Critical dialogue and reflection is essential for improving art practice. The use of art to deliver social policy has both brought new possibilities for artists and led to a decrease in criticality and critical language.
Where studio and gallery-based artists are dealing exclusively in art language, social art practitioners are immersed in the language of the Third Sector. They are undertaking professional development training to learn about public licensing, charity status, viral marketing, policy changes and bid writing. Studios become offices, and the curators are charities and governmental bodies. None of these spaces are asking artists to develop and define the value of artistic practice on their own terms.
The current UK arts infrastructure is city- and gallery-centric, and this model does not fully support the approach of artists working within social contexts, who use and generate hyper-local knowledge and resources.
On top of this, a new breed of student is demanding that their £27k art school degree leaves them industry-ready. These previously experimental spaces – where young artists would generate new terms, processes and concepts for seeing – are fast becoming business schools.
For artists working in the social realm, the designated space for reflection is often the evaluation report. Rather than critical contemplation, evaluation is in fact advocacy. In addition, the looming threat of the quantitative measurement of well-being and payment-by-results means that social value – and by extension social art practice – is increasingly articulated in economic terms. This brings art practice much closer to an economic debate than it is used to.
Within an increasingly pressurised situation – where the artists’ livelihood and an externally-defined value system become intractably intertwined – the critical justification of this work easily becomes a secondary concern. The space for artist-led, autonomous, critical discourse – essential for developing sophisticated practice – is in short supply.
“There is a power struggle that is starting to happen between artists trying to access resources and money. I think there is room for us to come together in some way, when the economic situation outside is splitting us apart and preventing us from serving the people we are trying to reach through art.”
– Myles Stewart, Artist and Art Therapist
“We are so used to scrabbling for funding, keeping ourselves afloat and justifying what we do, that we don’t actually look creatively at the very terms in which we think and act. The spaces where artists used to come together to think differently are diminishing.”
– Matthew Taylor, Artist and Researcher
“We need to create some kind of support network where we can develop alternative instructions and forms and processes [for demonstrating artistic value] than those being directed by policy – and we need to do that collectively.”
– Sophie Hope, Artist and Researcher