GREAT Art for THEM, #everydaycreativity for everyone else!

A provocation for the Everyday Creativity Session at University of Warwick

6th April 2016

This is the paper I presented.  I have included some of the slide images in the text below.  If you would like to view the presentation, please click here and remember to view the slideshow with notes enabled (bottom right).

 

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Parking Space, The Stove Network, Dumfries, 2014 (Photograph by Stephen Pritchard)

Perhaps it’s always been thus: GREAT Art for THEM and Everyday Creativity for everyone else – for US.

Gamekeepers police the palatial borders of the classical-traditional-fine arts; the gated-estates of the commercial arts monitored by drones.  Outreach and public engagement programmes: TOKENISTIC attempts to play the incredibly duplicitous democratisation of culture game.  THEY do not want US to be part of THEIR Art!  Never have.  Never will.

WE have, in John Holden’s words, ‘homemade’ culture (Holden, 2008, p. 11) and, Gregory Sholette’s more pointedly political cultural ‘Dark Matter’.  THEY say homemade isn’t Art; politically activist art is ‘not-Art’.  Secretly THEY do what they’ve always tried to do: appropriate not-Art; colonise OUR creativities.

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Park Fiction, Hamburg, 2006

And yet, as Gregory Sholette suggests, THEY depend upon OUR creative acts:

Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of Dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture – the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, curators and arts administrators. […]  Yet, just as the physical universe is dependent on its dark matter and energy, so too is the art world dependent on its shadow creativity (Sholette, 2003, pp. 4-5).

Spectres of hierarchy, paternalism, bureaucracy, technocracy, homogeneity, etc. loom behind a thin veil of ‘it’s for the people – for everyone’ policy rhetoric.  Democratisation of the arts offends cultural democracy.  It supports ‘official culture’; ignores or belittles other equally valid forms of cultural activities.  Sophie Hope:

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).

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London Docklands Posters, Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn, 1980s

Owen Kelly:

[T]he democratisation of culture can be seen as the compulsory imposition, on society at large, of the values of one particularly powerful group.  These values appear as neutral, and as natural.  Their imposition serves to downgrade the value of the preferred activities of other groups within society, which are designated as hobbies, folk arts, ethnic arts – or just plain quaint (Kelly, 1984, p. 101).

François Matarasso:

Where community art saw itself as a form in its own right, the addition of a final “s” enabled the participatory arts to become a method applied to all other forms.  So art forms and styles previously criticised as “bourgeois” could be recast as ideologically neutral, while their advocates adapted the once radical methods of community artists to the cause of advancing civilisation.  The techniques of cultural democracy were conscripted to the cause of the democratisation of culture (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 6-7).

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’ (Lewis, 2014 [1990], p. 87).

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Silo, Stephen Pritchard, 2015

Democratisation of culture is a form of cultural imperialism.  In the words of Su Braden:

[T]o take a particular art and expose a community to it in the hope that it will become less mysterious and more relevant [… is] reminiscent of the imperialist beliefs of fifty years ago, when our society imposed religion, laws and systems of democracy on other societies which were totally unsuited to them, asserts that if it is good and right for us it must be good and right for them (Braden, 1978, p. 180).

Dividing some creative activities or objects into art and not-art is always arbitrary; deeply divisive: a form of splitting.  A game only ‘experts’ or ‘anointed groups’ are allowed to play.

And yet our present conception and definition of Art is derived and developed from the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution: a division of labour and a division of the aesthetic realm.  Today Art is generally conceived of as ‘high art’, emanating from ‘fine art’; rooted in notions of unique beauty and unique knowledge.

But art was once a craft or skill.  To many, art did not exist.  Making buildings, carving marks into them, furnishing them, etc. was just that – some of it considered more pleasing and skilful than others.  Sculpting, painting, drawing, thatching, weaving, glass blowing, etc. – all skills.  Leaving marks on rocks, carving letters and symbols into wood, into trees, etc. were as commonplace as they are now, perhaps more so.  Everyone and no one was an artist then.  Taste existed, of course, but people did not define some things as Art and other things as ‘not art’.  Theatre, performance, music, writing, poetry, etc. were activities to enjoy, to take part in, to think about, and talk about.  All these things could also be useful – everyday.

