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Keynote speaker Dr. Anthony Downey being introduced by Create director Sarah Tuck. Art and Civil Society Symposium.

Keynote address
Create and Voluntary Arts Ireland, Arts and Civil Society Symposium 20/21 October 2011

Dr Anthony Downey
Programme Director of the M.A. course in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London


"For the Common Good? The Politics and Ethics of Co-opting Civil Society into Contemporary Collaborative Practices"

[What follows is a precis of the keynote given by Dr. Anthony Downey at the Arts and Civil Society Symposium. The full script will be uploaded in the new year]

In the last decade we have seen a twofold development in the arts: an ascendant pattern of collaborative and participative practices that has in turn brought with it a shift away from terms such as gallery visitors, spectators, and viewers to ideals such as participant, collaborator, active audience and, in some cases, protagonists.

To date, participative and collaborative practices — in their co-option of the institutions of civil society — have been given a corroborative status within the context of museums and cultural institutions: they “include” the civic sphere and provide “access” to institutional contexts and in so doing fulfill funding and other less tangible requirements.

The initial point I would make is therefore somewhat obvious: recent cuts in social welfare services —throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland — and the opportunistic withdrawal of corporate sponsorship have brought with them the attendant ideal that civil society will step into the breach left by those cuts and, in turn, make good any shortfall in public funding and social cohesion.

For the purpose of my argument, civil society is understood here as a nexus of community-based and community-organized activity that is not undertaken by either government or commercial, for-profit businesses — the very same sphere of community-based organizations, that is to observe,  that have played a substantive role in the development and continued success of collaborative and particapative-based art practices.

What is less explored, however, is the extent to which collaborative-based practices, in their engagement with the institutions of civil society, further ameliorate shortfalls in government spending by providing “services” to the community and, thereafter, enable forms of neoliberal-inclined devolution whereby responsibility for social welfare and the commonweal is transferred from governments to communities — the latter being often both underfunded and ill-equipped to deal successfully with such a transition.

Collaborative and participative-based practices that unquestioningly co-opt the institutions of civil society can and in some cases do produce forms of cultural welfarism that merely bolsters the ambitions of neo-liberalism. In the many instances where funding has been accepted for a community-based project that will provide a drop-in centre for immigrants (for example), or a community centre, or a learning centre for disadvantaged adults, there is a concomitant need to examine whether collaborative practices are in effect facilitating the ultimate goal of neo-liberalism in relation to cultural policy: the instrumentalization of culture so that it answers to the priorities of government policies and market-led forces?
To this we must note how, in contemporary debates about collaboration and participation we find  significant analogies with neo-liberal ideals such as communalism, inclusivity, dialogue, voluntarism, the so-called “Big Society”, and forms of social cohesion. These neo-liberal ideals are predicated upon a form of “moral communalism”  that professes ethical absolutism and political consensus as models of community. 

The forms of “moral communalism’” that underwrite neo-liberal agendas — and, potentially, collaborative practices that engage civil society — are, I would further propose, underwritten by an ideological form of ethical absolutism that we find in contemporary critical approaches to such practices.  Which brings us to the further issue of how critical responses to these practices and their engagement with civil society are now also part of a broader heuristic conundrum.

The underlying concern here is that collaborative practices, government funding for culture, and art criticism combine, consciously or not, to effect a consensus-based response to collaborative practices and the neo-liberal goal of further abnegating the role of government in favour of corporate and private sponsorship.

The question that remains is therefore relatively simple: do collaborative and participative-based practices originate in the increasingly ascendant forms of moral communalism and ethical absolutism that anchor neo-liberal social policies or do they, conversely, question precisely such an ascendancy and offer alternatives? And, moreover, how are we to develop a form of critical analysis that avoids simplistic ethical pronouncements in favour of a more radical take on what have become institutionalized practices and policies.

Finally, art practices, specifically collaborative and participative-based practices (alongside ciritcal responses to them), are uniquely positioned to interrogatively address key concerns and current debates concerning the politics of resistance and the ethics of community.  Insofar as they can expose the moral consensuality and ideological forms of normative ethics at the heart of neo-liberalist policies, such practices need, I would argue in conclusion, to  do more than merely mirror such gestures or, indeed, capitalize upon them?

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