The (Art) World Is Not Enough: Life on a Knife-Edge
Michael Pattison, a Director of Alchemy Film & Arts in Hawick in the Scottish Borders, reflects on conundrums of class and capital in a time of creative placemaking following The Stove Network’s kNOw One Place forum in September.
‘Art doesn’t change the world… It’s mass struggles that build power to change the world.’ So claimed Vijay Prashad during the eleventh edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in April 2021.
I’ve remembered this line because I agree with it. Fired off as part of the event’s opening keynote, livestreamed to a world in dire need of change from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, it provided not only a neat soundbite but also a handy epigraph. Doing the immediate rounds on social media, it was later quoted by many artists who were showing their films over the following days.
Did the assertion resonate with others for the same reason it resonated with me? That it allowed them to imagine a world in which the arts can be publicly funded, yes, but where they aren’t also continually and increasingly expected to provide blueprints for society’s wholesale emancipation? A world in which the sole task of the arts isn’t the creation of conditions for people to live a somehow measurably less miserable existence? A world in which the arts aren’t under more and more pressure to devise and deliver the kind of stats-bound social wellbeing historically assumed to be the responsibility of the state and actual frontline services?
None of this is to deny the critical thinking, creative stimulation and social cohesion that art can, under certain conditions, generate and help catalyse. Nor is it to deny that criticality, creativity and cohesiveness are worthwhile ends in themselves, or that funders should regard and prioritise them as such. The worry is that, as the top-down normalisation of concepts like austerity, crisis and recession takes hold once more, those funding and producing creative activity feel obliged to think of it only in terms of its economic value. They begin – with the best of intentions – to legitimise the prevailing system, adopting its language and jargon, adapting to its metrics of and dependence on precarity. Dancing, in a word, to its tune.
Surviving is not the same as thriving. Taken to their logical conclusion, such survival mechanisms will result in those funding and delivering creative activity to overstate their capacity as well as their expertise. The real worry being that the state already underfunds frontline services so desperately these days that, before long, palliative care units will be exclusively subsidised as part of some three-month pilot scheme asking creative practitioners with no medical training whatsoever to staff whatever’s left of the NHS. You can imagine the deathbed discourse, the eleventh-hour extractions, the morbid murals: ‘Tell me your story…’
At kNOw One Place, a two-day forum on creative placemaking produced by The Stove Network in September, Vijay Prashad’s remark was never far from my mind. Placemaking is worldmaking, after all, and consciously embarking upon it through creative means brings its own conundrums, challenges and assumptions. This was an event overall too rich in prompts and provocations for me to have sustained the rate at which I made notes during its initial breakout discussions, but the scribbles I did produce all seem to orbit the same sets of queries and anxieties that have occupied and underpinned much of our recent thinking around such matters at Alchemy Film & Arts.
In Hawick, we chat often about the knife-edge on which arts charities – at least in Scotland – find themselves. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the shying away from the notion that the arts can be a ‘service’ at all; the tendency to think of service users as participants – or, if you work in film and/or festivals, as audiences. The hardcore position at this end of the spectrum dictates that art is produced by one set of people and consumed by another set of people. Hence growth models: you can always imagine and therefore grow an audience, forever somewhere over there in the near distance, whereas the provision of a service suggests an actual human need that can be met without having to always innovate or reinvent.
Prejudices declared: I’m less and less interested in, or more and more wary of, an art that’s only made for and consumed by artists. A cultural provision that amounts to the putting up of pretty pictures in pretty rooms, or the putting on of self-serious moving-image experimenta by folk who can afford to make work about nothing, on the presumption that the public – and it’s always a singular public – will then pass the same old thresholds to engage with and respond to it in the same old ways.
At Alchemy, we tend to refer to our specialist medium as ‘experimental film’. The term, notwithstanding its own existential torments, is distinct from what those in the central belt prefer to call artists’ moving image. Doesn’t the possessive apostrophe in the latter term evoke a medium made exclusively by artists and/or for them? And who’s an artist anyway?
Good question. At the other end of the spectrum, everyone’s an artist and they’re all in and amongst it: conceiving projects, participating in projects, delivering projects. Here, all stakes are equal. Learning is collective, responsibilities are shared, expertise and accountability are plateaued, diluted, filtered; everyone knows a little about a lot and nobody can really claim to have an expertise in anything.
Purists drifting towards, or consciously positioning themselves at, this end of the spectrum believe that structurelessness might itself be a structure. Those with more time to give simply give more time; never mind how this affects the power dynamic of such spaces, or the uneven distribution of social capital within them. Or the exclusionary impact on those who – even if they wanted to – can’t volunteer three hours of their time to a midweek meeting whose two crucial decisions take three hours each to solve. For some, nevertheless, consensus is the future: the revolution will not be agreed upon.
At the most recent meeting of the Rural Art Network Scotland (RANS), at Deveron Projects in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, it was often remarked and generally agreed how effective Creative Scotland’s Culture Collective programme has been in enabling organisations to navigate the above-mentioned knife-edge. Extending enough trust to 26 place-based arts charities across Scotland to deliver community-led work in vitally creative ways, Culture Collective embeds arts professionals within organisational contexts in such a way that social outcomes can be delivered in properly accountable – and hopefully quantifiable – ways.
The argument and the evidence are thus. Integrating individuals within what some may term ‘socially-engaged’ organisations frees the individuals themselves from having to always have the kind of entrepreneurial mindset, professional skillset, social training, technical resources, well-established network, and fully-formed portfolio of policies and procedures by which they can effortlessly find publics beyond their immediate reach. In turn, the organisations themselves get to consult and collaborate with communities in ways that feel reciprocal, relevant and of much meaning to both the involved parties and the wider social fabric they cohabit.