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Page from News from Nowhere, William Morris, 1890

Carnival gave the masses their chance to reverse status quos, be playful, vengeful.  Today, we look back at paintings, objects, buildings, music, theatre, writing, poetry, even cave paintings and declare some of them ‘Art’.  Yet people from earlier times, earlier cultures thought differently: they lived different lives.  The ‘experts’ canonised certain interpretations of human making as ‘art’ (and continue to do so) – historicism that leaves little room for human agency.  Elitist and divisive and intended to maintain superiorities and hierarchies.  Art as forms of commodity AND power: as ideology.  Of course, past acts of human making also served to maintain and reinforce power but not for the same ends as those of capitalism and neoliberalism.  Division and categorisation do not bring togetherness.

Today, carnivals have (particularly but not exclusively in Western cultures) been rebranded as safe ‘fun’ provided and approved (directly or indirectly) by the state; graffiti a crime; folk music virtually disregarded; crafts are crafts – not art.  Creativity follows humanity’s need to constantly attempt to express itself.  Not as a homogeneous act; rather as individual, personal acts.  The division of labour removed many of the rights of individual expression.

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Cave art, Lascaux, c. 50,000 – 20,000 BC

Thousands of human hand prints created by individual acts of blowing handmade, carefully collected pigments deep within clandestine (at least to some experts today) cave systems tell a different, more humanistic tale.  Acts of common human expression and creativity; collective acts: their meanings now perhaps lost to us.  Creative activities not ‘industries’.  They carry deep (now mysterious) insight into us, into humanity, into our drives to be creative – to express ourselves; our experiences.  They are both art and not art.  The objects remain; the motivations shrouded in passing time.

To some, we may be artists; to others we may not.  It doesn’t matter.  Our actions may be thought of as art or community work or public services AND may not be thought of in these ways.  Can imagination, creativity and social consciousness be means to building the empathy, integration and equality necessary to restore humanity, humility and even ecological/ human respect to society?

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Revolution Non Stop, Christoph Schaefer, Hamburg, 2000

Classification is always institutional; always academic.  Life does not know classification.  It is an entirely human construct.  So is art.  Yet creativity is never a fixed concept.  Artists today represent a particular legacy of the capitalist division of labour.  Art is always work.  Work is not always art.  This does not mean art is superior (or inferior) to any other form of labour or action.  GREAT art is THEIR Art: high art; fine art.

Of course, creativity drives everyone, everywhere, every day.  Creativity has its roots in childhood.  It is instinctive.  Culture derived from playing and reality.  As psychoanalyst Winnicott said:

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.  Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation.  Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living (Winnicott, 1991 [1971], p. 65).

Categories, rules, policy can lead to compliance, and compliance kills creativity.  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.  Placemaking.  Creative placemaking.  Shakespeare.  Money.  Money.  Money!  COMPLIANCE.

We all create and define our own everyday creativity, our way, in response to our experiences of living; beginning with our relationship to our mothers.  We develop our creativity as we transition, as we individuate, as we experience.  We make our own potential spaces.  Winnicott again:

The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object).  The same can be said of playing.  Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play (Winnicott, 1991 [1971], p. 100).

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Megafonchor : “Collective Invocation”, Park Fiction, Hamburg, 2013

We need potential spaces not people and places.  Self-initiated self-discovery: the realisation of creative potential (Davis & Wallbridge, 1981, p. 169).  A far cry from ‘projects’ initiated by the state via (not very) arms-length bodies, initiatives like Creative People and Places and all of the other institutional outreach activities are funder-initiated.  The terms of engagement are determined many miles away from the places where people don’t take part in the state’s authorised arts and cultural offer; in ivory towers that always reinforce class ceilings, by people who see, for deeply ideological reasons, the under-participating masses as in dire need of a good dose of ‘civilisation’.  Power in the hands of the few.  Not institutions who must, according to funding criteria, tick boxes.  Not uncomfortable ‘new’ partnerships tasked with delivering art to new people in new places.  Not artists often paid less than recommended rates to carefully comply with increasingly prescriptive project briefs and outcomes that perpetuate division of labour and precarity.  Certainly not people: not participants.  They have no power other than to choose whether to participate in a ‘trickle-down’ offer of what amounts to little more than the scraps from the table of our long-standing oligarchy, the English cultural elite.

