Rethinking critical theory for our current arts & cultural situation: exploring socially engaged activism, tension & social justice

This is the second post about my work around developing my PhD research methodology.  It is about trying to develop a critical theory from past and current theoretical perspectives that might apply to our present twenty-first century arts arts and cultural milieu, dominated as it undeniably is by neoliberalism, conservatism and state instrumentalism.  This is a first draft that attempts to marry conflicting yet complementary aspects of critical theories that may be able to be developed during my research and may be explored in relation to my working hypothesis discussed in my last post.  It is therefore, perhaps, worthwhile to reiterate my working hypothesis below before moving on to discussing the theoretical approaches in more detail…

 

Hypothesis

It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:

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

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Theory

As mentioned previously, this research is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School. The research blends several key theoretical perspectives, so it essential that they are discussed in terms of how they form an interrelated theoretical position that is relevant to this research. This was first attempted in a presentation entitled social practice/ critical thinking at an AHRC conference at the University of Sunderland on 24th June 2014.[1] Following the same format as this presentation, it is worth describing that the research is underpinned by a loose interpretation of critical theory that, whilst not fully accepting of every aspect of the philosophies of The Frankfurt School, Habermas or postmodernism, does not necessarily dismiss any or all of their contentions either.

The research takes as starting points the following key tenets of critical theory: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse). These principles of critical theory can be reimagined and exploded by situating these elements of critical theory within the concept of metamodernism which posits that, contrary to the predictions of many postmodernist thinkers, history hasn’t ended, nor has the modernist drive to create a neoliberal monoculture succeeded (Vermeulen and Akker). It is, in essence, a critical perspective that oscillates, in constant tension, between modernism and/ nor postmodernism. As such, metamodernism can be considered to derive from competing notions of revolving around the possibility of a post-historical condition – an area richly debated by post-Marxists, poststructuralists, feminists, cultural theorists, sociologists, psychologists, etc. such as Hardt & Negri, Žižek, Mouffe, Braidotti, Sloterdijk, Gauntlett, Sonderegger, Power, Laclau, Badiou, Rancière, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guatarri, etc. The cultural theorist Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker, described the metamodern as an attempt to reconstruct history; an opportunity to ‘reconceptualise the present and re-imagine the future by (re-)connecting the dots between previously deconstructed points of view’ (Vermeulen, 2011). His article in Frieze postulated three key philosophical ‘returns’ as central to future debates around reconstructing history: grand narratives – problematic allegorical possibilities of tomorrows in societies today from which conclusions can never be drawn and endings never reached; sceptical optimism – grounded in the modernist desire to find sense and meaning and/ nor the postmodernist mistrust of claims to have found sense and meaning; and affect – empathic sensibilities that, through deconstruction and reconstruction, may offer idealistic alternative ways of living that can never be fully understood or achieved (ibid.).

A third theoretical position for this research lies in the work of political theorist Chantal Mouffe, particularly her ideas about activism, antagonism & aesthetic resistance and their relationships to artistic practice. In her 2007 article Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces, she writes fervently in support of engagement with institutions as a means of challenging neoliberal consensus via artistic activism as a counter-hegemonic practice that might disarticulate the dominant hegemony (Mouffe, 2007). Expanding upon this position in Strategies of radical politics and aesthetic resistance in 2012, Mouffe proposes that critical arts practices can enable the creation of agonistic spaces capable encouraging dissent and challenging the ‘dominant consensus’ – the aesthetic as a mode of political activism which may, only as part of a series of broader political moments, help create a new hegemonic order (Mouffe, 2012). The fourth theoretical perspective at the base of this research is that of philosopher Jacques Rancière, particularly his aesthetic theory, and his insistence that notions of the modern and postmodern, art as autonomous, and the avant-garde should be ‘shredded’ (Berrebi, 2008). He observed a tension between ‘art as art’ and art blurring into other activities and forms of living, and concluded that it was too crude to oppose ‘autonomous art’ with ‘engaged art’ (ibid.). Rather, he posited the notion of the ‘politics of the aesthetics’ – two politics always in constant tension with each other: first, the form of aesthetics which is so similar to other experiences that it ‘tends to dissolve into other forms of life’; and second, a ‘resistant form’ in which ‘the political potential of the aesthetic experience derives from the separation of art from other forms of activity and its resistance to any transformation into a form of life’ (ibid.). His contention is that ‘critical art’ maintains a perpetual tension between the legible and illegible, the everyday and radically strange (ibid.). This tension can be perceived as a form of mediation between art and the individual/ society in the sense that, as art mediates relationally to itself, it also creates an essential ‘mediation of another’ (Ranciere, 2009, p. 131).

