Art and Social Transformation:Challenges to the Discourse and Practice of Human Development, 2-3

Art and Social TransformationChallenges to the Discourse and Practice of Human Development, two of three
Dr.John Clammer(
United Nations University, Professor )

The second is to reflect, record or symbolize, often in indirect but nevertheless unmistakable forms, the fundamental existential issues built into being human – suffering, mortality, death, belief, embodiment, sexuality, strangeness, curiosity, fear, our relationship to nature and our desire to represent in some physical form our current and cultural perceptions of the world around us and its varied inhabitants, and our ideas of divinity. These dimensions of human society, suppressed in all but the most marginalized forms of social science, are in fact the animating forces of life, or indeed themselves constitute life and the failure to fully acknowledge them is the major weakness of most mainstream sociology (Clammer 2009). This failure has meant that other forms of cultural engagement, and specifically art and religion, are the spaces in which confrontation with these fundamental characteristics of existence that largely defy deconstruction occur.

The third is the real but again indirect relationship between ethics and aesthetics, between truth and beauty. In contemporary analytical social science, the two are of course unrelated. So called “development” for example is “successful” if it brings about economic and material growth, even at the expense of immense ugliness, destruction of natural beauty and devastated landscapes and cityscapes, all issues thought to be peripheral to real “progress”. Even as the emerging field of eco-psychology has clearly showed that prolonged lack of exposure to nature is a source of stress, neurosis and violence, so too lack of exposure to beauty is exhausting and causes similar mental and behavioral problems and the extent to which art therapy is now prescribed as a remedy for such ills points clearly to the role of art as an essential part of human psychic make-up, which in turn has ethical implications: to impose ugliness and lack of form on any natural environment or humanscape is to do violence, not only symbolic violence, but also to create the conditions for many forms of behavioral disorder, crime and alienation. Perhaps the only major sociologist to note this or to draw professional attention to it, Michel Maffesoli, has indeed argued that aesthetics and ethics form a seamless web, the ignoring of which has serious if as yet uncharted social consequences, pursued almost nowhere except perhaps in media studies in the context of the social and behavioral effects of violence on television (Maffesoli 1990). We equally know from many art forms (architecture, portraiture and interior decoration being amongst the major ones) that art and politics are also closely connected – especially via the process of what William Coaldrake calls the “psychology of architectural intimidation” (Coaldrake 1996: 138-162) seen not only, as in his own case study of Japanese castle architecture and interior spaces, but also in colonial and postcolonial city planning – the geometry of New Delhi compared with the organic sprawl of old Delhi, or the remaking of Jakarta when it became the new capital of independent Indonesia (Kusno 2000).
The fourth, and by no means the least, is the search for fullness, wholeness or a sense of harmony and completion that appears to be characteristic of all human cultures, the arts being the primary location of this search. The deep sense of the connectedness of things at some primary level also links art again with religion (Wuthnow 2001) and it is significant that religious art constitutes one of the major genres of artistic and architectural production in almost every culture. An aesthetics is consequently not just a theory of art – it is also a means for positing the connections that are already assumed to exist and which are widely intuitively assumed to constitute a wholeness beyond or disguised by fragmentation and the fracturing of reality that is so much part of the experience of everyday life (Bauman 1995). Art then not only requires a hermeneutics, it is itself a hermeneutics: a mode of understanding, of grasping the world and of relating human life to that larger cosmos in a non-discursive mode of Being-in-the –world, a making concrete our dreams and our dream of the other, of expressing feeling and emotion, a mode of knowing through the body, and a constantly utopian project in which imagination not reason is paramount and in which a vocabulary of colour and form provides the “language”. Art then shapes the apparent chaos – it is the “strange attractor” of chaos theory (Eve, Horsfall and Lee 1997, Jackson 2004) and is an end in itself and of itself quite beyond the teleological tendencies of most concepts of development or of social change.
Given these characteristics of art, the significant links between art and social theory should begin to become apparent. These connections have often been occluded by the fact that many social theorists have quite wrongly assumed that the only possible sociological models of art are reductionist ones, and in the light of this (false) assumption have argued that such models are totally inadequate for explaining the real complexity of art (e.g. Heywood 1997). But in fact these very models represent simply the self-imposed limitations of much conventional sociology and in no way exhaust the possibilities of approaching art sociologically or of asking meaningful questions about the social and cultural role of art that go beyond the standard ‘art worlds’ textbook kind of approach.
There are in fact a large number of interfaces and interpenetrations between art and social theory and we will now briefly enumerate and discuss these.

