Of course, things did happen on the residency – distraction and diversionary activities are not necessarily bad things – but I did not make art.(44) It begs the question why the project was funded via art organisations, and problematises the criteria by which we judge the success of such projects. As an artist, being commissioned by an art organisation, funded by the Arts Council, I suggest that one of the criteria of success is that ‘art’ somehow is made. Not just social work, and not just engagement. In other words, producing art is the primary goal, and the other goals are secondary, and if there is no art, then the project has failed. One does not aim for the top of the mountain and declare the expedition a success when you reach the foothills and then stop. Engagement is part of the process and the methodology of participatory and/or socially engaged practices, but it is not the end point. While there are indeed additional issues in how and what we define as ‘art’, I would suggest that there is also an exceptionally strong lineage of artistic, academic and conceptual underpinnings to help us decide what is ‘good art’ and what is just replication of dated ideals and tired tropes. We cannot wriggle out of the argument by regurgitating the platitude ‘… but, what is art, though, really?’, because that ignores the legacy and history of the practitioners who have been doing this sort of work for generations, and are therefore able to answer that question quite sufficiently and succinctly.(45)
I am not suggesting that we fall down the rabbit hole of defining ‘artistic success’, or that there should be a ‘payment-for-results’ scheme for art within social contexts. What I am suggesting is that there needs to be a deeper examination of how institutions that instigate and produce these projects – the commissioning bodies – are also ‘acting in the world’, and how their actions and infrastructure affect us all, and continue to affect people. The Creative People and Place scheme is concerned about the sustainability of such projects and institutions, and that word – sustainable – is similarly tricky. While having such positive sentiments of being ‘green’ and ‘developmental’ attached to it, it is fundamentally about how things can continue, and by extension how they stay the same and how they survive unchallenged. An ecological critique of that word has resonance in this instance too:
When we talk about sustainability, then, what is it that we hope to sustain? We certainly do not sustain nature ‘in itself.’ Rather, we sustain nature as we humans prefer it. More precisely, we preserve the resources needed for human consumption, whether that means energy consumption or aesthetic consumption. In one sense, we preserve nature for industry.(46)
Thus, the question of how an institution sustains itself is a question of how an institution sustains itself for itself and others. Is it functioning in order to preserve itself, rather than in service to specific governmental remits of ‘place’? To extrapolate this idea: an arts organisation that receives funding to work for the poor might be invested in keeping the poor poor, because it is on those terms that they will continue to be funded. Or: cultural policies of ‘place-making’ that are aligned with socio-economically problematic communities would invite institutions whose funding is premised on sustaining such socio-economic discrepancies. There are thus deeper issues at stake at how organisations are actually functioning.
This may seem a leap, but the question to ask is: how many institutions have dissolved themselves because their work was done? When was the last time an organisation decided its mission was over, and it no longer needed to operate? Institutions – like people – need to survive, and they have more resources than individuals in order to make that survival happen: sometimes in spite of those individuals.
44 – ‘Pro-social behaviour will be encouraged through early interventions such as successful youth diversionary and education programmes, preventing patterns of antisocial and criminal behaviour developing’, in A Better Future, A Better Council: Renfrewshire Council’s plan for action, 2014-17. Renfrewshire Council, 2014. See https://www.myjobscotland.gov.uk/councils/renfrewshire-council/jobs/head-early-years-inclusion-56845/1016289 (Available online – Accessed 29 December 2016)
45 – Again, there have been examples of social practice from 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’s Placement Group, David Harding and others from the 1970s onwards, Lorraine Leeson in the 1990s, and Deveron Projects (and a plethora of others) from the 2000s onwards. There is a rich history which no one seems to be utilising. Not to mention a plethora of peer-reviewed academic articles and books that add to this practical history.
46 – Butman, J. (2016). ‘Against Sustainability’, The New York Times, 8 August 2016. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/opinion/against-sustainability.html?_r=0 (Available online – Accessed 21 August 2016.)