Is it Possible to Make Critical Art Publicly Anymore?


A 2009 MUTE article highlighted how critiques of the instrumentalised role of so-called ‘culture led urban regeneration’, were increasing. Its authors suggested that the widespread use of the ‘Creative City’ formula as a panacea for post-industrial urban ills might be over (Berry Slater and Iles, 2009). This essay examines the tensions inherent in making artwork with a social agenda in terms of: how in creating work in a social context the artist’s creative freedom and intentions might be compromised. The essay also examines how the artist’s creative freedom and intentions can be in conflict with the funder’s desired outcomes and underlying intentions to an overwhelming extent. It will examine a small number of case studies to assess where the relationship between the artist, developer, wider audience (public) and economy has being challenged and whether ‘culture led urban regeneration’ is over, ineffectual or with us in a changed form.

The essay starts with analysis of how the State and business use art and culture to carry out economic and social change through regeneration and makes reference to recent terminology and occupations such as ‘Culturpreneur’ and the ‘creative classes’. Here I examine what the instrumentalism of the arts means, in terms of who does it, why they do it and what its particular effects are on art and society. The second section will question whether art’s instrumentalisation by social agendas subordinates its critical faculties to a putative good cause: this is examined through case studies in terms of whether it might succeed as ideology but fail as critical art. The last question for consideration is whether new social practices in art make a real change to the communities who participate in them or whether such projects are simply an ameliorative expression of the subjection of art within a neoliberal economy with little in the way of real devolution of power or challenge to the existing hegemony. The paper concludes with the argument that although well intentioned, much public art often lacks criticality or offers any change at a structural level. This is largely symptomatic of how art and culture has become instrumentalised by business, the state and private individuals.

Section one: ‘Culturepreneurs’ and ‘Creative Classes’: How the State and business use art and culture to carry out economic and social change through regeneration.

The instrumentalisation of the arts by business and the state could refer to any number of concepts, theories and subsequent critical trajectories. Florida’s (2004) theory of a creative class consists of knowledge workers, intellectuals and various types of artists, as an ascendant economic force and driver of economic growth within post-industrial cities. This class is looking to fill gaps in its economy due to the relocation of industry to cheaper sites of production. Instrumentalisation here can also be referred to in relation to the use of arts and culture as a way of transferring what is essentially public land/assets into private hands as demonstrated in the case of Thatcher’s London Development Agency, the London’s Docklands and the creation of ‘culturalised hubs of intensified privatisation’ (Seymour, 2004).

Much has been written on gentrification and the role artists play within its first wave (Berry Slater and Iles, 2009). Considered to be risk takers, avant garde and looking for cheaper rents in which to practice and make art work, artists have often been at the forefront of gentrifying previously run down areas e.g. the Bowery District NYC, London’s Docklands and Shoreditch. These are areas that due to economic policies have declined either due to de-industrialisation (London Docklands) lack of investment, infrastructure and/or maintenance (Shoreditch) or simply left to deteriorate whilst waiting for future development to take place and increase land value.

In a prescient article in 1999, Davies and Fond, speculated on what forms the art world might take in the new millennium. New occupations and terminology brought about through the convergence of business and art sectors, namely the emergence of the ‘creative industries’, they describe business’s strategic use of cultural missions to build up an ethical public image via partnerships with the creative industries as a ‘Total Role in Society’ (TRS).

One such case in point is that of Damien Hirst as a ‘cultureprenuer’, and the mutually beneficial relationship between culture (here Art) and business (the London Development Corporation). ‘Cultureprenuer’ is defined by Davies and Fond (1999, p1) as a ‘hybrid professional’; an entrepreneurial individual who is well placed though their relationship to culture to capitalise on the economic opportunities offered through cultural objects/events such as artwork and exhibitions. Hirst’s approach and negotiation with the London Development Corporation under Heseltine facilitated the use of the space within London Docklands for the FREEZE show, which in turn launched the careers of many artists who exhibited under its’ banner, now cited as the birth of the Young British Artists (YBAs).

Art could be seen as instrumentalised on 2 fronts by both artists and policy makers: the artists make huge sums of money and receive validation in performing their ‘art event’ for the pleasure of the public who have been told that art is now a good investment; developers and associated interested parties/neighbourhoods benefit from the increased value given to the land through the activity of the artists. Here is a mutually agreeable situation for both parties, both benefiting from each other’s cultural capital: but what of the existing communities and the public land on which the event had been staged?

In a scathing article in Variant Seymour (2004) posits that gentrification takes from the poor and gives to the rich, arguing that anything residually public will be ‘left for the middle classes or left to rot’. But is this really true? The rise in socially engaged arts practice and community engagement within the planning process could be seen as an ameliorative response to some of this criticism, but how far does it succeed in engaging with the community and how effective can it be as critical art?

Section two: Has art’s instrumentalisation by social agendas subordinate its critical faculties to a putative good cause. Investigating whether it succeeds as ideology but fails as critical art.