There are many other theoretical elements to this research – concepts inherently connected to the other four theoretical perspectives discussed above. For this reason, three more schools of thought are briefly mentioned here but are discussed in more detail in the literature review. They form a second tier of theoretic bases underpinning this research. Firstly, absurdism – a concept closely related to the existentialism of Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, Becket, etc. and founded upon an understanding that humanity is continually at conflict with the desire to find inherent value and meaning, and an inability to ever be able to attain it. Secondly, the carnivalesque – a revisiting of popular medieval culture by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as a means of illustrating how elitist modernist notions of autonomous art shed not only function but also popularism. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque represents an always incomplete place of opposites in constant opposition, where all are equal; a celebration of and ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order… [marking] the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions’ (Bakhtin, 1984 [1965], p. 7). Thirdly, the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott surrounding his concepts of ‘playing and reality’ and ‘potential space’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971]). Winnicott proposed that the ‘potential space’, existing between living and the environment, between inner and external realities, could create boundaries within which creativity and cultural experience could develop, facilitating personal development and a sense of a life worth living. He contrasted this place of possibilities with the negative effects of compliance with overbearing state instrumentalism.

Finally, it is important to recognise the many other third tier theoretical approaches and thinkers that influence this research, although, as above, it is impossible to expand upon their individual positions here. They are referenced at appropriate points throughout this thesis, particularly in the case studies and in the subsequent analyses and conclusions. Key poststructuralist, Marxist, Post-Marxist, cultural and critical intellectuals also influencing this research include Felix Guatarri and Giles Deleuze, Douglas Kellner, Hans Georg Gadamer, Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, Paulo Freire, and Frederic Jameson. The other three main theoretical approaches are particularly important in relation to investigating the case study organisations and testing the working hypothesis. They are critical pedagogy, participatory action research and post-development theory.[2]

To conclude, it is important to attempt to try and situate this discussion about the various conflicting but not incompatible theoretical perspectives within the broader context of the relevance of critical theory in the complexities of our twenty-first century (almost) monoculture. Critical theory is founded upon the critique of positivism and interpretative approaches but it is not negative nor is it antiscientific; it can be conceived of as an alternative research programme (Morrow & Brown, 1994, pp. 142-143). Drawing on the ‘three analytic moments’ described by Raymond Morrow and David Brown, this research explores various approaches and ideas surrounding the investigation of the intersection of ‘social and system integration’ and the ‘mediations’ (ibid., p.221) as proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Search for a Method (Sartre, 1963) that ‘bridges the social psychological analysis of individual actors… and the macrostructural analysis of social systems’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, pp. 221-222). Indeed, the eclectic range of methodologies (spanning the interpretive social sciences and empirical sciences) which critical theory employs offers an approach that may be considered to be ‘in principle much more open and innovative than empiricist social science’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, p. 227). In a world dominated by a resurrected yet waning form of neoliberal totality in which the last vestiges of modernity vie with a postmodernism that has not led to a fractured end, it is critical theory that, perhaps, once again, offers the possibility of imagining alternative ways of being – ‘a theory of the necessity of overcoming distorted communication as part of an endless process of collective learning’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994, p. 320). This research is oriented towards exploring the possibilities of the social practice of art as well as factors that may impede its development and that of society as a whole: part of the ‘theoretical construction of the social process’ proposed by Herbert Marcuse that necessitates ‘the critique of current conditions and the analysis of their tendencies’ and an orientation towards those possible in future (Marcuse, 2009 [1968], p. 107). The potential here is for a critical theory that mediates between criticisms of present past and present conditions without accepting the postmodernist perspective that ‘one set of conditions is merely relative to another’ (How, 2003).

As sociologist Robert Lynd proposed (quoted by critical theorist Eike Gebhardt):

[I]t should not be our only concern to ask whether a hypothesis is true, possible or realistic; we should, perhaps, also ask the other way around: “what sort of earth” would it have to be in which this hypothesis (e.g., one describing a possible situation) would be realistic. Only history could verify such hypotheses – by realizing them

(Gebhardt, 1978, p. 406)

Comments, as always, are very welcome…


[1] To see an annotated version of the presentation, see http://www.colouringinculture.wordpress.org

[2] For more discussion around these additional theoretical perspectives, see Literature Review.