Creativity already exists everywhere.  Let’s not reduce people to numbers and places to little more than pretty coloured pins on simulated maps.  The stiflingly policed borders of compliance are unnecessary when we learn to trust people, when we look beyond the false constructs of ‘Art’ and ‘artists’.

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Autohaus: Permanent Camping, Christoph Schaefer, ContainerUni, Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen, Hamburg, 2012

 

References

Braden, S., 1978. Artists and People. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Davis, M. & Wallbridge, D., 1981. Boundary and Space: An introduction to the work of D.W. Winnicott. New York: Brunner/ Mazel.

Holden, J., 2008. Democratic Culture: Opening Up the Arts to Everyone, London: Demos.

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.

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

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

Matarasso, F., 2013. ‘All in this together’: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011. [Online] Available at: parliamentofdreams.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/2013-all-in-this-together-matarasso.pdf [Accessed 6th February 2015].

Sholette, G., 2003. Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere. [Online] Available at: http://www.gregorysholette.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/05_darkmattertwo1.pdf [Accessed 10th February 2015].

Winnicott, D. W., 1991 [1971]. Playing and Reality. London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge.

Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

This is a copy of my abstract submitted for the forthcoming Creative People and Places conference entitled (unbelievably) People, Place, Power.  It was rejected.  Perhaps it was not academic enough or badly written?  Or perhaps it might have been a little challenging for some panel members?  Anyway, I stand by my words…

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street, Doncaster.  An example of Creative People and Places programming.

 

ABSTRACT

The proliferation of projects seeking to increase participation in the arts can appear bewildering. From Creative People and Places to Education, Learning and Outreach teams sprouting from almost every arts and cultural institution across England, the race is on to engage as many people as possible in the arts – not just as audiences but also as participants (although audiences can frequently be participants and participants are often audiences).  Attempts to engage new people in new places or new people in old places can be spectacular (good for attracting large numbers of people); sometimes dressed-up as ‘grassroots’.  The troubles are two-fold: initiatives seeking to ‘democratise culture’ – existing state-approved culture – to encourage more people in more places to take part in existing state-funded provision; and, they always turn participants (people) into numbers, state-sanctioned categories – data for evaluations and reports that ‘evidence’ success at every opportunity.  People become numbers, places little more than coloured pins on territorial maps.

Initiated by the state via (not very) arms-length bodies, initiatives like Creative People and Places and all of the other institutional outreach activities are funder-initiated.  The terms of engagement are determined many miles away from the places where people don’t take part in the state’s authorised arts and cultural offer; in ivory towers that always reinforce class ceilings, by people who see, for deeply ideological reasons, the under-participating masses as in dire need of a good dose of ‘civilisation’.  Power in the hands of the few.  Not institutions who must, according to funding criteria, tick boxes.  Not uncomfortable ‘new’ partnerships tasked with delivering art to new people in new places.  Not artists often paid less than recommended rates to carefully comply with increasingly prescriptive project briefs and outcomes that perpetuate division of labour and precarity.  Certainly not people: the participants.  They have no power other than to choose whether to participate in a ‘trickle-down’ offer of what amounts to little more than the scraps from the table of our long-standing oligarchy, the English cultural elite.

Is this an attempt to colonise people and places?  Another gilded Trojan Horse harbouring cultural agents armed with state-sanctioned wellbeing, inclusion, diversity and employability – creative ‘salvation’ disguising the sanitisation of the ‘masses’ with our nation’s soft power weapon of choice?  Are arts professionals, artists, a myriad of partners performing as little more than depoliticising missionaries, mercenaries and middlemen (and women)?

This paper seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy. Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Perhaps people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  Has the ghost of Matthew Arnold stirred once more?  Cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?

