conversation. Gather artefacts, mementos, memories along the way.

Mountains of field notes.

Research subjects become in some ways objects: The Stove, Dumfries; Alex White-Mazzarella, global; Encounters, Totnes; Ovalhouse, London; Platform London.

Different trajectories. Similar practices AND uniquely different. All struggling to make art in an increasingly economics-driven field. Committed to being part of this research, we can all learn from each other.

PRESENTATIONS: ArtWorks conference at BALTIC, Warwick University, The Stove, and Arts Council England in London, more.

I’m lecturing at London Met and (hopefully) other universities in the autumn. I tweet. Blog.

We’re all (self) propagandists nowadays.

FIRST PAPER: A View is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, will be published by Taylor Francis in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy in August.

TOM MOYLAN: “Critical utopian discourse becomes a seditious expression of social change and popular sovereignty carried out on in a permanently open process of envisioning what is not yet.”

The art world is an incredibly staid, unequal place. And art’s potentialities – like all things in life – always lie around its margins – in spaces (perhaps not yet created) where tension is always a welcome and frequent (re) visitor.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “The transcendence of immediate reality shatters the reified objectivity of established social relations and opens a new dimension of experience: rebirth of the rebellious subjectivity.”

ART AND INEQUALITY

Can art ever be truly equal? (Can anything?) Or, is art always about inequity; unfairness; elitism?

As a Critical Theorist, capitalism is always inherently unequal; insidiously alienating.

Art as commodity. Artist as a profession – division of labour. These sorts of things threaten creativity. Replacing society with individualism; with competition for resources THEY say are in short supply.

THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE, they say.

I say THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES! There are many alternatives. Tiny little alternatives. OUR alternatives. Different. NOT THEIR’S.

WE LIVE IN ONE OF THE WORLD MOST UNEQUAL COUNTRIES. Neoliberalism encourages inequality. Divide and rule. We are all increasingly, often unknowingly complicit…

Because, after all…

We’re all consumers nowadays.

Ours is a material world.

Capital is everything.

Economic value. Social value. Cultural value. Social Return on Investment. Impact. Innovation. Evaluation. Matrices. Big data. Wellbeing. Happiness. Resilience. Adaptive resilience. Sustainability. Philanthropy. Leadership. Quality. Great art. Excellence. Money. Money. Money! More and more and more…

… Oh, and CUTS!

Austerity is such a terrible word.

But, wait a minute… The Art World’s such a lovely place, isn’t it? Great Art and Culture For Everyone v2.0 anyone? The pink book? State produced bible to salve all society’s ills. Bring us all together? Art for all?

Not if THOSE IN THE KNOW have their way.

Can arts and culture think beyond economics and (nicely) enforced state policy? Beyond spurious ecosystem models. Beyond ‘making the right investments’?

SU BRADEN: “What is financed… is still seen by THEM as a means by which more people will be encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the arts on which the majority of money is already spent.”

She was talking about community art. Who get’s to decide. Limited participation.

So let’s put PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL…

Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t THEY?

Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say WE – members of the cultural class?

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning.

Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns!

Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.

So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive?

I suggest participation lacks intent.

For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.

PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.

Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… people like us.

STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Another neoliberal veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained.

Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists.

Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.)

CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)

Keeps the funders happy anyway.

IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW.

Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans.

FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION.

Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they?

They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes.

Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour.

Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art!

BBC GET CREATIVE!

New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Creative Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences.

Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.

PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES.

Artists always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait?

MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism.

Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Social practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!

So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory arts programming are guilty of a terrible crime:

PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CREATIVE INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS ANOTHER CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.

HORKHEIMER AND ADORNO: “All reification is a forgetting.”

WHAT IS SOCIAL PRACTICE?

Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.

Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time.

Uncertain.

Always uncertain…

Messes of thread.

Thank you.