Duman (2008) describes the ‘pathological aspect’ of current arts funding in the UK and the adoption of public art as an example of the intrinsic becoming instrumental, or as Holden puts it: ‘the tail is wagging the dog’. Both Duman (2008) and Holden (2004) argue that transformative discourses become prescriptive via a list of social outcomes for the work itself and argue that these tend to be sculptural or architectural landmarks for big business, and socially engaged art for the community (Duman, 2008).

Over time we see a pattern emerging of the validation of art through the process of its connection to politicized versions of social engineering, namely the displacement of the less affluent, an increase in social segregation and the social cleansing of the working class (Seymour, 2004). So how complicit are artists in this subordination of artistic practice relationship?

Bob and Roberta Smith’s (the pseudonym of artist Patrick Bril) role as curator of the public art commission for the Thames Gateway Development in an interesting case in point revealing many of the contradictions and tensions the artist faces within regeneration and development framework. Published in the form of a diary ‘Art U Need: My Part in the Public Art Revolution’ Bril calls for a revolution in public art away from monumental sculptural pieces and towards more performative and process led work (2007). On the surface this approach is to be celebrated and it is hard not to be convinced by the charismatic Bob and Roberta Smith, however, Duman (2008) suggests this is simply a change of modality in artistic practice and not one that fundamentally changes the existing structure and mechanisms that produced the conditions for any type of art to be commissioned.

Is the artist merely a pawn in the developer’s game, smoothing the way for regeneration through socially acceptable (i.e. process led, community engaged) artwork? Kester (2004) suggests this is so, citing that community based art serves the interests of neo-conservatism by attempting to fill the gap let by the welfare state. So what is Bob and Roberta Smith’s role in this as an artist and curator? Is his challenging the dominant ideology and really starting a revolution in public art? Or is it a case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’ as Holden suggests (2004). Duman (2008) goes further to posit that Bob and Roberta Smith’s approach is ‘a shallow call for media attention for the public art project of which he is an alluring part’.

Taking a less cynical view point, might this be a case of the artists’ good intentions being subverted for other means—related to Seymour’s (2004, p2) analysis of the artist as surrogate or ‘simulacra service providers delivering cheap but cosmetic substitutions for welfare provision’? For Seymour it has become ‘easier to gain experience of urban blight plotted on a psycho-geographic map of your area than to obtain hospital treatment, housing or a day off work’ (Seymour, 2004, p3).

The work of Artistic collective FREEE (Dave Beech, Andy Hewitt, Mel Jordan) provides a different perspective on the role of the complicity of the artist in achieving ends defined by a hegemonic power. FREEE critiqued the purpose of public art through a text piece titled ‘Three Functions’ each installed in public space on an advertising billboard. Positing a highly critical stance whereby the function of public art in regeneration is to ‘sex up control of the under-classes,’ FREEE took their argument to the streets, but were the streets paying attention? Were the streets even interested? Duman (2008) argues they were not and that FREEE were waging an internal war within the art system itself, a conversation between artists, funders and developers, making reference to, but not engaging with, the working classes to whom they refer. Instead FREEE’s statements are directed not at the passing public, but a discursive community already in possession of the elements necessary to put the isolated sentence in it’s wider context.

FREEE’s work stands in contrast to Bob and Roberta Smith’s approach and yet both are not dis-similar in their generalized reference to the public (Duman, 2008). Both exist within the same system of commissioning and production of public art (FREEE’s work was part of the Venice Biennial 2005) and merchandised versions of the work are available for consumption. So does the system of commissioning public art works need to change in order for public art to become genuinely critical? This will be explored further below with reference to the General Public Agency’s (GPA) approach to regeneration in Thurrock and Suzanne Lacy’s ‘University of Local Knowledge’ (2010).

Section three: Do ‘new social practices’ in art make a real change to the communities who participate in them?

The work of the GPA in Thurrock is an interesting example of an: ‘art-inspired approach to the technocratic science of planning’ (Berry, Slater and Iles, 2009). Its product is creatively inflected urban strategies for planners, developers and regeneration agencies and stands in contrast to Landry’s (2006) highly suspicious ‘participatory planning process’ but similarly claiming to place high regard for culture and histories of ordinary people, and the importance they place on its inclusion into urban strategy.

Garnering the ‘inclusion’ of local cultures and histories is where the good old public artist pops up, drafted in to help facilitate ‘new social practices’ – a term referring to the creativity of everyday life, but deftly sidelining the importance of art’s role in the public sphere as curators, practitioners and funders increasingly submit to market logic (Berry Slater and Iles, 2009).To quote GPAs director/curator Clare Cumberlidge, “The more it looks like art, the less affect it has’. They go further to suggest the possibility that the era of the public artist may cede to that of the creative manager (Berry Slater and Iles, 2009).

This man example of this artist as creative manger approach might be evidenced in Suzanne Lacy’s work, ‘The University of Local Knowledge’ produced in partnership with Knowle West Media Centre in 2010 and developed through extensive community involvement and participation from residents of Knowle West, a deprived ward in Bristol, south-west England. Lacy acted as manager/facilitator and author of the project, gathering the stories and knowledge of local residents, to produce the final artwork with many outputs including; a performance, a website, talks and photographs/documentation. In essence ‘The University of Local Knowledge’ (2010) is a direct challenge to the hierarchical structure of knowledge institutions, and how they are produced and defined, a phenomenological practice grounded in Lacy’s feminist, and post-structuralist position.

