“From a historical point of view – no matter how miserable my situation is – at this hour in the world’s history I have an advantage over you because I am compelled – I am speaking as a Black man, to doubt my history, to examine it, and I am compelled to try to create it”…”That means I have to question everything, whereas the White liberals at precisely the opposite position of being in the main, unwilling, and as well as unable, to examine the forces which have brought him to where he is, which have created him in fact. To make, which must be very difficult, to know that quite apart from whatever his own attitudes, aspirations, morality may be that he is never-the-less part of the people who at this very hour are jailing some Black boy in Mississippi, who at this very hour are whipping some black African slave, who at this very hour are perpetrating the most tremendous enormities against aggregatable people who look like me. That innocence can be – in crucial moments – a very grave danger. It can menace much more than the white liberal can imagine.”*
James Baldwin and Dick Gregory’s ‘Baldwin’s Nigger’ (1969)
I was at a workshop yesterday in Kings Cross, with about 20 other invited people (independent practitioners, people working in/through organisations and researchers). We spent the day talking about ‘socially engaged art’, in a broad sense, through critical reflections of first hand experiences. The workshop was titled ‘Curating Community? The Relational and Agonistic Value of Participatory Arts in Superdiverse Localities’. It was part of the AHRC-funded Cultural Value project, organised by the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths. The discussions flew in numerous directions, I sensed urgency, passion and anger in the room. Everyone had a lot to say. This was a group of people who spend a lot of time thinking, writing and doing this stuff, probably talking to lots of people about it, but this particular configuration of ‘experts’ (as we were labelled) was new (to me at least) as it cut across art-forms, institutions and disciplines. I can imagine we were all taking mental and/or written notes of triggers, frustrations, inspirations and references to follow up and deal with at some point. I thought I’d share a few of mine here.
There was some discussion on what and who the Cultural Value project was for. It seems it is primarily a project to inform, open up and ‘advance’ the debates on the value of culture. We talked about the need for this debate to also attempt to effect change, perhaps through policy. I think many people in the room are trying to effect change, in a myriad of direct and indirect ways, through their work, so why not through the channel of a funding body like the AHRC? We didn’t get to clarify exactly what those changes might be.
We tried to identify what it was about the role of art and the artist (for it is the The Artist who is still at the centre of the Industry we were there to discuss), that purports to hold open a space for conflict to play out. What is it about artistic forms of facilitation that other forms of facilitation and mediation don’t manage to do? Is there even a difference? I’m not sure we managed to communicate how artists harness those special art powers of theirs (where’s the aesthetics in these situations?). But maybe that’s because there isn’t any mystery about it – it’s just people using skills they have learnt over the years to negotiate situations and hold back, ignore and / or challenge existing pressures, frameworks and demands. (I need to follow up the point about how socially engaged artists are taking work away from community development workers.)
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May Day rally in Trafalgar square
There has been much written and said about the professionalisation of the socially engaged artist and how they are carrying out, critically-minded or not, the ‘harmonisation’ (cleansing) process needed for neo-liberal urban development to continue. Most of the people in the room, it seems, have been involved in the critique and subversion of this in various ways. But even though some little clogs have been jammed in the machine, it hasn’t stopped the bigger wheels from turning. How do you position yourself? Who are your allies? Race needs to be talked about upfront. How are we perpetuating and reinforcing the same colonial, entrenched positions? In the debates on cultural value, whose culture, whose values are being promoted?
Which imperial Western/European/North American vidmate intellectual tools of conflict, critique and disruption are being appropriated by artists and others to sell their theories of art? I am reminded of a Pacific Island artist I met in Melbourne who refused the call for art to be ‘angry, naughty and confronting’. For her, the value of culture is in preserving, training, moulding, respecting. It’s about humility.
We discussed the ethics of introducing doubt and embracing uncertainty, about embodying fear and embarrassment (to return to Baldwin’s need “to doubt my history, to examine it”). There was a strong sense that this wasn’t happening nearly enough. The structures that surround, support and create obstacles for the kinds of thinking and practice in the room are a constant source of frustration. These relationships between individuals and structures are necessary, they are intersubjective, relational, co-dependent. These structures can be ignored or engaged with. It depends on where we put our energy and resources, for there was plenty of both in the room yesterday.
*Thanks to Barby Asante for the link to the Baldwin clip