2. August 2007 | Art

From Elite to Movement

von Sacha Kagan. Lüneburg (D)

Art is part of the social order, when it closes itself self-referentially, gives in to political forces or escapes reality. What does art look like, when it contributes to transforming society?

Lesezeit 9 Minuten

I have always had this irrepressible feeling that the arts can contribute to making the world “a better place”, as in Ben Harper’s song. I have been socialized with this belief, by a family made exclusively of people involved “von Kopf bis Fuß” in the arts. I am however aware of the risk of taking this assumption (the arts can change the world) for granted. I know how easily one can please oneself and others through the usual art-evangelism that preaches the converted and soon leads to acute symptoms of autistic, self-assured behavior by art insiders. I have seen countless number of artists and cultural activists who satisfy themselves with the a priori belief that their art projects are really “making a difference” without further questioning of the possible limitations, ambiguities and perversities of their work. I have therefore decided some months ago to embark on a PhD research through which I am further looking into the discourses and practices of artists with regards to social change towards ‚cultures of sustainability‘. A bit like a cartographer of art worlds, I intend to map the roads of social conventions, from the ideological highways to the secondary roads of alternative arts practices. And of course, as any single cartographer, I cannot expect to deliver the whole map immediately, nor to draw all by myself the definitive map. Therefore, the following lines will only give very incomplete glimpses of the perspectives for art as factor of social change. 

Beyond the happy moods (as in Ben Harper’s song) and the established convictions that are being constantly fueled by self-satisfied artistic discourses, in a number of concrete instances I have seen indeed how much potential for social change there can be in an artistic activity: For example, the arts can provide increased opportunities for exploration, for confrontation, for questioning the taboos of a society… More concretely, what is especially attractive about the art worlds in this dimension is that they seem to offer more space for their members to engage in difficult, conflict-laden issues and to elaborate provocative statements. This was illustrated most acutely in numerous scandals in the USA through the 1990’s. While the mainstream media were turning more conservative (both politically and religiously), the so-called “culture wars” erupted with a number of exhibitions involving art museums, history museums, artists, politicians, journalists and others. Without getting into the details of the many episodes of these culture wars (one can refer to Steven Dubin’s well-documented books Arresting images: impolitic art and uncivil actions, and Displays of power: Controversy in the American museum from Enola Gay to Sensation), I will go straight to a striking observation that stands out of these events: While most social institutions were giving in to the pressures from powerful conservative forces of US-American society (i.e. most often from conservative religious institutions and Republican party organizations and media), some artists and art organizations remained on the frontline of social criticism. While the Smithsonian Institution was retreating from its initial attempts at a critical reappraisal of American history propaganda (as in the case of the canceled “Enola Gay” exhibition about the US atomic bombs dropped on Japan)… while the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) was being reined in by the US Congress… a number of artists did continue to pose a resistance through the 1990’s to the violent reinforcement of a mainstream moral order. 

This kind of relatively greater space for taking risks and for experimenting that the arts often allow in our societies (which is also something I personally experienced again and again by comparison to other fields of social life, whether in public or private non-art institutions, even in otherwise ‚cultural‘ institutions), do confirm that the arts can function as a change factor for society. However, too often the effective change-potential of the arts turns out to be a fallacy. The positive feelings we may all entertain about the arts and artists of today and the encouraging anecdotal observations should not prevent us from facing some less enthusiasting realities of the art worlds. At the very least, the pinpointing of fallacies, false promises, traps… in short, the identification of Fata Morgana and “Milchmädchenrechnungen” in the arts is a necessary preliminary step to an engagement in art for social change. 

But why would the art world function as a “miroir aux alouettes”?

The primary dimension of the arts as order factor rather than change factor, is its ‚autopoiesis‘ that results from the institutionalization of the ‚high arts‘. Studied by sociologists (Paul DiMaggio, Pierre Bourdieu) as well as historians (Lawrence Levine) and economists (Hans Abbing), this institutionalization process established (across the late 19th and the 20th century) the field of art as an apart social world with separate laws, insiders values and discourses. This world of the ‚high arts‘, while proclaimed as ‚autonomous‘, was put on a pedestal that allowed its distinguished consumers and practitioners to set themselves apart from other social groups and impose upon them a symbolic violence fueled by their cultural capital. The institutionalized autonomy of the high arts increasingly turned into a concern for ‚art for art’s sake‘, i.e. the art worlds became much more interested in their  own internal self-referentiality than in their relationships with their environments. The art worlds have come to enact, in most instances, an example of what Davide Brocchi defines as a closed culture, i.e. a culture that aims to adapt the environment to the system rather than the opposite.

Unfortunately, major social critics of the industrial society such as Adorno contributed to the very process of autonomization-specialization of the high arts that sterilized the potentials of the arts for social change towards cultures of sustainability. As a consequence, practices such as community arts have been often looked down upon and the bulk of new developments in the arts and public subsidies for the arts have been oriented to the ‚high autonomous arts‘ across most of the 20th century in Western Europe. 

The arts have also thereby become a hyper-specialized professional field of activity, which as other professions, is contributing to the fragmentation of socially constructed reality under the reign of the formal rationality of the technological system (cf. Jacques Ellul, Max Weber, Martin Heidegger). The seemingly liberating autonomy of the art worlds offers merely an escapist strategy as long as one contributes to the inwards-looking activities of a social world largely disregarding its environment.  In such a case, the provision of this autonomous world of art in our societies functions more as a safety valve for the technological system than as a change factor: Releasing the steam of those forces and values beyond formal rationality that cannot accommodate the mainstream cultural order, the art worlds turn potentially radical change agents into agents of social order: Indeed, the potential social critique and social change practice, as long as it limits itself to an autonomous art world, cripples and sterilizes itself. It allows itself to play in the sandbox.  And this is of course a more comfortable strategy. 