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Radical arts activism, sustainability by renewal & social justice: refining doctoral research via critical theory towards a working hypothesis

This post is a first draft of part of my doctoral research methodology.  I have been developing my thinking using a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives that are both complementary and conflicting.  This has led to the development of a research design founded on a working hypothesis that (hopefully) better expresses the nature of my research than the (deliberately ironic) research question might.  Discussion of relevant theoretical approaches and methods will follow soon.

As always, comments and criticism are always encouraged…

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Research question

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

The research question is obviously ambiguous; deeply problematic. This is intentional. It is undoubtedly a tricky question that alludes to the many critical issues facing the burgeoning field of ‘participation in the arts’. As described in greater detail below, this research is underpinned by critical theory that oscillates between the modernism of The Frankfurt School, its philosophical predecessors, and the critical aspects of postmodernism. In this sense, the research question can be read as an ironic representation of the complexities and abstruseness of our present socio-political milieu. A position perhaps mirrored by current manifestations of ‘the culture industry’ and by increasing state interventions into that field. The question mimics the ‘cultural newspeak’ that might emanate from today’s UK government departments and quasi-governmental organisations; developed vivaciously by arrayed policy-makers and advisory panels; repeated parrot-fashion by arts institutions and ‘arts leaders’. In this, perhaps flippant, sense, the answer to the research question is undoubtedly, ‘YES!

However, this research does not aim to verify state claims for ‘participation in the arts’ as a panacea for all social (and, perhaps even, political) malady. It seeks to challenge these claims; to explore possible theoretical, ethical, political and practical alternatives that may shake the status-quo, maybe even fracture the present, ambiguous discourse around ‘participatory arts’. Clearly, then, it is essential that terms such as ‘participatory arts’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are coherently defined. These ambiguities are discussed at length in the literature review but it is important they are considered here so that the research has clear direction. To this end, there follows a series of statements about how this research defines what it is and what it is not interested in studying during the in-depth investigation of its chosen case studies. It is obvious, then, that the research question must be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested and refined during the research period. It is also worth noting that the research intention and hypothetical position have been discussed with the case study participants. It is, indeed, on the basis of the initial hypothesis and subsequent discussion around it that they agreed to contribute to this research.

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Refining the research question

As mentioned above, the terms ‘participation’, ‘participatory art’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are incredibly slippery and multifarious. This section aims to briefly discuss some interpretations of these terms to illustrate how they are used to convey a myriad of meanings for an array of political, philosophical, scientific and ethical reasons. It then sets out to explicate the particular perspectives the research seeks to investigate as well as what it does not. At this point, it is important to be clear that the researcher does not wish to imply that the other interpretations are less valid or somehow inferior aspects of ‘participation in the arts’. They are simply different perspectives.

Looking first at ‘participatory art’, the term has been described by various people within the field of ‘the arts’, and with various interests in the field, very differently. Paola Merli, an academic interested in cultural policy, stated in 2002 that participatory art was used as ‘a form of governance’ by the UK government: a tool for ‘promoting social cohesion’; a ‘cultivated cultural activity’ rather than a ‘primary need’ (Merli, 2004 [2002], pp. 17-21). Her position is developed from a critical attack on Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? (1997) in which he describes participatory arts as being able to ‘contribute to social cohesion’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). Whilst Merli is clearly suggesting that participatory art is an apparatus of state instrumentalism – a critical position shared by this research – Matarasso’s report suggests this instrumentalism is distinctly beneficial for both participants and government. However, Merli’s proposition, derived from Bourdieu, that participation in the arts is a ‘nicety’ that fosters cultural satisfaction is, whilst an undoubtedly valid position in many cases, narrow in that it leaves little room for radical, counter-hegemonic arts activism. The situation today is that the UK government and ‘arm’s length’ organisations such as Arts Council England are actively promoting the instrumental and economic benefits of participation in the arts more widely than at the time of the Merli/ Matarasso debate. Arts Council England list seventeen ‘activities’ they currently use for ‘arts-based segmentation analysis’[1] to define and measure ‘arts participation’ as part of their Taking Part surveys which seek to identify and characterise ‘distinct arts consumer types’ in the ‘arts market’ (Arts Council England a, 2014). Interestingly, all the listed activities involve doing and taking part in art. Participatory arts projects are not measured separately. Radical arts activities are not mentioned. Similarly, their recently published report about the benefits of arts to society is also incredibly vague about how they define ‘participation in the arts’ yet it extolls such activities as having many (equally loosely defined) intrinsic, instrumental and economic benefits (Arts Council England b, 2014). So it is clear, perhaps, that, not only is participation in the arts a very broadly defined set of possible activities that does not particularly value participatory or socially engaged projects as meriting specific categorisation or measurement, but it is also deemed to be an important ‘nicety’.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are two other ill-defined aspects of the research question that must be clarified so that a working hypothesis can be constructed. Sustainability is commonly used to describe the need to maintain or improve biological and/ or human productivity and/ or diversity. It is also a term used to describe ideas or other systems that can be defended or upheld. The term is used to relate ‘sustainability’ to ‘ecosystems’ in which economic, social and biological factors are brought together with the aim of ‘developing’ areas of the ecosystem so as to guarantee the continuing of the whole. These factors were developed by the United Nations in 1987 in their Bruntland Report (United Nations, 1987). Interestingly, culture was added as a fourth factor for sustainability and, more recently, the word ‘political’ has replaced ‘social’[2]. The Bruntland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely quoted, describing sustainable development as:

