Art and Social Transformation: Challenges to the Discourse and Practice of Human Development, 1-3

Art and Social Transformation:
Challenges to the Discourse and Practice of Human Development , one of three

Dr.John Clammer(United Nations University, Professor )

Central to current debates in cultural and social theory are the questions on the one hand of the relationship between culture and development, and on the other between culture and globalization. The two are in fact closely related: many would see globalization either as development (towards a unified and integrated world system), or as the latest and highest stage of colonialism. These debates raise a host of issues, but here I would identify simply two – one a rather obvious one and the other a less obvious but fundamental corollary of the first. The first is that in the many discussions on the two debates (for example on development see Schech and Haggis 2000, and on globalization Friedman 1996, Appadurai 1996 and Tomlinson 2000), actual examples or manifestations of real culture (literature, theatre, film, dance, art, design, architecture, fashion, body decoration, sport, music) are almost entirely absent, the space of ‘culture’ being almost entirely occupied by ethnicity, gender, social exclusion and debates on multiculturalism. The paradoxical result is that, while we are intuitively convinced of the important role of culture in both development and globalization, cultural studies and the sociology of culture have given us little evidence of their actual role, largely because concrete manifestations of culture are rarely cited and a level of abstraction dominates discussion such that any number of ideological or theoretical positions are deducible from the vagueness of the arguments: does culture retard “development” (usually seen as something entirely separate from culture, as in the old modernization theory of social change), or does it promote it? Does globalization destroy cultures or does it, through the dialectical mechanism of promoting localism, create cultural modes of resistance to its homogenizing tendencies, or does it indeed create entirely new hybrid cultures of its own? Very little can really be said authoritatively, because we have so few empirical cases to go on.
Important as this first level of debate is, it points to what I think is a much deeper and even more interesting theoretical question. I have argued elsewhere (Clammer 2005) that at the very moment culture is reentering in a very central way debates about (in that particular case) development, those who specialize in the study of culture are losing confidence in the possibility of even defining culture, let alone using it in any useful way to cast light on these practical debates (e.g. Fox and King 2002). This is not I think a merely semantic debate: it signals a deeper philosophical issue, notably whether in an intellectual environment still, despite the inroads of postmodernism, in practice dominated by an empiricist and positivist scientific method, culture simply signifies an epiphenomenon of economic and technocratic forces (the “real” forces that shape the world), or whether it in fact it collectively constitutes a body not only of practices (which it clearly does), but more significantly of knowledge?
It is perhaps significant that the various branches of cultural sociology – for example the sociology of art or of literature, occupy a lowly place in the hierarchy of sociological knowledge, and are not even taught at all in many major university departments. It is true that the various sociologies of everyday life emerging on the one hand from ethnomethodology and its related methodologies, and on the other from the rise in interest in popular culture originating in large part in the work of Stuart Hall and the other members of the Birmingham school of cultural studies (although there are older traditions that were themselves largely marginalized in mainstream academia such as folklore studies, local history and the work of the longstanding US journal the Journal of Popular Culture), have had a significant impact. But in the case of the Birmingham school, much of the interest was not in culture per se, but in the culture of class and ethnic differences, i.e. culture as a signaler of inequalities. While sub-cultures were of interest here, and their expression in popular music, little if anything was said about other cultural forms such as art. There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with such a noble intent, but as with much sociology, it occludes the underlying philosophical issues, and it is these that I would like to bring to light here. My central argument can be stated quite simply: that culture, understood not as an abstract category, but in its concrete manifestations, challenges the boundaries of what can be considered social theory and also the boundaries of what can be considered as knowledge.
To date in sociology, the speciality that has been most concerned with these questions has been, interestingly, the sociology of religion, perhaps inevitably as the study of religion immediately questions what can be considered empirical. The study of ordinary religious practice, let alone of mysticism, confronts the mundane social world with the extraordinary, and while the tendency has been in sociology to attempt to absorb the study of religion into a “scientific” model, it in fact always escapes these categories and continues to pose by its very existence the existential and epistemological problems that sociology on the whole tries so assiduously to avoid. Here I will argue that the sociology of culture, and specifically the sociology of art, raises similar questions, which must be pursued if sociology is to break out of its own self-imposed theoretical and methodological limitations. The consequence of breaking out from these categories is, I will also argue, not merely a theoretical one: it points the ways to refreshing and non-economistic forms of human liberation and fulfillment.