Yet how effective was it in delivering change for the community it worked with and how was the change measured? Was such a question ever on the agenda? These questions are too complex to attempt to answer within the scope of this paper, however I can offer some reflections on the personal experience of working on this project that may be of interest.

For an arts organization, in this example Knowle West Media Centre, the event of hosting an artist requires much behind the scenes work from staff often already stretched to full capacity. Resident participation requires much co-ordination by the organisation’s staff (not the artist) and relies heavily on the existing relationships built up over time between the arts organization, their outreach projects and the local community – not all of which are inclined to participate. The ethical implications and dynamics of participation are heavily critiqued in the existing literature (Beech, 2008).

Beech (2008) considers the dynamics of power within participatory public art in terms of who holds the power and how much change actually occurs? Referring to Lacy’s work in Knowle West, a cynical view-point would be that of the artist being hoisted onto the community at considerable expense/effort of the host, with little tangible benefit to be derived from the community and their participation. A more positive view might value the experience of working with an international artist, the associated profile and attention commanded by that person and the validation of the community’s knowledge/experience/voice that other wise might not be heard. But who really cares?

Continuing Duman’s argument (2008) any recipient/participant would need ‘such an understanding and background in order to obtain this validity; the relationship to the public within art can be generalized to the point of abstraction’, this feels like very ethically shaky ground, and brings to mind Seymour’s (2004) argument that is becomes easier to get a psycho-geographic map made of your area than to obtain decent housing.

Beech (2008) and others (Bishop, 2012; Kester 2004; Kwon 2004) critique the role of participation within new genre public art such as Lacy’s, distinguishing between participation and inter-activity. Beech argues that participation can never deliver what it promises as ‘participation is an image of a much longed for social reconciliation, but it is not a mechanism for bringing about the required transformation’, and that although disguised as a generous shrinking of cultural division, (participation) is an extension of art’s hegemony (Beech, 2008 p2).

The method of creating and delivering an art project in such a setting must be collaborative with all of those involved if it is to challenge existing hierarchies and relationships of power and not simply re-enforce existing inequalities on those it claims to speak for and with. This begs the larger question of who speaks for whom? (Hooks, 1995) hinting at the underlying tensions within art for public consumption, where representation of communities is done for them, rather than by them.

Beech posits that collaboration is separate from participation, insofar as collaborators share authorial rights over the work, that permit them to make structural changes to the work. Unfortunately Lacy’s (and other artists working in this way) lack of acknowledgement of co-authorship within ‘The University of Local Knowledge’ project, serves to re-enforce such cultural hegemony, which must play a part in the analysis and evaluation of the impact and effect of public artworks and for who they are intended if not the public.



So where does this leave us? Is it possible to make genuinely critical art publicly anymore? This paper concludes that some criticality is possible, but the extent of that criticality is often confined to the existing structure that defines it – and/or the instrumentalisation of art, its’ cultural partners and individuals (as ‘Culturpreneurs’), or the interests of business and investment. In the case of FREEE their dialogue is directed at the art world, for Lacy, structural critique of institutional hierarchy is contradicted by the lack of recognition of collaboration and co-authorship within the projects; Bob and Roberta Smith, whilst calling for a revolution in public art has been accused of simply paying lip service to the ideology of revolution without actually doing anything to actually challenge the legitimate question of what public art is and who is it for (Duman, 2008). Perhaps the question is not whether public art can be critical but whether criticality is needed? And if not should it do away with its earnest mask and move away from the banner of participation that it currently aligns itself with? The concluding view of the paper agrees with Beech’s statement (2008) ‘Participation papers over the cracks. The changes we need are structural.’



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Berry Slater, J. and Iles, A. (2009) ‘No Room to Move: Art and the Regenerate City’, MUTE.

Bishop, C. (2012) Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of Spectatorship. 1st edn. London: Verso Books.

Davies, A. and Fond, S. (1999) ‘Art Futures’, Art Monthly, 223, pp. 9–11.

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Florida, R. (2004) Cities and the creative class. 1st edn. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Holden, J. (2004)‘‘Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool of government policy’, DEMOS, .

Hooks, B. (1995) Art on my mind: Visual politics. New York: Distributed by W.W. Norton.

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Kester, G. (no date) Issue 9 | Dialogical aesthetics: A critical framework for Littoral art, Grant Kester. Available at: (Accessed: 6 November 2015).

Kwon, M. (2004) One place after another: Site-specific art and Locational identity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Lacy, S. and Evans, P. (2012) University of local knowledge. Available at: (Accessed: 5 December 2015).

Landry, C. (2006) The art of city making. Earthscan Publications.

Seymour, B. (2004) ‘Shoreditch and the creative destruction of the inner city’, Variant, (34), pp. 1–4.

Smith, B. and Smith, R. (2007) Art U need: My part in the public Art Revolution. LONDON: Black Dog Publishing.