The Values Of Opposition in Socially Engaged Practice (a response to Anthony Schrag)

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Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, large format digital print, part of Doing Nothing is Not an Option, Michael McMillan and Platform London, Peckham Platform, 2015

 

I was, like Anthony Schrag (and others I know), infuriated by the recent ArtWorks Conversation at BALTIC 39.  Anthony has written a little about the pairing of Ilana Mitchell (Wunderbar and other things) and Darren O’Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) today in a piece entitled The Value Rant, but his rant was not at them and not (directly) at ArtWorks or their ‘critical conversations’.  Anthony was, like me, incredibly annoyed by the idea that socially engaged or participatory art (it would seem you can call it what you will nowadays – but that’s a topic for another post) could and/ or should be ‘scaled-up’ and professionalised.  But that wasn’t what really angered him.  It was the incessant droning of an ‘excited’ hipster political student that set free a passel of possums from their cage.  (To be clear the excited hipster didn’t sound or appear particularly excited with anything other than his own drawn-out ideas and self-aggrandisement.)

The thing is that I had intended to blog about the event the very next day as I was so angry.  But (oddly for me, perhaps) I decided against it and put the event down to another one of ‘those ArtWorks things’ – a now very familiar feeling.  Having read Anthony’s humorous-yet-deadly-incisive ‘rant’, I felt compelled to respond to several issues and personal opinions he raised.  They’re incredibly important and at the heart of much of the ongoing debate (bickering?) that has dogged our field of practice for years.  There are, I believe, many areas upon which Anthony and I (broadly) agree but there are several places where our views diverge.  For me this is a good thing.  We both enjoy the oscillating thrills and pulsating challenges that only tension can invoke (although perhaps Anthony may not entirely agree…)  I will not discuss the event other than to say that I struggled to get beyond Ilana’s brilliantly idiosyncratic thinking and making, and the instrumentalism inherent within Darren’s work.

So what do I think Anthony and agree on?  We both are clearly very sceptical at the very least to institutionalisation, professionalism agendas, instrumentalism, ‘scaling-up’, best practice, toolkits – basically anything homogenous – because we believe our practice is and must always be relational, dynamic, and respect the autonomies of artists and people taking part alike.  As Anthony says, ‘the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable.’  But where he sees attempts to totally administer socially engaged art as the product of wayward best intentions, I see authoritarian technocratic control and oppression.  Where he finds positivity in at least some aspects of the ArtWorks project, I am deeply suspicious of their intentionality.

I found the ‘man-bunned politics student’ to be very boring and rather naïve yet almost ludic at times.  He made me grimace, smile, laugh.  Where he unleashed Anthony’s ‘angry possums’ from his mind, he filled mine with cartoon hind legs and badly drawn donkeys.  He genuinely believed that the examples of practice he had witnessed were ‘new’.  He did not know about socially engaged or participatory practice and that’s fine.  Tedious for those of us who’ve spent a long time practicing and studying the ‘expanded field’; interesting and exciting to him.  But Anthony is entirely right that the practice is ‘not new’, doesn’t (mustn’t). ‘be professionalised’ and is certainly not ‘a new saviour of art.’  For me, the politico-hipster wasn’t ‘ill-informed’ or ignorant, he was rather unaware of the history of our practice.  There are many people like him within the Art World as well as outside it.  That’s fine.  Marginal practices are often (wrongly) believed to be ‘new’ when first encountered whether through touristic exploration or strategic colonialism.  I’d go as far as to say that what matters most to us – histories, theories and practical nuances – matters least to interested attendees of critical conversations, participants, people who don’t like ‘art’, or other people from within the Art World.

Of course, Anthony wasn’t really rattled by our moustachioed interloper.  He was (is) angered by the opposing forces of instrumentalising institutionalism on the one hand; activism and political agendas on the other.  But I take issue he seems to suggest that those with activist and/ or political agendas/ ideologies do not know enough about the field’s history or theoretical underpinnings.  This is simply not true in every case.  In opposing these oppositions, Anthony places himself in the middle alongside some other ‘lovely, passionate people’ who are, like everyone, flawed and being crushed by institutionalism and those who do not understand (although I suspect the crushing comes mainly from one direction only).