When done right – and, as any honest art-worker will tell you, it often isn’t – such work necessitates conversations around methods of production, exhibition and consumption and who can and can’t access them. By engaging in said conversations, such work de-emphasises the art itself as product and places more emphasis on the process by which it is conceived and produced. It’s this that brings communities together in the kind of entangled decision-making that in turn brings the world’s other structures into question. This is itself, in fact, a structural recalibration, a generator of community. An attention to process and the mechanics of collaboration reinserts trust and solidarity, when such values have been steadily eroded, into the fabric of our communal life.
Within this structured, collaborative framework, the most telling art is tethered to and expressive of proper cross-sectoral partnerships – between professional artists who can steer, guide, provoke, prompt, deliver, and first-time makers, who can also steer, guide, provoke, prompt, deliver. Tellingly, my most treasured, lasting memory from kNOw One Place was a screening of What Could Happen Here? (Song for Stranraer), a brilliant new film-poem by Stranraer residents and Hope London, an artist working on the Stove’s own Culture Collective project, What We Do Now (WWDN). Fun, funny and fancy-free, this partly animated sing-along short cut through all the day’s ruminations and rhetoric: a vivid, energetic and alive expression of plural wants and needs.
This isn’t, then, a call for the arts to be outright liberated from any social or civic duties – much less dropped from a government’s fiscal agenda. If they’re publicly funded – and they absolutely should be – the arts need to be accountable to publics. An arts sector untethered from such accountability will only ever affect and be interested in… itself.
Part of the problem here is the ways in which the marketplace combines a surplus workforce and scarcity of opportunity to compel those who we might traditionally think of as artists into the chilly, humourless peer-to-peer echo chambers of academia. (The function of which is to instil a thick skin: you’ll never rumble an academic through accusatory prose because they’ll never see themselves in the accusation.) Another part of the problem is the binary thinking that persists around who can be an artist in the first place and who, well, can’t. Such thinking is deeply entrenched: as in any other sector, it revolves around who does and doesn’t control the means of production. Which is always de facto a class war.
Isn’t it truer that the world changes art?
Those inclined to view themselves as operating in the business of creative placemaking will do well to remember that placemaking itself is an inevitable function of society. Where humans settle, with their needs determining and determined by available assets and resources, place prevails alongside the cultures and identities informing it. Put another way, capitalism produces place through property relations: it organises and manages assets and resources in particular ways defined in relation to property. Because of this, aspiring to make, change, reclaim or control a place isn’t necessarily the same as making, changing, reclaiming or controlling the ways in which place is made.
Viewed as such, creative placemaking isn’t some intrinsically beneficial endeavour: its sustainability and social usefulness are only as strong as the property relations that govern it. It’s demonstrably possible for creative placemaking, in other words, to retain and even perpetuate a capitalist structure, in its property relations, in its divisions of labour, and in all the fundamental cultural assumptions that underpin these. Likewise, it’s equally possible – and maybe even likely – that a group of people who wouldn’t otherwise know that creative placemaking is even a thing can absolutely be engaged in work that resembles it.
The dilemma, then, is how to sustain creative ecologies without also sustaining the systems that decide how those ecologies are prioritised, funded, shaped, gatekept, inhabited. How do we prevent creative placemaking from being the painfully earnest reserve of the White middle-class? Of sad, boring men? How do we make sure it isn’t all a bit, well, cringe?
I want to end here with two helpful remarks made at the Stove’s kNOw One Place forum in September. First, during my very first breakout discussion, I think it was the Dumfries and Galloway-based artist Robbie Coleman – or maybe it was Langholm-based artist Sian Yeshe (like all the best chats, this was one where credit for contributions got muddled) – who suggested that one of the multiple and simultaneous roles creative practitioners can occupy in placemaking is that of image-maker: sketcher, draughter, recorder, snapshot-catcher. The idea here is that, under the right conditions, the resulting work – and, crucially, the process by which it is engaged with, produced, circulated, consumed – can call attention to just how in-flux and contestable most things are.
The political implications of this, from the perspective of perceptual shifts and consciousness building, are massive. In my interpretation of Sian or Robbie’s remark, ‘most things’ refers to those very property relations I’ve just mentioned, which both undergird and constitute capital. When the prevailing powers of any generation bend over backwards to normalise their crises, to present society as fixed, to double down on how terrible things need to be and to actively attack any proposal for a social or economic alternative, one function that might be rightfully expected of art and artmaking is for it to disrupt assumptions of stasis. Indeed, there’s a crucial bit I missed out from the opening Vijay Prashad quotation. Time for it: ‘Art dislocates our understanding of reality and creates new utopias. Our role is as the dislocators of settled consciousness.’
The second helpful remark at kNOw One Place came as an intervention during a different breakout conversation. Researcher Emma Coffield made it whenever anyone came close to saying what art is or what artists do. ‘Some art… Some artists…’ Emma’s qualifications were welcome: some artists are brilliant, but most of them are also terrifyingly human. Never mind what they produce; how can we understand and support them, through our organisational and institutional structures, as living, breathing humans? It’s not enough to simply give them opportunities.
To flip or complicate this line of questioning: how do we democratise art without de-professionalising artists? One way, I think, might be to expect no more from the art itself and to continue demanding that its processes are properly supported and funded. To repeat or expand on an earlier point, it’s only through structured collaboration that objective interests across a group of people can be revealed, intensified, made conscious, acted upon. Indeed, while art may not change the world, the people who make it can absolutely be part of the mass struggles that do.
Author note: I thank Rachael Disbury, Alchemy Film & Arts Director, for the conversations informing many of the ideas in this text.