Street art, Bristol
Tuesday, 18 December 2018 21:33

Caught Doing Social Work? - socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stephen Pritchard offers some provocations on themes around instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing in the age of neoliberal capitalism.

Many people in the artworld believe that art can deliver social change. Many are following yet another artworld trend – that of socially engaged art. This is perhaps best represented by Assemble winning the 2015 Turner Prize. An important moment in the turn (or perhaps return) towards “Useful Art”.

assemblegroup

Assemble group photo, 2014

Many more see socially engaged art as a way of instrumentalising artistic practices in the name of state, corporate and other agendas. The English state, for example, instrumentalises art as a means of “improving” the economy, health and wellbeing, social ills, education, the environment, urban places, crime rates, unemployment, on and on and on. Art can, some argue, offer salvation to all our ills: Panacea Art.

Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a way of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation; harnessed by big businesses to unleash the false fog of corporate social responsibility.

In this sense, socially engaged art becomes yet another tool employed to support the target-driven, cost-benefit values of the dominant neoliberal ideology that is strangling our lives in the noose of individualism and strapping us into the straitjacket of uncaring personal gain.

A humanistic, socialist cultural democracy

The problem with this perspective is, for me, three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby powered by political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental. Beautifully crafted, state-funded tools impose the soft power that’s so important to neoliberalism.

Secondly, there is the question of what is social change? Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shifts. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism.

Thirdly, people who not part of the artworld are not usually listened to. Their words, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears are ignored or sanitised. Most people are disenfranchised by cultural policies “done to them”, not by, with and for them. This isn’t social justice. This isn’t democracy.

I believe in the radically political project (or perhaps projects) of cultural democracy. People-powered participatory democracy. Humanistic and socialist democracy. The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state, opposing capitalism. So, does our work support neoliberal ideology or contest and oppose it?

 Missionaries, Mercenaries, Mediators and Mobilisers

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Are we, as artists working in “the social”, working as Missionaries preaching the Western European, white, middle-class, male, able-bodied gospel of the neoliberal creative industries and Creative Class?

Are we working as Mercenaries, engaging “disadvantaged” people and people in “difficult” places and communities somehow deemed to be in some way lacking in culture, for the sole reason that we need to make a living, a career, to make money?

Are we working as privileged Mediators capable of listening to people who are not listened to – who are ignored – with the sole purpose of helping amplify their frustrations, their anger, their fears, their hopes, their ideas, their demands for rights?

Are we working as Mobilisers – as political activists?

I ask, then, which side are you on?

Who Pays the Piper?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art, and proliferated using the slow violence of socially engaged art.

We must not be mercenaries or missionaries.

We can be mediators only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can be part of the demand for the Right to the City.

We can be part of the movement to take back the city.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we, then, truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?

A Revolution of Everyday Life?

We must never help governments and developers displace people.

We must say no to those who want to use us to deliver their neoliberal agendas.

We must never work as NGO artists, subtly instilling Western culture and language and ways of living on different people from different places.

We are not social workers or community workers or community developers or doctors or nurses or psychotherapists or teachers or preachers or community consultants.

We are not foot soldiers of capitalism.

We are not place-makers.

We are not the servants of the neoliberal Creative Industries ideal.

We must never be story-harvesters.

And we are not social cleansers.

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

But we must never get caught doing social work.

Have you been caught doing social work?

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior to other cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935. (From The Four Quartets, 1941.)

Stephen Pritchard blogs here. 

 "Culture is BAE Systems Britain", appropriated government overseas advertising image, Stephen Pritchard, 2018.
Tuesday, 18 December 2018 21:33

The Great North Exhibition and BAE

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stephen Pritchard protests with a blog against the involvement of BAE Systems in the Great Exhibition of the North, and Keith Armstrong protests with a poem.

This blog is a brief response to the artwashing of the Great Exhibition of the North, particularly the inclusion of BAE Systems as a "premier partner" of the event, which is billed as the UK's biggest event for 2018. There's a campaign to force event organisers to remove BAE Systems from the list of sponsors and I'm a member, but I want to consider the following questions in relation to the scandal: a) Who really organises the exhibition? b) Where is the money coming from? c) Who decides on sponsors? I suggest the arts community in the North East may have had little, if any choice in the decision to brand the event with a weapons manufacturer with a terrible reputation.

Just what on earth is going on with the Great Exhibition of the North? An event dreamt up by the Tories to showcase their outlandish vision of the Northern Powerhouse has become the site of artwashing on an epic scale! The biggest cultural event on the UK calendar this year, the exhibition has revealed its three "premier partners" - each of which will benefit significantly from massive media exposure across the UK and around the world. It was bad enough to find that two of the three exclusive partners - Virgin and Accenture - are renowned tax-avoiders and well-versed in exploiting and privatising our public services, but to find that weapons manufacturer BAE Systems are set to benefit from their association with the Great Exhibition of the event left me absolutely dumfounded!