I share Anthony’s passion that socially engaged practice is primarily about ‘what happens between and with other people‘ and, of course, people want to influence others but there are many forms this may take from authoritarian control to utopian imaginings and liberation.  Anthony is also right about the need for practitioners within the field to ‘come together’ much more than we tend to do at present.  However, I am very sceptical about developing a ‘continuum of practice’.  I believe that the field must be broad and must include tension: internal oppositions; never consensus.  Indeed, Anthony is hesitant about formal definitions within the field.  Interestingly, he also thinks that we must understand which direction ‘we might be heading in’ as well as who our potential allies are and those ‘who might not know what they are talking about’.  In response, I’d suggest: we can have multiple directions; and that our allies (theoretical and practical) might include many activists as well as others from other fields and other cultures – activists who do not seek to control others but who do, like all of us, have beliefs, ideologies, political affiliations, and most importantly biases that make it impossible  for anyone (artist or otherwise) to divorce themselves from this ‘baggage’.  Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good.  There is no such thing as values-free art.  We cannot dismiss, as Anthony does in a comment to my reply to his blog post, any work that may be, or be suspected of being, political or activist or state instrumentalist for that matter of being ‘not art’ – of being a form of ‘social work’.  That’s not to say that much of what’s being peddled as participatory or (now) socially engaged art isn’t deeply instrumental, controlling and stigmatising at worst and ‘social work’ at best.

I think that there’s a fine line between Anthony’s position on socially engaged practice and my own.  For Anthony good socially engaged practice must enable ‘shifts in thinking’ by ‘unravelling’ the world without trying to change people’s minds; I agree but would add that we can work with people to create open spaces where people can challenge their understanding of themselves and the world through creative practices (whether artist-led or otherwise) and that this process might help some people to better understand their place in the world as it is today as well as to begin to envisage other ways, new potentialities that they have within their power to struggle to make real.  A long but perhaps necessary addendum.  This is political and revolutionary.  It does not foreclose on possibilities or individualities.  It is not pluralistic democracy.  It has no fixed agenda any more so than the many excellent examples of socially engaged art’s heritage that Anthony carefully lists in his post – examples that are (at least where named or labelled) all deeply political and often activist in nature.

Perhaps Anthony and I can agree that socially engaged practice must be oppositional (and agonistic?) in ways both he describes in his blog and I attempt to do here.  Perhaps opposition is one of the directions for our field of practice.  Perhaps activism is another.  Sophie Hope (chair) certainly seemed to indicate her absolute frustration that we (the field) don’t say NO – don’t oppose the status quo – when she admirably summed up the event’s proceedings…

Do we need to develop institutions to work with communities? Can’t artists work directly with and within communities? A response to #CommunityArts conference at The Black-E

Dotto, Courtesy of The Black-E.

I asked the two questions in my title as an immediate response to a panel entitled ‘What kind of organisation do we need to develop to work with communities…?’  The problem seemed obvious; becoming increasingly apparent as the Community Arts?  Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives conference (part of Liverpool Biennial’s programming) progressed.  Those ‘learning’ from artists should be organisations – who presumably had recently learned or were still learning the importance of working with people outside of our narrow arts world.  This is, for me, a deeply problematic and unsettling narrative.  Questions of appropriation sprang to mind.

Reflecting back, it was clear from the offset when (co-convenor) Sally Tallant said she preferred to ‘challenge institutions from the inside’ – a now rather hackneyed phrase within the arts.  Fellow co-convenor Andrea Phillips presented a much more oppositional stance.  She quickly highlighted the inherent ‘contradictions’ linked to the ‘institutionalisation of participation and engagement’ which could lead to the ‘banalisation of community’.  She pointed to Community Arts’ deeply ‘political investment’ which had been dampened within a ‘misrecognition of intent’ and the Blairite shift from notions of ‘exclusion to inclusion’.