If one looks at the (few) standard texts in the sociology of (almost invariably Western) art, one finds a pretty standard set of issues presented for the reader to contemplate: the relationship between art and society, often as reflected in the very little writing on this subject by the classical sociologists, the process of cultural production such as the art world, the music industry, networks, reception and audience studies, artistic careers, museums and galleries, artistic entrepreneurship, the social status of artists, critics, and debates about the distinctions between “fine arts” and crafts or folk art (e.g. Alexander 2003, Tanner 2003). Almost always these debates are framed with the assumption that Western art is the norm (for a significant exception see Bundgaard 1999) although this is much less true of visual anthropology/anthropology of art than it is of sociology), and that the institutional practices that dominate that world are the standard practices internationally and cross culturally. Again the idea that art might constitute a form of social knowledge opposed to or undermining conventional empiricist knowledge is not an issue. Here I will suggest that it is and that the transformative implications of this are great.

The Old “What is Art” Debate

Throughout the history of self-conscious debates on the nature of art two questions have consistently arisen. The first is the perennial question of what is art? and its many derivatives such as debates within anthropology and museum studies as to whether the art of pre-literate peoples can be considered as art at all, or whether the objects so classified or regarded both by western artists and museum curators are in fact ritual or religious objects belonging to an entirely different category of use and intention. In the context of contemporary art of course the same debate continues – as to whether found objects, installations, videos or environmental art for example can be considered as “art”. This I would suggest, on Wittengensteinian grounds, is a largely fruitless discussion reflecting as it does necessarily shifting standards of taste, subjectivities, and sectional and class interests. The more useful question to ask rather is what these objects do – i.e. how they are incorporated into or challenge particular systems of representation which are themselves embedded in particular social systems and widely accepted cultural norms. The second question is whether art, once some acceptable definition has been found, contributes in any way to social and cultural transformation, or is alternatively a permanently peripheral activity mostly useful for its decorative or leisure functions, good at reflecting certain prevailing cultural or political norms (for example in portraiture), but with little in the way of a central social significance. This latter, alternative, view does seem to be the one implicitly accepted by most sociologists who, although they in private life may well consume or even if rarely produce works of art, have banished it to the edges of the discipline – hence its underrepresentation in departmental curricula and the colonization of many of its dimensions in programmes in media studies and the like. Here I will initially suggest a rather different view of the socio-cultural role of art (understood in this particular context as primarily the visual arts, but the argument can be extended to other forms), and suggest that this view of the arts points to a fresh understanding of their potential role in social transformation. If one at least partially accepts the argument that the roots of our present environmental and related crises is in the form of civilization that we have developed that has itself largely caused these problems, then we are left with the very real challenge of conceiving of and expressing a different form of civilization, in which it is likely that the arts would play a central role.
The sterile question of ‘what is art’ then is better replaced by the question of what art does. Apart from its role as a natural expression of human creativity (children almost always spontaneously produce art), it clearly has four major functions. The first of these is to create new imaginative spaces – to provide in fact the same role that Bakhtin (1981) ascribes to the novel – “Now Bakhtin has taught us that the novel is an unfinished genre, the genre of becoming, without finality, without definite form, in an ongoing interplay with other forms of discourse as well as with societal developments, continuously challenging discursive formations, revealing their limits, their artificial constraints, and inviting us to surpass them” (Maier 1996: 149) – and which indeed , when successful, can like all great art take us into the “great time” – a time outside of ordinary time, an imaginary space perhaps closer to the dream than to the mundane and quotidian.

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