Social art in antisocial times

It is already nothing short of a journalistic cliché that ‘we need the arts more now than ever’. In the first week of the UK’s lockdown, media were rife with lists of exhibitions and performances to consume from the safety of one’s sofa, alongside tips for home-schooling, and for making do with pasta and tinned beans.

For sure, art offers distraction and respite from daily anxiety, but is this all it’s good for? As we grow wary of pixelated click-through cultural experiences, we should ask art to deliver more of the social and political impacts it has promised. 

B.C. (Before Covid) Art

Alongside the rise of the international art market, the UK’s public arts sphere has undergone a major reconfiguration in the past twenty years. As public funding for the arts shrunk, demands on art to paper over the cracks of austerity grew. Narratives of public good now permeate galleries and Arts Council England’s funding strategy, and one would struggle to find an artist who doesn’t describe their practice as political or at least socially-relevant. Institutions of all sizes and outlooks, from Tate Modern to the small studio collective, have made renewed claims of social relevance, community-focus, and public benefit. 

Cadres of artists and administrators supplied by the ever-expanding art schools threw themselves into the challenge. The arts workforce is characterised by a high degree of employment insecurity, intense competition, and low pay, and is subject to the conditions of exploitation as with labour in other deregulated industries. In this context, the ‘social mission’ is a moral imperative.

What’s been largely taboo is the question of this activity’s effects on society – it is universally assumed that art is an inalienable human need. And from there, only a short leap for the collective art think-tank to argue art’s supreme role in shaping community structures or political discourse. Functions previously held by the state and other forms of civil society migrated to artist-led youth clubs, artist-led adventure playgrounds, artist-led support groups, if not artist-led food banks. 

All these initiatives coexisted happily with the commercially-driven art market and popular mainstream art, occasionally blurring the boundaries or encouraging friendly antagonism. One telling example is artist Christoph Büchel’s 2011 project which turned the prime estate of mega-gallery Hauser and Wirth into the Piccadilly Community Centre, complete with volunteers, knitting circles, and beauty spa treatments for seniors.  

Christoph Buchel, ‘Piccadilly Community Centre’, 2011. Installation view.

First, the galleries closed…

In early March public and commercial galleries and art institutions started suspending their exhibitions and programmes. Before any other public service, it was arts institutions’ In these unprecedented times… emails that flooded my inbox. Before pubs and restaurants closed. Before even SportsDirect closed. 

What does this timing tell us about the role that art institutions play in public life? What knowledge of epidemiology did art administrators have, and why did they lead by example in this act of publicly-minded sacrifice? In the Government’s lock-down rules, art is clearly non-essential labour; more: it is voluntarily redundant. The ‘social’ of social arts is simply not the ‘social’ of social workers; the analogy seems ludicrous now and in retrospective. Who, then, needs the arts, now more than ever?

If art is just a gentle distraction from our daily grievances, then it now finds a captive audience for its pre-recorded online programmes and ad-hoc performances to camera. But this reflective, inspiring or soothing function of art is one that has long been served by blockbuster shows presented by international consortia in exchange for market-determined admission prices and corporate sponsorship. Will the quarantine amount to more than a reconfiguration of the modes of production and consumption of artistic products? The fact that the National Gallery can smoothly transfer its Titian exhibition online should not be seen as a triumph. If yoga studios can thrive on Zoom, so can some forms of art.

Community practice in self-isolation

What about the audiences served, until recently, by art initiatives that truly did put social impact at the forefront? The dozens of programmes in some of England’s least culturally engaged and economically depressed locations supported by Arts Council England’s funding initiative Creative People and Places will likely be subject to wholesale cancellations. Communities and individuals that did benefit from the support created by art practitioners have been left to self-isolation.

The inevitability with which artists have retreated from their community practices will highlight the fundamental problem of mandating art’s social mission: artists are not trained to fill the roles of social or healthcare workers. Social betterment through art cannot be subject to a service level agreement.

