These past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to cough up some words about the relationship between art and social change, at a time when there is widespread dissatisfaction with times in which we live.
By art I mean all the ‘special ways’ we have to talk to each other – fashion, art, music, theatre, raves, painting, car-pimping, literature, jive classes – the lot. By the widespread dissatisfaction with the times in which we live I mean less the European economic crisis – more the fundamental problems of climate, inequality and power that sit behind it.
There’s a history of art galvanizing people in revolutions, uprisings and movements for recognition and rights – but what is the role of art today, when there is less agreement on what to change, how to change it and whether it’s possible?
It’s not an easy question to answer.
On the face of it, art doesn’t seem to be much of a force for change. So much of the time art is a distraction from where power really lies, and a way for dividing us up into people who ‘get it’ and people who don’t. The contemporary art market is off in its own eddie, peddling obscure ideas to people with enormous wallets. This market for buying and selling art seems to perpetuate alot of bad ideas about creativity and the purpose of art, namely – the idea of the independent lone-genius, art-school as a preparation for the art market, art that has to be understood and decoded rather than something that works for us… ideas that essentially use artists’ abstraction from the status quo, and turn it into something that serves it. Public funding for the arts doesn’t exactly distance itself from these ideas. By stressing the need for ‘access’ to the arts and culture, it cements the disempowering idea that the arts have to be ‘given’ to people, rather than something people have and can use. Then of course there’s the Creative Industries which, by creating the surface of mega-brands with exploitative work-forces, urban development projects that socially polarize cities and the entire public-relations industry, do much to gloss-over inequities, rather than challenging them.
Art is so embroiled with the way the world is, rather than the way the world could be it seems so hard to imagine how it could change anything.
Where art starts.
Most of these criticisms are looking for art in the wrong place. If we want to understand how art could play a role in social change, we need to look for where art begins.
1. Art begins in everyday life and experience, in the realm of culture; in religion, tradition, customs, language, inherited beliefs and the great daily dialogue of who we are, how we decide what we value and what’s true. Art may become visible through schools, galleries, fashion houses, the music industry, the Olympic Opening Ceremony but before it makes it through those pipelines it starts in conversations, dialogues, tea, fags and coffee.
2. Art begins is a social activity. The basic impulse to make, create and communicate is oppositional to an understanding of people as individuals, operating in markets, giving one another price signals. Fundamentally in art, value is created between people, rather than exchanged – the euphoria in the crowd at a festival, the space in the middle of the pitch where you can hear all sides of the ground singing, the styles, trends and currents in music scenes, the sense of which kind of collar is in this year, the idea between artist and painting and audience. More explicitly relationships can crystalise between people in shared creative projects. This is what David Gauntlett is getting at, and the whole social spaces thing.
3. Art begins as teaching and learning. The purpose of art is to convey meaning – all acts of art make up a daily ambient school of life, of which we are all a part. By helping us find out who we are, art shapes what we value and in turn shapes the values on which the wider economy is based.
Art before Economy.
You can’t move for books at the moment bemoaning the loss of our collective culture. Alongside the Judt book I’ve also read Jane Jacob’s The Dark Age Ahead, and FS Michaels’ Monoculture. All of these basically make the same point – that the conception of society as a community of people, with shared, interdependent interests has almost itself been forgotten in modern political debate, and the stories we tell ourselves. Will Davies talks about neo-liberal ideas forming a ‘folk common sense for many people‘ which seems like an ace phrase and the basic point behind every single one of Adam Curtis films.
Much of this line imagines that market norms will eventually eat collective ones. But can this ever apply to art? Art can only be a social activity – the problem is that, crudely speaking it tends to end up as private property.
So basically the struggle for art, is to somehow wrestle itself from the purposes to which it is put today – to ally itself with the forces of learning and community. To define itself by its contribution to schools, communities and the ties that bind people together – not just the art-fairs and halls of the great galleries. To share and distribute power. To bolt itself onto the types of emergent activity that Castelles labels as post-capitalist.
Here’s some basic rules for this approach
Art before Economy
1. A festival can’t be called a festival unless it involves new people doing things in places they wouldn’t normally be. Anything that purports to call itself a festival that doesn’t do this is just a trick to make something seem different – when it isn’t, which just reinforces the status quo somewhere.
2. To Follow
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