[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(United Nations, 1987)

Sustainability is also a ‘hot topic’ in UK arts policy, although it is, perhaps, most frequently used in relation to the drive towards ‘organisational change’ and ‘adaptive resilience’ in the face of state-imposed cuts to arts funding. Ex-Arts Council England director Mark Robinson is one of the main proponents of this type of arts management interpretation of sustainability. His 2010 report Making adaptive resilience real clearly demonstrates this linkage of the term sustainability to change within the field of the arts, stating, for example, that:

all parts of the sector should collaborate to improve understanding of systems-thinking broadly, and resilience and sustainability issues specifically, through research, publication and debate, training and development

(Robinson, 2010, p. 46)

Clearly, then, ‘sustainability’ is as common in socio-economic development and management as it is in concepts of environmentalism.

Cultural economics researcher Diane Ragsdale challenges the idea that all arts organisations, and large unwieldy institutions in particular, should be sustained at any cost, especially at the expense of smaller, newer organisations and individual artist-led projects (Ragsdale, 2013). Her position is discussed further in the literature review. It is Ragsdale’s ‘bottom up’ contention that this research takes as a point of departure when considering notions around ‘sustaining’ socially engaged arts practice and social justice. Her perspectives align with the desire of this research to test if and how socially engaged arts movements may be able to be self-sustaining, continually diversifying and self-renewing. As such, it is inherently linked to concepts around developing ‘social justice’ rather than a universal notion of ‘social change’. It is possible to consider many shifts in how we live as representing social change. Industrialisation, capitalism, communism, Nazism, welfare reform, privatisation, credit cards, the internet – a few examples of social change. The term is problematic because it is bereft of any moral or ethical philosophical so that anything can be considered to be social change. Social justice, on the other hand, may be considered to be about fairness and equality; an opposition to injustice. As such, the research takes as its starting point the ‘three critical domains of equality and equity’ proposed by the United Nations in 2006 as essential to the notion of social justice: ‘equality of rights’; ‘equality of opportunities’; and ‘equity in living conditions’ (United Nations, 1996, pp. 15-16). Whilst the report is discussed in more detail in the literature review, it is worth highlighting that this research is aligned to the historical roots of the social justice movement described by the United Nations as:

[A concept developed] in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine… an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity… a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists… Of particular importance in the present context is the link between the growing legitimization of the concept of social justice, on the one hand, and the emergence of the social sciences as distinct areas of activity and the creation of economics and sociology as disciplines separate from philosophy (notably moral philosophy), on the other hand. Social justice became more clearly defined when a distinction was drawn between the social sphere and the economic sphere, and grew into a mainstream preoccupation when a number of economists became convinced that it was their duty not only to describe phenomena but also to propose criteria for the distribution of the fruits of human activity.

(United Nations, 1996, p. 12)

Nonetheless, because the responsibilities of ‘administering’ social justice in the UK primarily relies on its technocratic and centralising government, the concept remains a matter of policy and inevitable instrumentalism that is alluded to in the above quote. One aspect of this research will be to work with case study participants by referencing critical perspectives from the UN report to explore how social justice is interpreted and how it is applied ethically and morally by socially engaged arts organisations.