It would be callous to suggest that all social art has been without positive effects, particularly against the withdrawal of traditional social support mechanisms. Create London’s White House in Barking, a sui-generis community and art centre, the vegetable garden in Hoxton initiated by artist duo FourthLand, or Ahmet Öğüt’s Silent University which facilitates skills exchange between refugees have all played a part in making our lives collectively a little better.

The White House, Barking

It remains questionable, however, whether arts institutions are best placed to spearhead such initiatives. Why should artists need to be involved in designing community gardens? While artists are for the most part united in a progressive agenda, this strengthens the assumption that their work is socially beneficial and important. Such solidarity and peer approval, however, does not amount to evidence.

It may also become apparent that the withdrawal of artistic labour will have negligible adverse effects for its audiences, and art communities will need to answer a crucial question: was its work ever doing all that much good? Why didn’t the arts help us when we had them?

The arts need you, now more than ever

In absence of good news, popular media have been quick to focus on the life-affirming function of the arts by curating virtual cultural diets. This rally is in contrast with the usual indifference of UK audiences who may or may not have been inclined to visit museums and galleries in easier times. 

In the professional press and in arts social networks, ‘the arts will save you’ quickly turned into a call to ‘save the arts’ as the true economic impact on already underfunded institutions and leagues of precarious workers became apparent. Serpentine Gallery’s artistic director and mega-curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist proposed a new mass art public art initiative to mirror the Franklin D Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration project that would far outstrip Arts Council England’s £190 million support package announced this week.

The economic output of the arts is modest in comparison with, say, the hospitality industry, but its highly educated workforce is exceptionally good at self-organisation and voicing its demands. Whatever settlement art can negotiate, livelihoods will be on the line, organisations will fail, and many careers will be broken. 

Like after any crisis, amongst the survivors will be those who are the most agile, entrepreneurial, stable, or those just too-big-to-fail. Right now, we should not worry about the future of philanthropically-supported museums, private arts foundations, art fairs or commercial galleries. These entities, subject to the laws of competition and capitalist imperatives, will dust off their 2009 playbooks and obscure the human dimension of the extra difficult environment. 

What about the smaller non-profit players? The self-sacrificing volunteerism of the army of arts workers will be put to a test: can the arts continue to serve the public in the impending recession? 

Change may not be inevitable

Nothing feeds confirmation bias like a crisis. Many artists, alongside environmentalists and anticapitalists have sighed a collective ‘I told you so’ in response to the pandemic, as though the evolutionary biology of a virus had concern for social justice. 

We do, indeed, need art to make sense of the state of meditative non-capitalism, but we should be cautious in concluding that anything ‘changes everything’; the post-crisis opportunities could turn out not to be the silver lining we are looking for. Capitalism has had ample practice in turning to its advantage times of tightened public finances that are likely to follow the world’s spending and borrowing sprees and the inevitable recessions. Unlike in 2008, the arts will benefit from bailouts as much as other industries, and will have no choice but to prioritise their own economic survival.

In this light, it is artists who need the arts more than ever.

The arts should absorb the lessons of the last economic crisis and closely analyse their own response to the changes in power relations of society the crash produced. Many calls will be made for art to lend a hand in recovering the post-pandemic depression. 

You wasted a good crisis, a video work by artist collective DIS reminds us. Replicating the 2009 recovery model will only propel the industry in a spiral of internal competition, from which one can expect the conservative voices to emerge strongest.

DIS, ‘You wasted a good crisis’, 2018. Video still.

Could we do better than this? If one believes in the truly transformative potential of social or political art, then we must employ art to help rewrite the rules of the game. Instead of throwing its energy into fundraising, live-streaming fixes, or protectionist solidarity, could art communities engage in proposals for future art that could be transformative, ethical, ecological, fun, shocking, interesting and – insert adjective of your choice – profitable this time?


Cover image by Dennis Goodwin.