At the limits of representation

Social practice – a prominent and growing aspect of contemporary visual art engaged in social and political realities – has claimed a significant role in bolstering cohesion, empowering communities, and encouraging solidarity between social groups in past decades. It has therefore been a disappointment that in the chaos of pandemic lockdowns, many museums and galleries suspended their social practice programmes, just when their communities needed them the most. With few exceptions, contemporary art’s civic consciousness and the ethos of engagement and inclusion took a step back from more pressing, prosaic concerns of art and artists’ own survival.

While one can hardly blame artists for failing to single-handedly defeat a deadly virus or its economic and social challenges, the pandemic has brought some old questions to the fore again. How do artists, museums and galleries decide whom to support with the resources and skills at their disposal? Why do certain social causes become the causes of art? 

In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu[1]Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford University Press. offers an unflattering view of cultural reproduction. He argues that it is in art’s interest to join social struggles because these create a demand for art: making social art is profitable whether one believes in the cause or not. This model may help to understand some of the most misguided aspects of socially-motivated art practice, for example, Marc Quinn’s intervention that replaced the statue of Edward Colston toppled by BLM protesters in Bristol with a work of his own. Quinn was widely condemned for seeking cultural profit from the suffering of others.

However, Bourdieu’s analysis looks dangerously out of date in light of the armies of artists who until recently took on roles traditionally reserved for social workers, often with little reward. But if art’s social functions are today necessary to the functioning of society, they remain a somehow optional and voluntary aspect of artistic practice. It is then even more important to understand who is and who isn’t included in art’s social remit, and how the priorities of artists themselves shape the priorities of social practices.


A potted history of social art and its relationship to the policy-mandated drive for access and inclusion may help in answering some of these questions. The rise and rise of social art practice begun with the post-1997 cultural policies that charged museums and galleries with finding and nurturing previously unengaged audiences.[2]See for example, Hewitt, Andy. 2011. “Privatizing the Public: Three Rhetorics of Art’s Public Good in ‘Third Way’ Cultural Policy.” Art & the Public Sphere 1 (1): 19–36. To deliver these audiences, institutions hired a generation of freshly-trained artist-facilitators supplied by the ever-expanding and increasingly diverse art schools. In times of plentiful arts funding, this was art’s success story: more art was being made by more (and more diverse) artists for larger (and more diverse) audiences.[3]This is, of course, a simplified account. The argument which follows is concerned with the perceptions of these phenomena, rather than their empirical successes.

In a moment of intoxication with its new mission and unprecedented access to funding, the early 2000s art industry believed that it could tackle social ills at large, not to mention its own internal inequities. In other words, art’s promise of inclusion was not only of empowerment through art that was heralded by social practice. For many audiences, inclusion turned out to be an enticement into the art world workforce itself. 

Here lies a profound paradox: the unintended effect of this expansion of artistic activity is that it created a quasi-class of artists whose political ambitions and professional experience made them acutely critical of their own industry’s failings. Contemporary art’s drive to become more inclusive for its audiences ultimately contributed to the inequalities experienced by its workforce. In transitioning from a modestly sized, relatively homogenous industry of the 1980s in which the number of arts graduates tracked the number of job openings, to an explosive, diverse ‘creative economy’ free-for-all of the 2000s, the cultural workforce grew at a pace even greater than the demand for its labour.

The increased competition for opportunities exacerbates inequalities: if a larger (and more diverse) workforce is competing for more (but not so many more and not necessarily fairer) jobs, any asymmetry in the distribution of advantage becomes more visible. At the same time, long-term trends in the entire UK workforce create the appearance of industries like art becoming more inaccessible when in fact it is the pool of people who experience barriers to success that is changing.[4]For a nuanced discussion of these factors, see Brook, O, D O’Brien, and M Taylor. 2020. Culture Is Bad for You: Inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Manchester University Press. This means that as certain markers of disadvantage in elite professions have diminished in their effect (class, for example), others may have become more prominent. In intersectional analysis, for those parts of the workforce who came to art seeking empowerment, the disappointment of finding an industry unable to dispense it fairly has been palpable. 

Nothing of this, of course, is an argument against diversity. The ideals of access and inclusion, whether instrumental or genuinely felt, are not at fault. A long perspective on their side-effects, however, should prompt a re-examination of art’s continued claims of representation in respect of its stated social justice commitments. The pandemic has illustrated the dangers of relying on loose definitions of who is and who is not included in art’s social remit. In a curious turn, we are seeing artists demanding that they themselves be welcomed again. 


Early on in the pandemic, the Instagram-based #artistsupportpledge initiative saw artists pledge a proportion of their sale takings for buying other artists’ art. In what was an innocent peer-to-peer marketing campaign masquerading as democracy and mutual aid, it’s mission was clear: the artists’ priority is to support artists.

A more striking example came during last Summer’s strikes by a group of some 300 retail, catering, and commercial workers risking redundancy at Tate. The regrettable and all too familiar situation was distinguished by the arguments that the strikers put to management. They reasoned that because many of them were artists by training (despite being employed by Tate in non-art capacities) and because many of them were from underprivileged social backgrounds (which are overrepresented in low-wage sectors like retail), Tate owed them a double duty of care. The implication is profound: being an artist is synonymous with experiencing acute disadvantage aking to racism, sexism, or classism. If artists are by definition underprivileged and the boundaries between their own identities and those of the subjects of social practices are blurred, who is including whom? 

Read in Bourdieu’s tone, art’s principled stand with itself reflects the fact that the industry can stimulate the demand for art without reference to external factors. Having so effortlessly expanded its purview to include the material conditions and aspirations of any community (and therefore of artists), art has little need to include or represent anything other than itself. And since art is also able to adjudicate on the relative merits of any candidate for such inclusion on its own terms, it can continue to make unverifiable claims about its emancipatory power.

This is a version of a text originally published in The Sociological Review.
It is part of a series that continues in Art in Solidarity with Itself.

Main photo: Paul Campbell/Flickr.

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