In the context of the autopoietic art world, many concerns for social change are  thus superficial, when they are not faked. Trapped in an intellectually enjoyable sandbox that turns out to be a golden ghetto, a great number of artists, probably the vast majority, remains satisfied with mirages, fata morgana of social change. 

The structures of institutionalization of autonomy in the art worlds have to be questioned, in order for the artists to become more than Don Quixotes of a postmodern or late-modern era… The degree of reflexivity that is required has to reach unprecedented levels, because it must extend beyond the reach of one’s art world and attain a systemic understanding of relationships between our hyper-specialized contemporary social worlds, in order to reconnect society. 

I am thus advocating for what I earlier labeled as a “double entrepreneurship in conventions” (in a paper at the 2005 conference of the European Sociological Association in Torun, Poland) on the part of the artist and art activist. 

What is ‚entrepreneurship in conventions‘? I do not believe that individuals have the power to shape their lifes as monadic individuals. However, thanks to a reflexive process (as already advocated by the artist Hans Haacke in a published conversation with Pierre Bourdieu: Libres echanges) the individuals can become aware of their complex socializations and of the social ‚conventions‘ under which they are living (i.e. the rules constituting and structuring their practices and habits on the one hand as well as their values, rationalities and beliefs on the other hand). The entrepreneurship in conventions is a process (conscious, but also with important subconscious elements) of unveiling of conventions and of experimentation of alternatives. It is an entrepreneurial process because it requires alliances of engaged individuals who deconstruct given social conventions, bring in alternative conventions and practice these alternatives in a convincing way. The importance of rhetoric, authority and legitimacy  should not be underestimated. Nor should we believe that this process is fully conscious and strategic. 

But why double entrepreneurship? Because the challenge is doubled for the member of an art world: The advantages of experimenting social change thanks to the special regime of the art worlds should be combined with the advantage of implementing and advocating social change across a diversity of social fields, and not only within the sandbox. The challenge of finding the rhetoric, authority and legitimacy to convince people outside the art world is combined with the  challenge of finding the rhetoric, authority and legitimacy to convince people inside the art world: Indeed, the loss of the recognition of one’s activity as “art” can lead to severe limitations to one’s room for play. The challenge is thus to become serious players of social change who effectively cross the boundaries of their sandbox. Some success stories have already established that it is possible to achieve a degree of double entrepreneurship in conventions, as the cases of the Austrian art group Wochenklausur and of the Dutch artists Jeanne van Heeswijk and Rini Biemans show.

The double entrepreneurship implies also a different way to look at the artistic activity within the art world: For example, collectives of art producers cannot ignore the issue of authority configurations within their group, i.e. what I labeled (in a paper at the 2006 STP&A conference, i.e. Social Theory, Politics and the Arts) as the “polity conventions” in art worlds… This question also involves the aesthetic canons which are not separate from the social settings of the artistic work. Unlike what some artists (and others) think, there is not ‚the form‘ on one side and ‚the contents‘ and ‚the political‘ on another side. For example, the polity conventions of post-modern dance, with its horizontal exchanges without hierarchy (the dancers are at the same level as the choreographer), are radically different from the  submission to the central authority of the choreographer and the hierarchy of dancers in classical dance. Classical dance is characterized by  standardization and codification of the canon (i.e. quality conventions) with a disciplinary appeal to technical virtuosity and a focus on the production of frontal and symmetrical performances for a traditionally passive and sitting audience. Classical dance  strives for a standardized body, does everything to hide conflicts under an idyllic consensual image and moves as far as possible from any affiliation to the earthly body of everyday life in its search for purity and lightness. Classical dance exhales an aesthetic of conservative social order. On the contrary, postmodern dance “accepts and values individual differences in the bodies of dancers as well as everyday movements (e.g. walking) and earthly imperfection (e.g. falling). It pursues improvisation, spontaneity and experimentation and explores conflicts (e.g. contact-improvisation). Moreover, post-modern dance interacts with other art forms, integrates non-dancers and moves away from the halls, into new spaces (e.g. the streets) where interaction with the audience is sought. Trough the contrast of classical and post-modern dance, it becomes clear that the polity conventions of an art world have far reaching consequences both in terms of the art-historical and of the broader social significance of that art world.” [1] 

Finally, another challenge related to the double entrepreneurship, and more generally related to the issue of autopoiesis, is the question of autonomy. Some artist like for example Michel Chevalier in Hamburg, reject altogether the concept of autonomy and prefer to use the term “alternative” for their own work. The issue is however not about the ‚abolition‘ of any form of autonomy. It is about finding ways away from autopoiesis as an institutionalized order of autonomy and towards “ecopoiesis” (as advocated by David Haley) and “auto-eco-organization” (cf. Edgar Morin). In auto-eco-organization, autonomy is indeed a relationship of interdependence rather than one of independence: Only the intense reflexivity about social, economic and political processes of determination and only the confrontation of the awareness of one’s social dispositions with concrete issues of social-ecological injustices (that cannot be addressed simply within the sandbox) can allow one’s proclaimed ‚autonomy‘ to acquire a potency for social change. 

© Sacha Kagan, 02.08.2007


Sacha Kagan

Wissenschftlicher Mitarbeiter an der Leuphana Universitaet Lueneburg, Fak. 1, Kulturvermittlung und Kulturorganisation



[1] Sacha Kagan and Hans Abbing, Polity Conventions in Art Worlds / Art as politics: Authority and contestation in the art world as polity”, paper at the 2006 STP&A conference, Vienna, available here

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