The founders of The Black-E and conference hosts, Bill and Wendy Harpe, presented a brief overview of their incredible archive of almost 50 years of community arts interventions and participatory exhibitions.  Their commitment and passion was infectious.  ‘Participation used to have one meaning – now we have 101’, said Bill.  He later revealed that The Black-E were facing Arts Council cuts of 35% – the highest level of any NPO organisation in Liverpool.  He was, as always, upbeat in his determination to keep going.  For me, cuts to The Black-E with its long history of working as part of communities, represents an insidious and conscious decision by Arts Council England to replace great community art by artists and smaller organisations with glass bastions such as Home and The Factory (and many others around the country).

Frances Rifkin followed a fast-paced Jason Bowman with a more pointedly political reflection upon the field of practice.  ‘We saw our work as political, transformative – not as do-gooders,’ she explained.  She regretted the point in time when ‘the exclusive notion of excellence began to creep in’.  She talked about battles, the importance of trade unionism and marginalisation.  Issues I feel are all implicated within the creeping professionalisation and institutionalisation of our field.  ‘The use of volunteers is one way of not funding artists,’ she added before going on to say that it was ‘disgraceful there were no opportunities for young artists’ today.  Frances revealed she was optimistic about a shift within the arts because, and I echo her thoughts, big arts organisations and funders such as Arts Council England are vulnerable after suffering from round after round of austerity.

Later Sophie Hope declared that Community Art could be seen as a form of ‘oppositional practice’ that rejected the marketisation and professionalisation endemic within the field today.  Later still, Nato Thompson whistled through several of Creative Time’s ‘commissions’.  His narrative was interesting.  ‘We do public art,’ he said.  He was immediately followed by Anna Colin of Open School East.  She described the school as collective and self-organising with ‘a structure that’s quite light – self-reflexive and self-critical’.  Yet, I was left wondering about the intentions of the founders: The Barbican Centre and CREATE London…

There was a perceivable heightening of tensions when Tate’s Director of Learning, Anna Cutler, began by asking the audience, ‘Who would define your practice as educational or learning?’  Not many hands went up.  She seemed ruffled.  ‘I would like to see things changed,’ she said rather unconvincingly.  She attempted and failed to describe ‘socially engaged practice’ as a ‘sliding scale’ in which she said she ‘liked to think I’m in the middle’.  Safe and sound!  Except, for me, Tate do not do socially engaged art – they do outreach and education programmes and participation.  Oh, and let’s not forget their dodgy sponsors!!  (#BPMustGo!)  ‘As long as you’re transparent with participants, its ok,’ and, ‘It’s all about changing the processes, otherwise you’re just moaning from the outside,’ and ‘We’re an institution…  change takes a long time,’ she added.  Tensions rose further.  Then, after several more references to change from Anna, I asked my question.  The room ignited.

The rest of the day was notable for Sonia Boyce’s beautifully moving work, for some sort of democratic intervention that demanded more time for open comments (which were a little disjointed but really welcome) and a great summing up by Andrea Phillips.  I listened intently to the various perspectives on Granby Four Streets but still felt somehow uncomfortable with the project and its potential to become an unwitting (perhaps even knowing) agent for gentrification.  I remembered Andrea Phillips conclusion to Art and Housing: The Private Connection (2012):

The artist is a self-builder.  The rich man is a self-builder.  The yachts at Venice, with their open invitations for cocktails to socially engaged artists, facilitate the perfect and paradoxical nexus of new “social” housing.  The poor can only stand and stare.

My lasting memories of this exceptionally interesting and revealing conference revolve around the notion of oppositions.  Community Arts was an oppositional movement.  Socially engaged art is based on the premise of anti-institutionalism, amongst other things.  Institutions seem to feel that they can, given enough time and, undoubtedly lots of money, change to take on the role of community artist.  This move will come at the expense of the local, independent, autonomous interventions of many individual artists, collectives and smaller artist-led organisations working within communities.  Community Arts is about trust and togetherness.  Are large arts organisations really best placed to replace people (artists) who are driven to work in this way?  Can they?

We must indeed learn from the legacy of Community Arts and STORM THE CITADELS as Owen Kelly suggested back in 1984!

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.

What is it socially engaged artists do? My reply to @caracourage

Cara Courage has asked socially engaged/ social practice artists a question: What do you do?

This is my reply I shared with Cara on her Facebook post…

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…