In summary, this research is not interested in further ‘evidencing’ the predominant type of instrumental ‘participatory arts’ described above (and in more detail in the literature review), nor does it consider that all participatory or socially engaged arts activities must always be classified as secondary to some notional typography of ‘primary human needs’. Rather, this research is interested in radically activist arts practice that engages in counter-hegemonic interventions, seeks to develop and/ or enhance awareness of issues surrounding social justice, and/ or produces new ways of thinking about and/ or producing new forms of practice that can be considered self-sustaining. It is from these perspectives that the following working hypothesis has been developed.

Deveron - All Hail the Returning Hunter(slash)Gatherers, 2011

Working hypothesis

The concept of using a working hypothesis for research based upon critical theory is problematic, particularly for Critical Theorists from The Frankfurt School. This is because, for Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, a hypothesis was considered empiricist – a ‘positivistically reductive mode of inference’ (Strydom, 2011, p. 148). In common with empirical modes of inference, critical theory utilises traditional concepts of deduction and induction but places a critical emphasis upon abduction, rather than deduction, creating space for dialectically imaginative thinking in so doing (ibid.). It has been argued by Habermas (himself referencing the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce) that only abduction can generate new knowledge through a ‘critical process of “determinate negation”’ – a process that must embody ‘ongoing learning’ (MacKendrick, 2008, p. 175). It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:

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


[1] For a list of all seventeen ‘activities’, see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-data/arts-audiences/arts-based-segmentation-research/faqs/#5

[2] For more about these developments, see the original text of United Nations’ Agenda 21 (1992) – accessible via http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=52 – and subsequent UN reaffirmations of support at subsequent ‘Rio’ summits

Hurrah, the Culture is Finished!

This mini-essay was first published on the #culturalvalue initiative website on 5th January 2014.  I’m reblogging it here with their introduction.

Stephen’s witty and well researched mini-essay contribution to The #culturalvalue Initiative originated in a lively twitter conversation that followed the publication of Daniel Allington’s guest post, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective in early December 2013. The conversation started off as a debate on the merits of Bourdieu’s work in pushing forward the cultural value debate and soon broadened to the relative merits of different disciplinary approaches. I was fascinated by the exchange between Stephen and Daniel, but it soon became apparent that it was more complex than a twitter debate could cope with. So, I invited Stephen to write a short guest post response to Daniel’s piece so that interesting conversation could continue on this site. This would allow to keep a permanent record of it and to facilitate a wider participation in the discussion. As it is often the case when reflecting on complex matters, Stephen’s rejoinder to Daniel’s post has developed into a free-standing and rich longer piece of writing in its own right, and the result is the latest offering in our mini-essays series! In the dialogical spirit in which this piece was conceived, I hope readers will enage in the debate via the comments facility, but, if you need more room for your thoughts, just get in touch!

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John Heartfield, Hurrah, the Butter is Finished!, cover for AIZ, Photomontage, December 19th 1935.

Reproduction, appropriation, new narratives, and opposition to hegemonies: techniques art has used to challenge the mass-produced cultural propaganda of fascism, late imperialistic capitalism and outmoded intrinsically conservative, individualistic and modernist beliefs about autonomy. This type of avant-garde approach had real cultural importance and it was dangerous. Mass-produced counterpropaganda threatens governments by challenging policy; by using the very tools of mass-marketing, it challenges the markets, exposing the shallow reproduction of consumerist messages.

This type of art is one example that may offer a different way to think about artistic practice and aesthetics, production and distribution, etc.; that may lead to alternative notions of “cultural value” – however that slippery term might be defined[1]. This essay is not about reviving modernist debates about “art-for-art’s sake”[2], misreading and decontextualising Bourdieu’s structuralism[3], heroic artists apparently driven to create work to earn ‘the esteem of fellow producers’ by ‘deeply believing’ in “cultural value”, network analyses and diagrams, or circular arguments about the “intrinsically cultural” value of “culture”.[4] Rather, this essay attempts to re-situate contemporary arts practices, particularly those that acknowledge art’s role as ‘a social product’ that ‘always encodes values and ideology’,[5] at the heart of current debate about “cultural value”.[6]

