Following on from my recent post summarising Julian Spalding’s thoughts on the Eclipse of Art in the twentieth century, I have been reading a number of other texts that focus on the political and societal factors that impacted on the western art world in the twentieth century. This post offers a summary of Claire Bishop’s ‘Artifical Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship.’
The book looks at the trajectory of participatory art across the twentieth century. Originally a peripheral activity given little to no gravidas in the art world, participatory arts have grown in popularity – and respect – becoming “a genre in [their] own right, with MFA courses on social practice and two dedicated prizes.” The rise and tradition of participatory art is most notable in European countries, where there is a strong parallel with public arts funding. Participatory arts activities, according to Bishop, see the shift of the audience member from ‘viewer’ to ‘collaborator’ or ‘co-producer.’ They are difficult to commercialise, as they are less a concrete object and more a series of events or workshops, yet they occupy a very important place in society.
Bishop links the rise of participatory arts activities to social and political happenings in Europe in the twentieth century, and, perhaps more notably, to consumption and capitalism. A return to a more ‘social’ art, Bishop claims, can be seen to align with the rise and fall of far left-wing political agendas; for example, the avant-garde in Europe around 1917, the ‘neo’ avant-garde leading up to the late 1960s, and the fall of communism in 1989 could be seen as the driving force behind the participatory art of the 1990s.
In the UK, Bishop uses the example of the New Labour government of the late 1990s. Under this leadership, public spending on the arts shifted to have a more socially engaged focused. Based heavily on Francois Matarasso’s report on the impact of arts on society, New Labour’s cultural policy focused on what the arts were able to do for society; “increasing employability, minimising crime, fostering aspiration – anything but artistic experimentation and research as values in and of themselves.” The key phrase utilised by New Labour was ‘social exclusion’: “if people became disconnected from schooling and education, and subsequently the labour market, they are more likely to pose problems to welfare systems as a whole.” This new leaning towards the societal impacts of art were deeply criticised by the far-left because they seemed to seek to “conceal social inequality, rendering it cosmetic rather than structural.” Cultural theorist Paola Merli noted that these new ‘uses’ for art would not change structural conditions, they would only help people come to accept them.
This politicisation of participatory arts, Bishop states, is:
“Less about repairing the social bond than a mission to enable all members of society to be self-administering, fully functioning consumers who do not rely on the welfare state and who can cope with a deregulated, privatised word… In this logic, participation in society is merely participation in the task of being individually responsible for what, in the past, was the collective concern of the state.”
In this instance, Bishop notes, art becomes indistinguishable from government policy. Arts projects that prioritise tangible outcomes and outputs are sociological rather than artistic. This idea of art and creativity as political agenda has (unfortunately) seen arts projects evaluated solely on their positive impact on individuals and communities rather than on any aesthetic level. This way of thinking, Bishop notes, has “led to an ethically charged climate in which participatory and socially engaged art has become largely exempt from art criticism.”
This notion of separation between ‘art’ which is actively critiqued and ‘participatory art’, which is not (not on an aesthetic level anyway), “reinforces a class division whereby the educated elite speak down to the less privileged.” This idea was initially suggested by Grant Kester, and Bishop agrees with this; that participatory art and its lack of ‘academic critique’ can give participants the image of being passive and vulnerable. Additionally, the continuing separation between how ‘art’ and ‘participatory art’ are dealt with on an aesthetic and critical level means that there are other distinctions and assumptions that are made between the two. Bishop notes that “there is usually the objection that artists who end up exhibiting their work in galleries and museums compromise their projects’ social and political aspirations; the purer position is not to engage in the commercial field at all, even if this means losing audiences.” She continues:
“Not only is the gallery thought to invite a passive mode of reception (compared to the active co-production of collaborative art), but it also reinforces the hierarchies of elite culture… Even if art engages with ‘real people’, this art is ultimately produced for, and consumed by, a middle-class gallery audience and wealthy collectors.”
This idea of a differentiation between active and passive; participatory and non-participatory, is unproductive, Bishop notes, because it only reflects societal inequalities. For example, either the spectator is inferior because they do nothing and the performer does something, or the performer is inferior to the critical thinking of the spectator.
This theory is amplified when Bishop argues that “high culture, as found in art galleries, is produced for and on behalf of the ruling classes; by contrast, ‘the people’ (the marginalised, the excluded) can only be emancipated by direct inclusion in the production of a work.” This is also true of funders of the arts, where there is an underlying assumption that the working-classes can only engage physically, while the middle-classes can engage critically.
Ultimately, Bishop’s argument is that participatory art is a creation of the ruling powers to seemingly give voice to working-class members of society in a way that doesn’t distribute too much power. Today, she notes, the resurgence of participatory art “accompanies the consequences of the collapse of really existing communism, the apparent absence of a viable left alternative, the emergence of contemporary ‘post-political’ consensus, and the near total marketization of art and education.” Although seemingly a socialist construction that allows people who have not had access to the ‘art’ world as was, participatory art is, according to Bishop, a way for the ruling classes to hold onto the real power, while handing over a sense of a small morself of this power to the rest of society. In his essay The Uses of Democracy (1992), Jacques Ranciere notes that “participation in what we normally refer to as democratic regimes is usually reduced to a question of filling up the spaces left empty by power.”
(All Claire Bishop, Artifical Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso, 2012)
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