A little reflection on the Culture Action Europe #BeyondTheObvious conference

This week has been hectic.  Research visits in London with Platform London and Ovalhouse Theatre; a participatory art workshop commission for Berwick Visual Arts; working on a lab session about collective working, the commons and ending status-quos for arts organisations that I’m co-delivering in London in November; talking about The New Rules for Public Art with a Scottish artist’s collective; working to continue to develop our work with dot to dot active arts in Blyth; developing new NHS commissions in Cumbria and Northumberland; and attending the Culture Action Europe Beyond the Obvious conference which took place in NewcastleGateshead over the past few days.

This is a very short blog post about my experience at the conference and my hopes for the Beyond the Familiar ‘fringe’ event tomorrow.

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The conference was clearly split between the policy-following institutions and the smaller, more radical factions and artists.  I met a great many radical thinkers, some socially engaged activists, and even some policymakers who seemed to see the need for big changes to the way arts and culture is funded and who it is for.  This was great!

I heard many ‘old-school’ perspectives – a bit of ‘knowledge sharing’ here; a little ‘partnership working’ there’; even the ubiquitous ‘we’re doing this already’ and ‘we’ve always worked like this’.  I rolled my eyes like one of Sendak’s Wild Things.  Over my years of practicing in this field, I developed a proficiency for this.

All was not lost, however, because, even though ‘the great and the good’ reeled off their ‘holistic cases for public investments’ and chanted ‘cultural regeneration’ mantras, the voice of dissent was clear amongst a significant number of the people there.  This was very encouraging.

The session that nailed the distinction between the forces of elitism, instrumentalism, policymaking and institution-building and the guerrilla tactics of those into ‘small’, local, grassroots collective strategic engagement happened earlier today.  In short, the UK What Next? movement was pitted against grassroots political and socially engaged activist movements from Europe (Spain and Croatia).  This was a battle of tea and biscuits versus take-to-the-streets (and Net) protests; polite discussion versus political activism.  The UK’s navel-gazing about ‘how do we get people to understand the arts?’ was exposed for all it’s frailties and limpness.  The activists have the answer: ENGAGE outside of institutions; be grassroots; take art to the people; make art as a people.

These are critical debates that are just not often had in the UK.  Art as social practice is immensely capable of bringing arts to the people – a force for real paradigm shift.  It is anti-elitist, grassroots and political.  People not into art get it because they are a part of it.  The ‘arts leaders’ and policymakers with their top-down approaches do not seem to understand that grassroots, self-organised, collective action offers other, more truly democratic ways to place art and culture back where it belongs – by and of the people.

I look forward to tomorrow…

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Time arts & culture put class back on their agendas?

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I’ve been tweeting a bit today about art, privilege, elitism, ‘leaders’, social practice, and more.  The great article about the dominance of privilege in the arts by Nick Cohen in The Guardian yesterday certainly spurred me on.  So did tweets by Emma Bearman and Mar Dixon.  I felt the train of discussion throughout the day developed around common threads.  Ideas about emancipation, democracy, paradigm shifts.  This post attempts to cobble together my responses into a semi-coherent stream of thoughts and sound bites that currently drive me.  Here goes:

 

I think of my practice as ‘space-making’ but never call it that.  Potential, play, not knowing.  People ‘do art’ by taking part.

 

We are grassroots and critical… not radical.  We see social practice as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

 

Potentially emancipatory, our work is not Jesus on shipping containers or gimmicky digging for fools gold.

 

We see social practice as dialogic.  We try to create potential spaces where something creative might happen.

 

We’re forced to align our outcomes and measures to those of funders when applying, then make sure we achieve them.

 

People (the public) don’t define outcomes or measures.  Policymakers do.  Elitist and hierarchical.  Outcomes and measures don’t matter to people.

 

Policymakers pop stoppers in their bell jars.  Tie little state-made labels on.  File them away.  Museum objects.  Boxes ticked.

 

Funders like their ‘leaders’ to conform to passed-down policy.  Orchestral, they conduct.  ‘New’: their instrumental composition.

 

Leaders.  Thought Leaders.  Cultural Leaders.  Command and control.  Undemocratic?

 

Missionary, mercenary, mobiliser.  Always suspect.  Power is pervasive.

 

Can leadership every be truly ‘democratic’?  Always elitist.  Never emancipatory.

 

Neoliberal leadership is always evangelical.  They need us to be born again.

 

Leadership of this sort is always for technocratic elites; never publics.

 

Always difficult to challenge. DIY or with others.  Self-organise?

 

Elitism is as endemic in the arts as it is elsewhere.  Time to put class back on the agenda?

 

These are my thoughts.  I’m not a leader.  Not an evangelist.  I see critical theory as offering old-new ways to think about culture, class, power, policy.  New utopias.  Social justice.  A much needed socio-political paradigm shift…

Comments always welcome!

Here we go round the mulberry bush

A repetitive, cyclical dance around a plant upon which mulberries don’t really grow whilst mimicking of everyday actions and chanting ‘This is the way…’  and a response to a blog post on the #culturalvalue initiative website by Daniel Allington entitled Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective.