Art and Social Theory
Older models of art and social theory largely saw the issue as being one of explanation – of understanding art as a product of particular social relationships and conditions. Such models on the whole are or were in their strong form concerned with causality, or in their weaker forms concerned with interdependence between art and society. Such relatively primitive models overlook the subtle nature of art/society relationships, in part because they work with a dualistic model that sees the two as separate rather than as integral aspects of each other. In reality art works, or can work when given the chance, at many levels of cultural formation. These include, in a very summary form, the expression of agency, including the agency of relatively subordinated or excluded groups, as a primary means of mapping boundaries between humans and the rest of nature and between and within socio-cultural groups themselves, as a way of conceptualizing notions of space and place and of expressing them back in culturally appropriate ways (architecture or landscape painting for example), as one of the few ways other than pornography of expressing the erotics of culture, of providing one of the main vehicles for the expression of identity, of selfhood, in many cases of individuality and of subjectivities as an important if neglected aspect of performativity, and as the embodiment and expression of a culture’s view of beauty and its corollary, ideas of what is ugly or strange. The latter point is to some extent captured not in sociology, but in art history where the notion of art movements very much occurs, but usually in relation to stylistic developments within artistic cultures rather than as a sociology of social movements. The literature that attempts to link art movements to the idea of social movements is weak, although discussions of some of the more prominent examples, for example the Bauhaus or surrealism, do attempt to understand them as socio-political as well as ‘artistic’ in a narrow sense (Lucie-Smith 1995), and a few attempts have been made from the sociological side to understand social movements themselves as having a strongly expressive quality (Hetherington 1998). Art in fact moves social theory beyond epistemology to ontology.
Sociologically art movements in particular constitute both expressive organizations and emotional communities. In fact, although rarely linked to the ideas coming from critical theory and its successors, art represents a paradigm case of the communicative action of which Habermas speaks. It also points to two of the most neglected dimensions of social theory – the emotions and the erotics of culture – both of which art directly addresses but not through discursive and analytical means, but through direct or symbolic manifestations. In societies in which art (except for propaganda) is suppressed, the emotional and erotic lives of its citizens suffer – one thinks of the cultural revolution period China for example or contemporary North Korea. Art then has an essential cultural role and implicitly poses a critique of existing social and cultural orders, hence the hostility with which it is treated in most authoritarian societies. If we can and do have a moral critique of society, we can also have an aesthetic one. This suggests not an aesthetic of self indulgence, but a critical aesthetics or what might be termed a social aesthetics. In the Asian traditions, aesthetics is never far from politics: in Confucianism for example self-cultivation is a primary ethical responsibility, not from egoistic motives, but in the context of responsibility to kin and community.
The central problem for theories of social transformation, including ideas of “development” is that of creatively conceiving of future societies that do not simply reproduce the negative dimensions of the current ones, including their highly damaging ecological impact. How for example to imagine a just future society or a pattern of development that does not simply produce more consumers, greed, environmental destruction, class and gender inequality, racism? Is our utopia simply a version of the present world in which we are all bourgeois? This is of course where a critical view of culture is necessary and one in which art plays a central role. For art is paradoxical in terms of its cultural location – both a part of culture and a subversion of conventional culture. If Zygmunt Bauman is correct in his argument that the outcome of modernity was the Holocaust (Bauman 1999), then it is indeed our very civilization that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe, but perhaps this time an ecological Holocaust. If this is the case, then a self-congratulatory view of culture is invalid – it is our very culture and the values that constitute it that is the root of our problems and a constantly critical view is necessary. But so is a reconstructive one since critique alone simply leads to a negativity if nothing new is put in its place. This is where the paradoxical role of art becomes a highly positive one – as both the subversive questioning of the status quo and as the formulation of alternative visions.
Art in its various manifestations then becomes (especially in a “post-religious” and even “post-materialist” social environment) the primary means of recolonizing the life world that has been invaded by bureaucratization, consumption, technology, corruption and misinformation and the negative aspects of homogenizing globalization (Starr 2009). It is the means of restoring culture, reinventing culture, discovering or inventing new forms of sociality, autonomy, empowerment and expression. For what do we actually want from our society and culture? The answers would suggest a range of elements including freedom, autonomy, self-expression and self-fulfilment, the opportunity to be creative, to detect meaning in one’s activities, to find a life-style that suits one’s inner predilictions, to establish emotionally satisfactory relationships, to experience a reasonable level of social justice, to have contact with nature and to have the freedom to be able to organize these elements into a holistic world view that constitutes what we might term “spirituality”, whether this takes the form of an organized religion or a more diffused form. Many of these elements correspond closely to what in an older approach were termed “human needs”, and while shelter, clothing and adequate food are a very important part of these, the “cultural needs” in fact appear very high on almost every list of existential desiderata. Involved here in fact is a whole philosophical anthropology – a notion of what really constitutes the human being and our place in nature, and also indicate why art is itself so often the site of cultural struggles. Clearly a variety of models of the human being exist, but what a great deal of art and of poetry in particular point most persuasively towards is a notion of the human self close to what the Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy has termed the “ecological self” – a notion of the human person not as an atomistic individual (a view in any case not only disputed by social psychology and almost all Indian, Japanese and Chinese social thought and philosophy) but as an identity intimately linked with nature, with other human beings and indeed with the whole cosmos- a relational view of the self that understands the human being as an open system, as evolving and developing and as not only searching for pre-ordained patterns in the universe, but also as an active participant in creating those very patterns. Creativity takes many forms, but evidently art, in its many manifestations, is one of its primary cultural modes and one mysteriously providing amongst the deepest psychological and spiritual satisfactions (Cameron 1995).

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