Art, Design and the ‘Next’ Society

Professor Declan McGonagle, College of Art Association Conference, New York

In 2001, in an article in The Economist magazine [London], the socio-economist writer, Peter Drucker wrote,

The new economy may or may not materialise but there is no doubt that the next society will be with us shortly. In the developed world and, probably, in emerging countries as well, this new society will be a good deal more important than the new economy [if any]. It will be quite different from the society of the late 20th century, and also different from what most people expect. Much of it will be unprecedented. And most of it is already here or is rapidly emerging.”

Also, at the start of the new millennium, in an abstract for a conference paper in 2000, lecturer, Edward Bird [University of Wolverhampton, UK] argued that art and design, as forms of studio based learning, remained weak in the education system [and, therefore, as I would argue, in society], because of its slowness or unwillingness or inability to take on the research agenda, continuing to see undergraduate provision as an end in itself.

Many things have changed considerably since 2000 and 2001 but it is clearly still the case that art and design, as a sector, remains weak, in societal terms, relative to other lab/studio based learning and, as a result, is vulnerable to the sort of reductive thinking represented by the ‘attack’ on Fine Art provision in the education system which should be understood, not just as an attack on a certain kind of  practice, but an attack on a certain kind of thinking. The ‘attack’ is not confined to any one country.

I cite Drucker, specifically, because I think we know that the resetting that is going on in Western societies is dramatised but not explained by globalisation. Neither is it simply a pragmatic response to recession but actually the reassertion of a particular ideology which seeks to attack the role of the State – the general will – in the making and sustaining of a humane society. We are in danger, in this period, of Drucker’s next society, as signalled in 2001, of actually becoming an inhumane society, designed as small State. After Amory, there is a new necessity for art and design to move beyond any argument for a simple recovery of a discipline status quo and to turn outwards to contribute to the generation of new models of thought and understanding of economy and of society, as well as of culture. In 2010, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, of the Conservative Party, proposed the idea of the Big Society which was, in effect - as has been proven by his Government’s economic, social and cultural resetting and adjustments since then, to have been no more than a cover, a disguise, for the Conservatives’ small State ideology.

These are fundamentally cultural processes, first, and engagement is essential unless we, as a sector, are prepared to let someone else write the script for the next society. Of course the question arises for us in the sector, to what extent is there any sectoral consensus about where the value of art and design lies? Is it in the persistent model of studio production [upstream] and the signature value of the solo genius or is it downstream, where experience, application and participation take place? The lack of consensus occurs because of a fear that one process will override the other. In my view the real value actually lies in connecting, and in the tension between, upstream and downstream models, if they are held in constant negotiation. An energetic consensus is possible in this space.

I am arguing that we need to turn to another way of thinking about this, as a need, an urgency, to create not just a new economy, but a new ecology – in which the interdependencies and interactions of social, cultural and economic capital are not only understood but are valued and resourced, with parity of esteem. This depends on and begins with an understanding of education as emancipation, as a process of nourishing and sustaining citizenship and not simply the ‘training’ of individuals. It is important also to name the current culturally, socially, ecnomically and educationally reductive rhetoric and actions by some in power, as ideologically driven and not just pragmatism. It is this which drives the attack on fine art thinking in education. In my view, fine art thinking, indeed, creativity, means not accepting the given. When applied, in practice and in context, this can reconnect the discipline field to socio-economic space – the functions of societies - by rebooting the discipline field as transactional, participatory and reciprocal. The question and the challenge for the art sector, after Amory, is how are we going to respond to this straw in the wind, ahead of a possible tornado? I do not believe a remedial representational response will be adequate or effective. The response must be embedded and immersive and must embody and not just represent the [re]turn to social space that I am arguing for, something which was always necessary but is now urgent.