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Walter Crane, Here we go round the mulberry bush, colour printed wood engraving, 1878

 

The art business, a trade in things that have no price, belongs to the class of practices in which the logic of the pre-capitalist economy lives on… These practices, functioning as practical negations, can only work by pretending not to be doing what they are doing. Defying ordinary logic, they lend themselves to two opposed readings, both equally false, which each undo their essential duality and duplicity by reducing them either to the disavowal or to what is disavowed – to disinterestedness or self-interest.[1]

Who said Bourdieu’s cultural capital and network theory don’t mix? Daniel Allington explains in this post that he finds this unlikely coupling ‘a useful way of studying cultural value from a perspective informed by Bourdieu’.[2] This is not all, he begins by stating that ‘Art for art’s sake… means understanding the value of culture as intrinsically cultural.’[3] Bourdieu, art for art’s sake, and many other words and assumptions in Allington’s essay all sit uneasily with my perspectives of arts and culture (based as they are upon critical theory and my own practise as part of the arts ‘field’), as indeed does the rather insidious term ‘cultural value’.

For me, the antiquated and elitist concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ is circular – self-referential – intrinsic. So too, surely, is the conceptualisation of ‘the value of culture’ as ‘intrinsically cultural’. What is the value of culture? Essentially cultural. What are intrinsically cultural beliefs? Cultural value. Here we go round… For Allington, the answer to this conundrum may lie in Bourdieu’s suggestion that ‘cultural value is a form of belief’; a belief in ‘magical’ and fetishised objects of art and literature that believers consider magical.[4] Citing The Emperor’s New Clothes, ‘It isn’t’, according to Allington, ‘that there are people who have laughingly duped the rest of society into believing in something they know very well not to be real.’[5] Rather, it is about ‘symbolic capital’ in which ‘[t]he making of art for art’s sake is… not about satisfying an audience of consumers, but about earning the esteem of fellow producers, who are also competitors for one another’s esteem.’[6] Allington attempts to legitimise this statement by referencing Bourdieu’s The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods, selecting the following quote: ‘“the conviction that good and bad painting exist” is both “the stakes and the motor without which [the field of painting] could not function’”.[7]

So what’s the problem here? Well, it would seem to me and my somewhat limited knowledge of Bourdieu – limited because I do not find it particularly useful or important from an art historical perspective – that Allington has misread Bourdieu’s intentions. The quote at the beginning of this piece is from the first paragraph of The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods. It clearly illustrates Bourdieu’s disdain for the ‘arts business’. Bourdieu’s entire essay is about the complicit nature of all participants in the field of cultural production who, by refusing commercialism and even claiming to be ‘anti-economic’, actually profit via a ‘disinterested’ game of smoke and mirrors that ultimately creates ‘symbolic capital.’[8] But symbolic capital, as Bourdieu explains:

[I]s to be understood as economic or political capital that is disavowed, mis-recognized and thereby recognized, hence legitimate, a ’credit’ which, under certain conditions, and always in the long run, guarantees ’economic’ profits.[9]

Indeed, Bourdieu goes on to explain that this ‘circle of belief’ ensures that ‘only those who can come to terms with the “economic” constraints inscribed in this bad-faith economy can reap the full “economic” profits of their symbolic capital.’[10] So, this is like The Emperor’s New Clothes. The believers know the ‘magic’ isn’t real because they all dance the bad-faith dance, round and round. Producers, curators, critics, sellers, buyers, even (sometimes) the viewing public, all play the art game – they all know their place, their role in a field where naivety has no place; an arts economy where:

In and through the games of distinction, these winks and nudges, silent, hidden references to other artists, past or present, confirm a complicity which excludes the layman, who is always bound to miss what is essential, namely the inter-relations and interactions of which the work is only the silent trace.[11]

So, rather than ‘conceptualising’ intrinsic cultural value as a form of circulated belief as Allington does in his essay,[12] one could view the production of visual art (taking Allington’s example) as the making of an object of personal choice which is then selected by an institution/ commercial gallery and marketed to audiences by a variety of means (including critics). Only then are values (cultural, economic, social) assigned to it which are then reassigned to the work over and over as it ages and is perceived anew by different audiences.

So my argument with Allington is that he has misread Bourdieu in his attempt to investigate intrinsic cultural value. He has not accounted for the bad faith inherent in Bourdieu’s critical analysis of the art world game – a position I do not hold to personally. Bourdieu made his position very clear in 1972 when he explained:

The denial of economic interest finds its favourite refuge in the domain of art and culture, the site of [a] pure [form of] consumption, of money, of course, but also of time convertible into money. The world of art, a sacred island systematically and ostentatiously opposed to the profane world of production, a sanctuary for gratuitous, disinterested activity in a universe given over to money and self-interest, offers, like theology in a past epoch, an imaginary anthropology obtained by the denial of all the negations really brought about by the economy.[13]

I would recommend interested readers take a look at Brigit Fowler’s essay Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture (Variant, 1999) for more on this subject.[14]

I could expand but I’ve still exceeded 800 words (975) – the limit imposed by the #culturalvalue initiative debating rules.  But I like to break rules.


[1] Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.261.

[2] Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.266.

[8] Ibid., pp.261-262.

[9] Ibid., p.262.

[10] Ibid., p.263-264.

[11] Ibid., p.291.

[12] Daniel Allington, Op. Cit., describes this process as: ‘the value of (say) a visual artist’s work (essentially produced through interactions among cultural producers) flows out into the wider social world through the disseminating agency of (say) a retrospective exhibition in a major public gallery, which plays a direct role in reproducing belief in that value among members of the public who attend the exhibition, as well as an indirect role in reproducing belief among those who hear about it from acquaintances and/or read about it in (say) a newspaper critic’s review (and which in turn impacts back upon the field by cementing the artist’s reputation , though this closure of the feedback loop is left out of the diagram for simplicity’s sake).’

[13] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 [1972], p.197.

[14] Brigit Fowler, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999, pp.1-4.


Bibliography

Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 [1972]

Bourdieu, Pierre, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980

Fowler, Brigit, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999