The arts are about audiences but also about participation through social engaging activities; about artists who, on the whole, struggle to make a living and often care greatly about the communities they are part of; about arts organisations (big and small) and their eternal struggle to convince politicians and economists of their multifarious values that extend well beyond financial return on investment, evidencing impact, missions, models, evaluation, etc.; but they are also about the production of radical anti-hegemonic thinking and challenging, rather than conforming to, state sponsored social agendas. Twenty-first century art is, like every aspect of our societies, in turmoil. Postmodernism makes it difficult for art to avoid negating itself and find meaning in many of its practices; political and economic interventions (including “instrumentalism” – defensive or otherwise)[7] encourage the arts to conform to policies that are predominantly not about art or participants or artists or social change or communities; in-vogue (yet, from many business perspectives, out-dated) “governance” models that aim to minimise risk and support “resilience” are effectively imposed upon arts organisations and even artists by funders and policy makers; we are all encouraged to become “self-sustaining” and market-oriented; not to mention philanthropy, austerity, consumerism, popularism, etc. etc. And whilst fairness is desperately needed across every area of arts and culture, now is definitely not the time to argue reductively that we should conceive solely of ‘culture as an economic activity’.[8]

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Michel Ell, Des Kaisers neue Kleider, Woodcut, 1923.

The current dominant economic-driven narrative for the arts is a lot like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and we must avoid a situation where “cultural value” (indeed all elements of arts and culture) becomes ‘the most exquisite cloth imaginable’ and those who cannot see it are either ‘unfit for post’ or ‘inadmissibly stupid’.[9] We all know that arts experiences cut from an unravelling economic cloth will be divisive and limp and that value-based investment policy may even lead to our measuring ourselves out of existence. But we can’t pretend to embrace this state imposed fallacy. We must play the innocent child and shout, ‘He doesn’t have anything on!’[10] The Emperor (state) will still, no doubt, continue his procession, prouder than ever, but will probably wear a different suit next time. If everyone stands quiet, it is quite possible that arts and culture will finally be subsumed by aesthetic and commodity production in a “return of the aesthetic” that, when ‘the aesthetic (and even culture as such) is necessarily blurred or lost altogether’, will also signal its end.[11]

All is not lost for the arts and culture. The arts market is flourishing like Ragwort on overgrazed pasture, fertilised by shallow aesthetic surplus value, it has ‘attained complete autonomy, completely cut off from the real economy of value’.[12] The arts market is the epitome of cynical postmodern consumerism and the cult of celebrity; it reviles “popularism” because populist art is unpretentious, encourages participation, is not a commodity and does not deify “experts”.[13] And herein lies three challenges to “cultural value” debates, future policy decisions and the ways many existing arts organisations work:

· Pay full attention to socially engaged art practice, artists and the importance of participation. At present, these are barely mentioned. Perhaps because this practice may be ‘too useful and therefore too much of a departure from the art-for-art’s-sake norm’, it is not considered as “art” by some.[14] But the ‘lens of validation’ is opening to participatory practices that previously ‘were tolerated on the margins or held outside the narratives of power in the art process.’[15]

· Understand the important role for “critical postmodernism” from the perspectives of both practice and theory. Bürger’s notion of the antiaesthetic is inherently participatory and challenges ‘the autonomous “institution of art”… to reverse the bourgeois hierarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value… [by replacing] originality with technical reproduction’. This approach does not purport to transmit exceptional knowledge. It is utilitarian, contextualising art as ‘social’.[16] We need a postmodernism of resistance that heightens ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’.[17]

· Reimagine “sustainability” of arts and cultural practice and institutions. There are many who see sustainability as maintaining the status quo and preserving the big organisations at the expense of the small; big exhibitions, shows, events instead of small, grassroots initiatives that develop creative self-expression of people in communities most in need. As Diane Ragsdale recently said, ‘The arts are here to say, “We see you. We see this community. We see that for every one person that’s doing OK one person in this community is suffering. We do not exist exclusively for those that are doing OK. We exist for everyone. We exist for you.”’[18] All parts of the arts “ecosystem” must be sustained but sometimes this involves an ‘unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die’.[19] We must decide whether public funding should be redirected towards those who need it most, perhaps at the expense of the elitist institutions.

Hopefully, this essay offers something to the “cultural value” debate. It is a polemic. It is meant that way. It seeks to try and explain why artists and some arts organisations feel a bit detached from discussions about policy. It aims to show that there are areas and, more importantly, people and communities that we must not neglect when “valuing” the arts and culture and deciding how and what we “invest” in.

