social practice as ‘expanded field’ or ‘excluded field’

This blog post is explores elements of my doctoral research exploring the question of whether participatory art can support sustainable social change.  It’s taken from some of the writing in the introduction to my second draft literature review…

https://i2.wp.com/creativetime.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/2011_LAF_Database.jpg

Click the image above to see a database of more than 350 socially engaged arts projects.

 

Participatory art is said by many to be a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained.  It also leads to an expanded field in which participatory art may be increasingly separate from social practice.  (This is a BIG question which I will discuss in later posts.)

My starting point here is Creative Time’s Chief Curator and important influencer of US social practice, Nato Thompson’s declaration in Living as Form that socially engaged art ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19). But does this statement really reflect the history of this field of practice? If socially engaged art is, as Thompson claims, ‘growing’, in what ways, and to what and whose agendas? Is it really ‘ubiquitous’? Many practitioners in the field may well think otherwise. My literature review attempts to unpick chronologically, from the early 1980s onwards, whether socially engaged art is now virtually omnipresent within today’s art world as Thompson suggests.

The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by policy-makers, critics, academics and large arts institutions. Artists, art workers and smaller collectives and organisations are often disenfranchised and, perhaps as a result, disinterested by attempts to investigate, document, define, regulate and even contest the field.

Researching the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. How does socially engaged art interface with and and reflect upon other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography? Can a further ‘expanded field’ that encompasses critical theory, participatory action research, notions of the carnivalesque, post-development theory, permaculture, and more, lead to fruitful routes to new insights about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change?

All of this is important for social practice.  It can help to positively (re)define social practice – perhaps raise it’s profile in the arts.  It can also provide a mechanism for those wishing to regulate and professionalise the practice.  Research can also help maintain, even expand, independent practice, activism and radicalism – forming new ways for individual practitioners to work together to resist attempts to institutionalise the field (or certain elements within the ‘expanded field’).  Nonetheless, research (mine very much included) can exclude the very artists, practitioners, workers and small/ embryonic organisations that form the heart of the field of social practice.  It can also exclude participants and audiences.  This is something I am keen to try to address.  I do not really know how to avoid exclusion but I think I know exclusion when I see it…

Advertisements

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!

clip_image002

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]

clip_image004

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.

Is sustainability about adding new fuel to old fires?

Firenze-Denaro-BotticelliIn attempting to look at whether participatory art can support sustainable social change, it is probably worth exploring different perspectives relating to this question.  So I’ll start by looking at different approaches to sustainability of arts practice.  Future posts will then attempt to define participatory arts and concepts of social change.  But for now it’s all about sustainability…

There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.

The first option is safest.  It’s also a consultant’s dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures.  It’s about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.

Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them.  This is partly because there is still a ‘toolkit’ mentality where best is… well… ‘best practice’.  Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst ‘helping’ new start ups following in their ways – become like them.  The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy.  This is sustainability with a degree of ‘selected openness’ – a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for ‘expanding the stock’ – like planting new forests using tried and tested species.

And these first two perspectives form today’s dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today.  Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations.  It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly.  I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today’s attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable.  This is because many of those driving ‘change’ want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change.  Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities – in other words individual people – are at the bottom of a pecking order.  This is natural.  This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work.  But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.

But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability.  This approach is about accepting life cycles.  Old fires will eventually die out.  Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely.  New fires in new places can be worrying – they may spread – they may get out of control!  But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here.  No bonfire of the vanities.  But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say ‘ecosystem’).  Indeed, this is how many of today’s established organisations began – as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working.  Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable – further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example.  This is not what I mean.  I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within.  This is not audience development, this is true participation.  It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want.  It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.

So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world.  Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations?  Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow.  They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.

And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too?  We must remember that the constant segregation of ‘things we do’ and ‘creative things we do’ is to some extent a modern construct.  Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. – yes – but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc.  This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).

So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability?  Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires.  Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction.  This can be exciting.  It is difficult to measure and predict.  But then so is life (really…)

In terms of my bigger question: ‘Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?’  I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing – responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us – keep renewing itself.  I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action.  Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone?  This is the subject of future blogs however and I’ve gone on far too long already…

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

MAP1_TUCSON-AND-PARIS_pop

Participatory arts or, more precisely, socially engaged arts practice is resurgent. Participation in the arts is, like many times in the past since the Victorian era, being promoted as a panacea for many of the issues facing our communities.  New initiatives such as ArtWorks, Cultural Value Project and Participation & Engagement in the Arts seek a sea change in UK cultural and educational settings.  Research around if and how socially engaged art can ever be truly sustainable at grassroots levels within the communities it seeks to serve is, however, a bit more thin on the ground.

A key value of arts participation is its ability to stimulate creativity within communities developing social capital in so doing.  There are many examples of socially engaging arts projects that, having achieved short-term success, were not sustained.  Clearly, attempts to create social change in communities must focus on both people and places.  As Roberto Bedoya explains so well, participatory art needs to find ways to embed creativity within communities and engage the many disparate elements that define them but UK research in this area is limited and, where existent (like in the recent RSA project in Peterborough), localised.

I believe we need to explore new ways in which participation in art, creativity and place can link to become part of people’s everyday lives, integral to our communities, encouraging long-term social change.  To do this, it may be necessary to completely rethink our current structures for arts provision, to engage people in new ways, to relinquish control, to trust communities more, and a whole lot of other things too.  Sustainability has different meanings and there are many ways to attempt to stimulate sustainable ways of doing things.

This is what I will write about in a series of posts in the coming weeks.  I will ask a number of questions and propose some ways forward.  My immediate thoughts are that participation in the arts may be able to support broader social change in constructive and sustainable ways and that creativity of action and thought may somehow become integral to the futures of people, places and communities.  How this can be developed is uncertain and probably controversial.  We shall see…