Why am I drawing again?
A short piece about Social artworks role as visual representation. Aswell as some thoughts on being collective in 2022.
Over the last ten year, I spent my work somewhere in-between socially engaged architecture and social art in contrast to my teens or early 20s. In my teens I would often draw in an isolated individual way, normally as an escape from the harsh reality of the world, to form a world of my own.
In my mid-20s, I got absorbed in the idea that drawn images are old-fashioned, immature or somehow not progressive. Is it productive if it doesn’t have a three-dimensional, tangible and material impact? Surely artists should be out there in the community doing something?! Drawing on your own isn’t ‘social’; in many cases, drawing is antisocial. How can a person drawing or painting in a hovel or hole of chaos be anything good for society?
Artwork and commodity
The painting is associated with artwork as a commodity, which has meant it’s received relatively venomous criticism from industry workers, artistic practitioners, and peers on the left. Insecurities burden the art practitioner. There is pressure to focus on the latest performance trend; this resists any notion or potential for commodification.
As the world gets more complex, The U.K.’s Collapsing economy, war abroad, and material conditions are worsening. Growth has slowed, inflation is rampant, and energy, food scarcity, and unemployment are growing. Hostility is rising, and global industry is declining. Labour clashes, wage-price disparity, climate change, and a global housing market collapse. Food crisis. The list goes on. The artistic trends are shifting at a rapid pace in a desperate attempt to represent these changes. But how can we possibly justify creating some visual art when the world is falling apart?
Duty of care beyond representation:
Social art and architecture movements have emerged from artist communities’ desire to change this situation. The Social Art movement led the response by the artists who felt they had a duty of care for those communities that existed essentially because the local councils were inexperienced.‘The artist needs to do something!’ is the rallying call.
‘Social artists are people who use creative skills to work with people or organisations in their community to affect change. ‘Funding for arts has begun to reflect the cultural reality too. Local governments have started to lean on the shoulders of the artists as struggling public services carved with a plan to cut them completely.
So the idea is that we need to move beyond visual art alone instead, we need to create art with a transformative impact on society. Something I got behind fully, but in practice — it's not without its paradoxes.
The theory of social art stems somewhere in-between Joseph Boyes’ ideas and Niklas Luhman’s ideas of art as a social system. Boyes focussed on an array of other artists practising at the time who had an “extended definition of art” and postulated a scenario where the ideas of social sculpture could potentially reshape society and politics. Josephs’s methods were direct. With his piece of 7,000 oak trees, the artist used rocks (and his cultural capital); Beuys proposed a plan to plant 7000 oaks throughout the city of Kassel. As a result, 7000 stones piled up on the lawn in front of the Museum Fridericianum. The pile would shrink every time they planted a tree. The project, seen locally as a gesture towards green urban renewal, took five years to complete and has spread to other cities worldwide.
The idea of a commodity is more complex within this structure. However, social artists often attempt to resist commodification altogether. Although we live in a media economy. An assumption that the object is the only form of the commodity is painfully reductive. The reality is that in a services economy and a media world, entertainment is a commodity. Artists that entertain any audience in media society are making a commodity similar to an object — capitalism registers them the same.
The social art network line of reason is “The only creative response to this is radical politics as art. We understand politics not as governmental parties but as the social collection of people, where true meaningful change can generate.”
However, despite many of these artists approach art as a social system by doing non-visual work. The founder of systems theory, Niklas Luhman, argued against “this trend as an internal reaction of art against itself “. Instead, Luhman believed that imagery as art has a unique valuable reason for existence. It serves an advanced function within an already existing complex system. So the argument that artwork is non-visual is flawed because it misunderstands the system we operate. And the function of the visual within that system is valuable only because and only when it is visual.
The social architecture movement has built some momentum alongside social art. The idea is to shape the void, not the object. And work with the social processes rather than just material processes. But rather than the traditional definition of social architecture aligned with architecture historian Peter Blundell Jones — where architecture is a social science. The line between social architecture and social art has Consistently been focused on the tug of war between art and architecture, which confuses those practitioners who would like to practice architecture as a social science.
