Anonymous: A chasm of carelessness

As Claes Oldenburg once wrote, “I am for the art of conversation between the sidewalk and a blind-man’s metal stick”.

The practice of constructing dialogues around the everyday, with a wide variety of people in diverse situations is not art made by committee, but an alchemical process that attempts to generate something fresh, critical and enlightening from the raw material of people’s lives and experiences. This kind of approach is neither quick or easy, nor does it come cheap.

I have lost count of the number of organisations who promote their own integrity, whilst simultaneously asking artists to deliver substantial public outcomes in absurdly short time frames. The quantity of time spent developing this type of work is often in direct proportion to the quality of the outcome. In a socially engaged process the many anxieties, agendas and revelations that emerge during a collaborative enquiry require an approach that navigates through the issues with sensitivity, to create a rhythm that suits the specificity of the work and the people involved. A failure to do this means that participants feel pushed towards simplistic outcomes and have no real attachment to the work; they simply become fodder for the quick-fix, tick-box culture that feeds the parasitic hunger of the commissioning agencies who work with user groups from targeted demographics, in ways which are often shoddy and solipsistic.

When art comes in the form of an engagement with other people’s lives, then the ability to make oneself vulnerable to these dialogues is imperative. A socially engaged artist is an active listener who is able to create an environment of trust, to expand and support complex and sometimes intimate conversations. In addition to the time it takes, there is an emotional toll on the artist who is effectively at the front line of the work; yet I see a continual failure, or refusal, of those employed on the hierarchical ladder of commissioning, funding, producing and educating to acknowledge this.

Many art practices operate within a service-based economy, which neither acknowledges or remunerates the complexities of such emotional exchange. These projects and the artists that facilitate them are seldom adequately supported. In a typical example of this approach, after over a year of unpaid pre-project meetings to establish a long-term enquiry with asylum seekers, I was then asked to suddenly ‘turn around’ the work in just eight weeks. Following an Arts Council England (ACE) review, the commissioning organisation changed their mind about where they wanted to focus their resources, despite the fact that I had already spent time working with a number of groups as part of the research and development process. These refugees spoke little or no English and included one participant who could talk only of the four children she had recently lost in a war zone. I am not discrediting the aim or good intention of this original commission, just stressing the absurd ambition in proposing that high quality, complex and meaningful art can be made within such time restrictions. Once a commitment has been made it should be properly followed through.

Encountering the often disturbing realities of some peoples lives can be immensely draining; I am not interested in being a therapist to the people I encounter, but I do recognise that whilst projects of this kind can offer a catharsis for participants, who protects us, the artists who seek to make this work?

It’s time for producers and curators to stop and listen; there is an emotional labour to this work, which requires a need to be utterly open and honest with one’s intentions within the experience of the exchange. This way of working presents emotional challenges for even the most skilled and experienced practitioner and yet in twenty years I have only twice been offered counselling by insightful commissioners. There is a shameful lack of engagement and a greedy need for quick and easy outcomes amidst what is often a hostile and complex emotional terrain.

No-one wants to meet the real cost of this work and it feels strange to suggest that artists and producers who work in socially engaged practice should be compensated or accommodated in some way for their emotional labour. The suggestion that compassion can be bought and sold is both worrying and offensive, but that doesn’t mean the agenda to privatise our humanity isn’t already in motion. There’s an assumption that we do the ‘extra’ work because we like it and we choose it – while this may be true, this assumption cleverly sweeps the lack of investment in the broader social support network under the carpet. A seemingly altruistic financial investment in socially immersed art practices diverts attention away from the cuts to community services – cuts to youth services, to art education in schools, to healthcare and social services, to the closing refugee centres, to all those who professionally care. Shouldn’t artists be operating in partnership with, rather than replacing these vital services? There is a growing chasm of carelessness in our society, where artists are becoming another category of victim within a system that is at its best lacking in a clear ideology and at its worst is abusive.

In the process of this engineered erosion, money is being diverted into tokenistic art interventions that sit, inadequately supported, amidst a barrage of social ills. Many galleries and arts organisations are reluctant to invest in longer-term strategies as they are driven to fulfil their funding requirements.

The consequences of this deficiency in truly recognising the value and impact of art in relation to time and support, adds to the weight of the artists’ emotional labour. Whilst socially engaged artists might skilfully navigate their way through the difficult personal stories and situations that emerge through their practice, they are continually faced with the brutal reality of the challenging contexts in which they work, which simply fail to recognise, remunerate or value what is actually going on.

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.

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