Grant Kester conceives of an ethical formulation of the practice-based around notions of ‘social betterment’ and suggesting that the artist is placed in a similar role to that of a social worker:
Both the community artist and the social worker possess a set of skills (bureaucratic, diagnostic, aesthetic/expressive, and so forth) and have access to public and private funding (through grants writing, official status, and institutional sponsorship) with the goal of bringing about some transformation in the condition of individuals who are presumed to be in need.(23)
The main issue I have with this approach is that to collapse the field of social work and art into one denigrates both. Social work requires specialised training, regular funding, inter-agency co-operation, both physical and conceptual structures, systems of support and guiding policy/theory in order for it to achieve its goal. It is a formal and professional practice, with ‘correct’ ways of working that can be measured and evaluated. In contrast, an artist is a single individual (or collective) usually without social-work training or regular employment/funding, who exists outside of structured systems, and only has criteria for their work that are based on it being art. On a practical level, therefore, it would be highly problematic to assume the artist could effectively conduct the business of social work without the necessary practical structures surrounding him or her. This does not suggest that the separate worlds can never collide and collaborate, only that to collapse them by default would be problematic in practice.
The secondary – and more pressing – concern of this collapsing is an analysis of the ethical framework on which art projects that aim to ‘help’ others are premised. Ameliorative approaches can be based upon colonial notions of preconceived disparity: i.e. that the ‘helper’ is a fully-formed citizen and that the people with whom they are working are flawed and require ‘help’. This places the responsibility of change on the individual, thereby ignoring the societal structural forces that placed the person ‘in need’. Kester concedes that this approach ‘conceives of the viewer as an inherently flawed subject whose perceptual apparatus requires correction’,(24) and while he is critical of this ‘orthopaedic approach’,(25) he still suggests those working within the public realm should have an ameliorative role within society. I raise this point not to suggest that CPP – or The Institution – are intentionally attempting to ameliorate via art, but rather to suggest that there are underlying assumptions about using art to make ‘crap towns’ better that do not sit comfortably with me. There is a litany of historical and theoretical approaches that have successfully challenged these assumptions, and yet they seem to remain embedded within the infrastructure.(26) If I was not being employed to ‘fix’, what then are the infrastructural systems that need to be implemented in order for such art projects ‘to work effectively?’(27)
23 – Kester, G. (1995). ‘Aesthetic Evangelists: Conversion and Empowerment in Contemporary Community Art’, Afterimage, Vol. 22, No. 6, pp. 5-11, p. 11.
24 – Kester, Conversation Pieces, p. 88.
25 – Ibid.
26 – I cannot find any reference to the Creative People and Place (CPP) project recognising – or building on – the incredible legacy, learning and history of this sort of work, from the experimental research of G.R.A.V. in the 1950s, to the embedded work of the Community Arts Movement within the UK of the 1960s, and the exceptional work of the Artist Placement Group, David Harding and others from the 1970s onwards. Over 60 years of understanding of which there is scant acknowledgement within the policy and approaches of CPP. Nor does it take into account the endless critiques against this ‘social inclusion approach’ offered by S. Hope (2012), R. Levitas (2002), A. Hewitt (2011) or E. Belfiore (2002). They seem to have declared they invented the wheel, regardless – and in spite – of the extensive history and academic reflection on this type of work.
27 – New Oxford American Dictionary, op. cit.