We must support and value art that is truly useful and engaging; encouraging “non-artists” to participate in and lead future arts projects that add new value to the lives of people and communities; and artists who are also able to fulfil the roles of mentors, activists and educators.[20] We must ‘reconnect art and lived experience as social process’,[21] ensuring that ‘[s]ocial concerns are addressed through the creative process, rather than art being an instrument of social policy and a solution to deep-rooted social problems.’[22] This way of perceiving participation in socially engaged arts ‘involves a significant shift from objects to relationships’;[23] it creates a radical space separate from consumerism and the arts market ‘in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius.’[24] This is socially engaged practice inspired by critical postmodernist resistance that, as Dick Hebdige explains, ‘can help us rediscover the power that resides in little things, in disregarded details, in aphorism (miniaturised truths), in metaphor, allusion, in images and image-streams’.[25] We must sustain the “arts ecosystem” by allowing some old wood to burn in small fires; a process of renewal. We must be wary of economic arguments about growth and instead proudly sing songs about our role as socially engaged artists and keeping helping people write new stories – their stories – because as Diane Ragsdale honestly said: ‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty.’[26]

This essay was supposed to be 800 words long. It isn’t. But, sometimes, you must expand boundaries to enable participation in open debate.

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/

Andersen, Hans Christian, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 [1837]

Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005

Beasley-Murray, Jon, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000

Belfiore, Eleonora, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 [1936]

Buchloh, Benjamin H.D., ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011

Gablik, Suzi, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984

Gablik, Suzi, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992

Hebdige, Dick, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992

Huyssen, Andreas, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

Jameson, Fredric, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998

Matarasso, Francois, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/

McGonagle, Declan, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007

O’Brien, Dave, Is ‘creativity’ arts policy’s big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake

Ragsdale, Diane, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013 http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf

Reiss, Vivienne, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007

Stallabrass, Julian, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf

Wolff, Janet, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993


[1] For more on the difficulty of defining “cultural value”, see Francois Matarasso, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/

[2] “Art-for-art’s-sake” claims “true” (or “high”) art should only be valued for its intrinsic qualities and be completely separate from any moral, utilitarian and educational functions: a modernist and elitist perspective that typifies the discourse of white, middle-class men, notions of beauty, class, superiority, etc. and culminates, as Walter Benjamin suggested, in the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ of fascism – see Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 [1936], p.38.

[3] For more on Bourdieu’s problematic term “cultural capital” and its inadequate account of the accumulation of surplus and therefore themes relating to wealth, profit and exploitation, see Jon Beasley-Murray, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000, pp.100-116

[4] 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/

[5] Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993, p.1.

[6] There are three prominent platforms for discussion and research about “cultural value” in the UK at the moment. They all have different definitions of the term and claim to have (slightly?) different agendas. The AHRC Cultural Value Project (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funded-Research/Funded-themes-and-programmes/Cultural-Value-Project/Pages/default.aspx) aims to investigate and evaluate cultural experience and engagement; The #culturalvalue Initiative (http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2012/08/30/cultural-value-a-central-issue-for-the-cultural-policy-community/) seeks, through open debate, to reinstate the voices and values of the humanities and social sciences in the face of overwhelming drives towards discourses of economic value; and the recently instigated Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/) will investigate culture’s “DNA”, using “ecosystem” as a metaphor, so they suggest how best to “invest” in all forms of culture. Artists to not tend to often play significant roles in these discussions. “Policy”, with all its many heads, usually dominates.

[7] For more on instrumentalism in the arts see, for example, Eleonora Belfiore, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf

[8] Dave O’Brien, Is ‘creativity’ arts policy’s big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake

[9] Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 [1837], p.65.

[10] Ibid., p.71.

[11] Fredric Jameson, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998, p.111.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005, p.57.

[13] Julian Stallabrass, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, p.9. http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf

[14] Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984, p.29.

[15] Declan McGonagle, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, p.6.

[16] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011, p.25.

[17] Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, pp.336-337.

[18] Diane Ragsdale, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013, p.14. http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf

[19] Ibid., p.7.

[20] Vivienne Reiss, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, pp.10-13.

[21] Declan McGonagle, Op. Cit., p.6.

[22] Vivienne Reiss, Op. Cit., p.17.

[23] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992, p.7.

[24] Ibid., p.114.

[25] Dick Hebdige, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992, p.340.

[26] Diane Ragsdale, Op. Cit., p.14.