There is also a hybrid understanding of social architecture in the way it relates to socialist ideas. This is a movement that believes there is a different way to exist other than conventional spatial practice – why make expensive flats when we can enact socialism? It’s a very important proposition, and something intertwined with other conceptualizations of the social. However, social architecture being pinned to a political ideology is potentially not as powerful as being a scientific methodology – They would likely even they achieve the same thing. Equality is proven to increase the standard of living. However, social science processes have the arguments against them resolved in a more verifiable way
Artist as an unnatural person:
The 210–2020s also saw an era where of artistic collectives. But arguably there were two realities in this, artists grouping together to make work, and artists essentially creating companies. This established the era of artists as legal persons, not natural persons, this quickly spiralled out of control and created the age of the artist as a corporation. Because of the enormous efficiency advantage of working in a group and the marketing clout of being a collective. Artists are no longer compelling if they are on their own; they need to form companies to do anything remotely substantial to keep pace with the industry.
Within the framework, the artwork is indeed part of a social system. But in a way, it is explored in the social contract by jean Rousseau. By abiding by existing frameworks of company law, an artist can be made more predictable and easily controlled by the social processes of company law. Their activities are highly regulated, which means they benefit from workers’ rights and fair pay, but being a company member in late capitalism results in a predictable pattern of highly planned socioeconomic relations — for capital accumulation as the default logic. **In 2022, many Collectives are actually just companies saying they are collectives**
Collectives who are companies everywhere!
We saw a groundswell of collectives form from 2014–2022. However, the word itself being so Ill-defined, it has invariably leaned on traditional ownership models rather than any cooperative social revolution that seemed to be the initial promise or a cypher dynamic. Some collectives are groups of artists who have formed a company. What’s more, U.K. company law exists to ensure companies are centralised with single directors. As a result, CICs function as social companies rather than multi-stakeholder groups. Another only other option is to operate a lot like a multi-national conglomeration — developed by the likes of Pepsico.
Rory ridley duff, who was involved in the establishment of Community Interest Companies, outlines how this system was an intentional decision on the part of the U.K government, not something that just fell into place:
“In the government consultation on CICs, the government ignored the desire of (most) respondents (including key actors like Social Enterprise U.K. and Coops U.K.) who wanted the new legal form to promote member democracy and multi-stakeholder governance/accountability. Instead, they watered down these commitments to meet the desires of the charity sector (which did not want CIC subsidiaries to be self-managing and operated funding models based on non-profit legal models, not those that share the wealth with members).
The government eventually favoured a model that drew more on private company law and charity (community benefit) principles, which benefited both solo social entrepreneurs and charities that wanted trading arms. However, many social entrepreneurs with a history of working in the cooperative/mutual sectors were disappointed, and FairShares evolved out a series of efforts by those social entrepreneurs to create something more fit for purpose (and pragmatic) that would find favour with the co-op/mutual sector.
We always believed (and argued based on evidence) that surpluses and added value (the six forms of wealth) need to be distributable to member groups (stakeholders) to prevent the over-centralisation of power and wealth. In doing those, only part of the surplus and added value is collectivising, based on identifying the resources on which the future of the enterprise depends. Our empirical evidence for this argument came from the successes of companies like John Lewis, Gripple, and the hundreds of successfully primary and secondary cooperatives in the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation. “
Public Image Limited x 1000
The result is that an endless stream of artist collectives has been forming, within existing company structures, only to transform into traditional companies. Somewhat like John Lydon’s public image limited, which creates a centralised company to critique the establishment but without doing it without any sense of self-awareness.
The philosophical shift towards natural humans
Recently, I had a philosophical shift. I spent ten years contributing to collective projects, and I realised that within a capitalist system, no model exists currently in the UK that doesn’t fundamentally result in exploitation. If it is the users, it’s the workers; if it isn’t the workers, it’s the founders; if it isn’t the founders — it’s the investors.
So, where to go from here?
I think that more artists should feel comfortable going back to creating images.
- First, it is an essential part of social transformation and social change; artists can use the technique of image building to manifest greater leverage in a complex system. It doesn’t need to be complicated itself. In terms of social architecture, I believe that architecture should be practised wholly as social science and focus on evidence-building systems that provide the cultural framework for artistry to be hung on top.
- Secondly, any collective should take more intelligent multi-stakeholder cooperation systems seriously, not falling back on a simple company or a corporation and branding it as a collective. It would also help to establish a clear definition. What is a collective? What are its multi-stakeholder company rules? How can we make real progress?
- Thirdly, I think it’s ok to do artwork alone sometimes, even often. As a natural person means not being unnatural. Engaging in a collective in the same way a rapper engages in a cypher, being yourself and not watering down your own vision or your own style. In both company law and philosophical terms, this is what it means to be yourself.