6 thoughts on “SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART IS DEAD (Part Tw0): Who done it?

  1. As ever, this is good provocative stuff, Stephen, which I hugely enjoy reading. Thanks for writing it 🙂 However, as someone who – from your perspective – is ‘part’ of this ‘uncreative’ establishment, there are some things I don’t recognise. I completely buy into the idea of struggle to preserve forms of Art which are broadly emancipatory, as opposed to more ‘instrumentalised’ versions of Art making which help to preserve a narrow and elitist world view of what counts as aesthetic experience. No problem there. For me, rather than just taking pot shots at it, the challenge is how to influence institutionalised discourse, and change the attitude of institutions toward the policy frameworks they feel obliged to inhabit.
    Cultural institutions are funded on the back of cultural policy which seeks to preserve canonised versions of Art, and is willing to accept uncritical ‘evidence’ of the value of doing so. ‘It’s good because we like it, and we like it because it’s good’ etc. There’s little incentive for cultural institutions to do anything other than satisfy ACE requirements about ‘Great Art’ blah blah blah, so while institutions might comply with this policy framework for pragmatic purposes, it’s also at the level of policy where change needs to happen. Institutions do have a role to play in this, by purposefully developing programmes which oppose the narrow frameworks which policy requires of them, but it’s very easy for them not to. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want them to, and maybe reinforcing an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset about it also serves to reinforce the distinctions between practices, rather than ‘blurring’ or contesting them.
    As someone within the kind of institution you criticise, I’m personally never really sure whether I’m part of the problem or part of the solution, and it’s often an uncomfortable space to inhabit – in my head, as well as in daily professional life. However, the very existence of this tension helps me to realise that this is where the possibility for change exists. It drives me to be more critical of my own practice, and I think it’s the same kind of ‘conflicted’ space that institutions can inhabit – they just need to be open to those levels of discomfort. Rather than writing institutions off altogether, I think it’s worth remembering that institutions are composed of individuals, and each individual has the capacity to be self-critical.
    I accept that any kind of hegemonic process is always going to feel like a dilution of what constitutes the ‘essence’ of ‘outsider’ practice, but it also opens up new horizons for wider dissent, as your writing shows. Far from being dead, the kind of discourse facilitated on the margins is what keeps Art alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dave and thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I understand your perspectives and I am a firm believer that the margins are indeed where dissent and radical action ferments and emanates from. I must be clear that I’m not writing institutions off: far from it. I am questioning their ability and desire to challenge a system that often subtly enforces compliance (to one degree or another) and that stifles (even mild forms of) dissent. I accept that it is theoretically possible for institutions (and individuals working within institutions – particularly senior individuals) to advocate for and even implement minor changes but I think that, in practice, this is not what commonly happens. There are just too many celebrations of compliance and too much fear of speaking out within institutions.

      I am involved within the policy field myself and understand how to influence cultural policy. Again, it’s not quite as easy as you may suggest. Certainly, only large institutions have any real chance of calling for change and, to be honest, I’m not sure they want change. The status quo is THEIR status quo. Cultural policy is deeply political. It’s an important tool of state control (soft form).

      My approach is then very much based around notions of “outsider-in” and “insider-out”: Guerrilla tactics. I do hope that, as to be fair you have done here, more people (and even organisations) speak out and call for real change and a much more creatively free and truly democratic way of incorporating art and culture of all kinds (not just the state-sanctioned forms) and of supporting artists who are struggling to make a living. All of these things were, of course, inevitable side-effects of the division of labour, of capitalism and now neoliberalism.

      I call for increased opposition of institutions not their (total) overthrow. I hope that, as you perhaps suggest, one day some institutions might oppose arts policy and the technocratic, domineering cultural institutional system in radically subversive ways.

      Here’s to a hopeful and just future for everyone, not just the privileged few!


      • Yes, opposition ‘of’ institutions and ‘within’ them. Because they’re built and sustained on particular political ideas about ‘culture’, they often embody within the fabric of their physical spaces the negation of the thing they were supposedly set up to do. I don’t necessarily think of ‘opposition’ in terms of razing everything to the ground, but more in terms of what the ‘opposite’ of what we currently have would be. What if policy had funded the ‘opposite’ of what it has done for the last twenty years? What would our cultural landscape look like if every penny invested in cultural infrastructure had been invested in grass roots movements – studios, venues, artist networks? That really ought to be what drives policy – by reminding ourselves – Jim Bowen style – of what we ‘could have had’.

        And yes, I agree about influencing policy – as an individual, I think the only thing I can really influence is the critical rigour I apply to my practice, the truth of my expression, and the quality of relationship I make with those I encounter along the way.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Dave. I appreciate your honest and (perhaps to some) controversial thoughts.

    I love the notion of “look what we could have had”, if arts and culture was funded primarily at the grassroots rather than almost totally top-down! We could have had a cultural democracy but THEY always sought to (falsely) democratise THEIR culture – elite culture.

    As another person mentioned recently: Imagine how many full-time artists could work in a community for the cost of a (medium size) new cultural citadel costing, say £50m up front plus regular funding of say £5m per year thereafter. That approach regenerates at grassroots, rather than creating (another) place for the culturally voracious 4-8% (read elite) plus tourists…


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