Rant 49: The Art of Social Change

Rant 49: The Art of Social Change Martyn Lucas, School workshop with Tony Bevan exhibition, 2006. Credit: Martyn Lucas

What is 'participatory art' and does it really bring about social change? Has 'participation' become an over-used, under-critiqued word in art practice today? Ben Jones feels we need to put the question of what constitutes participation back on the agenda.

This year’s engage International Conference, entitled ‘The Art of Influencing Change’ aimed to ‘consider how arts educators can be best equipped to influence change now and in the future’ when ‘confronted by environmental issues, developing technology, globalisation and changes to political agendas and policies’.

Leaving Nottingham after the conference I felt a strange mixture of inspiration and frustration. 

Inspired by the speakers Ruth Catlow (Furtherfield) and Jane Trowell (PLATFORM) plus some of the conversations I had with fellow practitioners, but frustrated by the lack of real critique of words, such as, ‘participation’ and ‘social change’.

The most ready association with participation involving the public and the possibilities of social change through contemporary art could be seen to have developed in one form or another from the 1950’s onwards. 

However they have, relatively recently, become over-used bywords for a type of art practice that has very little to do with actual public engagement and that falls far short of true social change.

For participation to influence change it may need to be an uncomfortable experience. 

The participant might have to be taken out of their comfort zone so they are made to question their own position in society. 

Ruth Catlow, with reference to PLATFORM’s exhibition ‘C-Words’ at Arnolfini, brought up the phrase ‘enabling through discomfort’. 

Too many times artistic projects become wrapped up in words and phrases such as ‘collective action’, ‘participation’ and ‘social change’ without actually demanding much from the participant apart from to create artwork for the artists own practice. 

A view point expressed by a participant in ‘C-Words’ was that ‘Participatory art practice should not be polished, should not fit neatly into the art market and should not simulate social change’.

As Sophie Hope mentions in her blog on the conference, ‘Where’s the conflict? Where’s the critical engagement?’.

The true role of participatory art practice should be to create a space for ongoing critical and collective action to enable a platform for change. It needs to take responsibility for its actions and not just be a tool to massage the artist’s ego. 

Contributed by Ben Jones

Ben Jones is an artist, curator and writer based in Gateshead.

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