In the ecology rather than the economy model we have a way of rethinking art [and design] as relational, functioning in a relational field of other legitimate domains of knowledge, and to bring forward , to value and resource, intellectually and materially, models of participatory practice, alongside, not instead of, signature models of practice in art and its understanding. This would also allow us expand the field beyond the reductive consumerist model, not in terms of form or production but in terms of purpose and distribution. After Amory what we need is a new, not the recovery of an old, narrative. In effect we need to strike a ‘new deal’ with society which includes rather than diminishes previous narratives of history to create new readings of those histories as relational, in the present. The stakes are very high, in this period of resetting, for education, in particular, in the context of the attack referred to above and also in the context of parallel efforts to restate the idea of an inclusive rather than fragmented and stratified, a reciprocal rather than an atomised, society. This is the centre of a humane society and was the basis of both the original New Deal in the U.S. and what was called the Post War Consensus, in Europe. The Post War Consensus could be summarised as a set of principles built around the role of the State….that poverty should be attacked and not just managed, that access to healthcare should be free at the point of use, that access to education, including to third level was a right, that full employmet was a responsibility and a goal for the State and, interestingly, in the UK, that the arts should be provided for by the State, but at arm’s length from government. There has been a comprehensive retreat from all of these principles in the last fifteen years. But, it is worth noting that the many architects of both the New Deal  and the Post War Consensus, understood the necessity of art[s] to be embedded in those process of making what was then, the next society. If we pan back and look at the nature and purpose of art over the span of the human project, from the moment when human is understood as social, art has always had a transactional/relational role – as a way of seeing self in other, of creating and sustaining empathy and also as a way of exchanging the proof of existence for the means of existence. There was always a deal in play in socio-cultural space in human societies. But this is a present tense issue, as much to do with the nature and purpose of the I-Phone as with Cycladic sculptures of 6,000 years ago. Both remind us of our humanity. My argument is not nostalgic. It is based on the idea that, over the longer term, the relationship between artist and [so called] non-artist was, and is, reciprocal and not rhetorical. Yet, notwithstanding counter arguments and practices developed in the last few decades, most of our art and education institutional models are still premised on an asymmetrical, rhetorical model of knowledge and value which defines and holds in place what is central and what is marginal. To get at this fundamental issue, the challenge for the art and design sector and the arts, in general, is to reconnect with the ‘problem of purpose’, not the ‘problems of form’, ie, what art does rather than what art is. This will involve a rethinking/redefining of art/artist, of the idea of agency and of artist and non-artist as participants in a cultural process, and not simply as producer and consumer - in a societal/economic field of relations  - an ecology, in other words, where the commonality rather than the uniqueness of the artist’s experience is valued. Fine art thinking has a definite role to play in building this new ecology.

We need, therefore, to nurture new necessary competencies by turning, not rejecting, the inherited models of learning and the models of institutional provision which house that learning, to turn them from sites of expected knowledge consumption to sites of knowledge production and distribution. The simple consumer model of education, and the site of pilgrimage, is as unsustainable as the consumer model of culture and, maybe, of the economy. Participation in society appears to be on offer, through new technologies, but only on consumerist terms. So addicted are new technologies to consumerism the huge potential for education, supported by those technologies, as emancipation is going unfulfilled. This ‘turning’ is important for we need the models of practice based learning embodied by art and design learning if the next society is going to be inclusive and humane rather than exclusive and inhumane.

Fine art thinking, or, not accepting the given, and imagining things differently is to innovate and to invent, and not merely to recapitulate. If you can’t imagine and if there is no space or provision to imagine you will not innovate, as an individual or a society or, in fact, as an economy. It is counter productive then for economic arguments to be deployed to shut down actual and metaphorical spaces or societal options for imagining, as in education, as in art and design education, as in the fine art and design thinking continuum. And we must, of course, have an invested economy but we must also have an invested culture – the arts, education and health and well being – for if we don’t we will not have a society worth living in. To shut down those options is to shut down innovation/invention/imagination and I would argue, in this context, is actually ‘unAmerican’. A key task now has to involve turning back the language of the reductive ideology we are facing. However, dissent, alone, is not enough. The argument has to be an argument for and not just an argument against. In my view it is an argument for a new ecology, an argument for ‘something else’, for something ‘other’. I repeat, this is an argument for the value of what art does not just what art is. These ideas are now available, they can be asserted and sustained. Sustainability is key because art is long and always has been long, in terms of understanding its value more in relation to the ‘business of art’ than the ‘art business’.

I’m arguing that art can ‘happen’ anywhere, if understood as a verb rather than a noun, when creativities are applied to context. It is only if we set out to seed those relations and to communicate those intentions, that art will be understood by society as necessary, rather than dispensable. And it is increasingly urgent for the sector to speak to this, beyond education and into the world. Ultimately, change will only take place when we succeed in transferring a necessarily changed and expanded discourse from cultural space [arts and education] to political space, where policy is made. There are many such moments in history when the societal wheel turned because relations between art/cultural, socio-economic and political space were aligned and connected and the dialogue fully and consciously articulated. This involved art acknowledging and acting on its ethical as well as its aesthetic responsibilities and we are at that point of necessity and potential again. It requires a strategic innovative response, not a new plan for the status quo. An overarching strategic argument will always empower a localised, tactical argument but only when they are connected.                                                                                   

Thinking about what happens ‘after Amory’ should not be localised as a tactical argument, nor just a sectoral argument. The issues raised can only be effectively addressed and turned if the argument is named and enacted as fundamentally societal, strategic and ideological and this kind of gathering and in members’ own local situations, seem to me to be where this turning begins.