I mean, the decision to accept sponsorship from BAE Systems simply beggars belief. The company has made billions from the sale of weapons and mass surveillance technologies to oppressive regimes and has been widely criticised for doing so. Its weapons have been used by Saudi Arabia to kill innocent men, women and children in Yemen. The company's weapons have also been used by Israel against innocent Palestinian families. How can exhibition organisers legitimately defend their decision to attach such a brand to the event? Are artists and organisations involved in the event aware that their names are being used by BAE Systems to sanitise their image as symbols of their commitment to corporate social responsibility? This is artwashing on a grand scale: the artwashing of the North of England - its communities, its artists, its people. It is absolutely outrageous!

Some artists have already withdrawn. I am part of a group of artists and arts professionals calling for the Great Exhibition of the North to #dropBAE. Our petition had almost 800 signatories at the time of writing this blog. It is deeply unethical to have BAE’s name associated with the exhibition and it taints the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North. Artwashing works by using brand association with arts events, like the Great Exhibition of the North, to create what appears to be a caring image to the general public. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a PR exercise in false claims of "corporate social responsibility" to disguise unsavoury corporate activities - in this case the wholesale export of arms and advanced surveillance equipment that murder people and spy on them. BAE Systems are the antithesis of social justice. Their products kill innocent people and take away human rights.

So why would anyone want to associate such an important festival of arts, heritage, culture and creativity with a producer of mass destruction and control? It is all too easy to blame the organisers - the NewcastleGateshead Initiative - or the arts organisations, or the artists, or the other board members, for that matter. We must remember that this event is primarily paid for by the Tories - by the UK government. The Great Exhibition of the North is a government initiative. And BAE Systems are a tax-payer subsidised company. So is it really that surprising that they were chosen to benefit from this festival? They employ many people in the North East. For the Tories, that's a "no-brainer". They wouldn't think twice about ethics or about brand identity. This is just a vehicle for their own Conservative notions of "the North" and neoliberal enterprise.

So this is a political issue. The artwashing of BAE Systems at the Great Exhibition of the North is a political issue. It is another example of the state-supported corporate takeover of the arts, just like the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the national council of Arts Council England.

I would not be at all surprised to learn that the DCMS and Government Office forced exhibition organisers and participants to accept the prominent branding of BAE Systems. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that BAE Systems had contributed little, if anything in terms of financial sponsorship. I wouldn't be surprised if all the sponsors were selected by the Tories. And all this in a part of the country firmly committed to the principles of community, hard work, and solidarity: a Labour heartland. THEY are trying to tear out our hearts and turn the North East into a sales event for weapons and tax-avoidance. Artists are once again used as pawns, with precarity used against them at every opportunity.

We must say no! Please sign the petition now.

Great North Exhibition 2018 from Great Northern on VimeoThis article is republished from Stephen Pritchard's blog.

55 Degrees North

by Keith Armstrong

They're going to illuminate Scotswood,
make missile entrepreneurs in Elswick.
Someone's set fire to our Arts reporter,
it's another Cultural Initiative.
Sting's buying the Civic Centre,
they're filling the Great North with tanks.
The Sage is changing its name to BAE,
Shane's pissed on the Royal conductor.
They're floating quangos down the Tyne,
the bonfire will be at Shields.
They're bringing tourists to witness miracles,
the Chief Executive will strip for money.
They're blowing up the Castle Keep
to build an installation.
They're giving the locals more top down Art,
it's something to silence our kids with.
They're taking live theatre to the cemetery,
the vicar will write an Arts Council poem.
Steve Cram's taken up painting
to stop his nose from running.
The river will be made into an ice rink,
we can play with our boats in the bath.
Let this Great Nation bomb the Middle East,
they're making a museum of our politics.
Stuffing glass cases with old principles,
the head hunters are out and about.
It's cultivated jobs for the boys and the girls,
they're putting the Arts into centres.
Drain the music from our souls,
we have to be grateful to be patronised.
Their self righteousness grins from on high,
let the bombs fly and rockets rip.
We can enjoy some more tamed Art,
say cheerio to your history.
They've wrapped it up in moth balls,
thank God for the boys from the south.
They've saved us from self government,
we've missed out on the Joy Parade.
This City of Culture got lost in the end,
the Angel glowers over us though.
Thanks again City Fathers,
your office blocks look uglier each day.
You've reinvented our culture for us,
you've rendered it meaningless.
Guts ripped out,
we touch our forelock to your glorious Lords.
From the orifice of the House of Commons
leaks the corrupt emptiness of your Tory manifesto.
The aching past of the working man
has become the death of England.
Let us hail you from NewcastleGateshead,
a city you made up for yourselves.
Let us watch your empty schemes plummet,
let us learn to dance in community again.
We are Geordies naked with a beautiful anger to burn.