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

Art and Social TransformationChallenges to the Discourse and Practice of Human Development, three of three

By Dr.John Clammer(United Nations University, Professor )

The problem with a great deal of social theory is that it operates with an inadequate or even false model of what human beings are like, a problem that is bound to lead to sterility in outcomes – a shallow sociology as opposed to a deep one. The root of much of this shallowness derives from the suppression of the imagination. If it is the case, as can certainly be argued, that human beings are more emotional than rational, more erotic than logical, then it is the imagination that is the primary human faculty, but one that has been devalued or marginalized at the expense of the desire by the managers of society for order, planning, system. The imagination of possible futures, of utopias and anti-utopias, of new forms of social arrangements, of new ways of quite literally seeing the world, new techniques of awareness, the promotion of humour, love, enchantment, leisure, beauty, are all left to the arts, which are themselves marginalized and/or commoditized in the managerial society. We face then so often the paradoxical situation of a society’s most exciting and innovative dimension – its non-technological and non-economistic creativity (cultural production in short) – being neither recognized nor supported. Yet it is art that promotes and nurtures new interpretative communities, is a major way in which humans seek or seek to affirm their authenticity and is the primary cultural means of giving voice, telling stories, uncovering the narratives of lives and resolving traumas – it being through artistic expression that much of the damage inflicted by life or the understanding of the mysteries of existence are managed, assimilated and made part of a richer cultural existence (Tal 1996, Bettelheim 1976).

Art then confronts social theory with at least six unavoidable challenges:

1. The violence of society and of social transformation, including the violence of “development” and its failure to resolve the major questions of a satisfactory human existence even as it continuously creates new ones, and the values, implicit or explicit on which this fundamentally violent world-view is based and expressed, often disguised in a managerial language of “security”, “efficiency, “productivity” and the like.

2. The actual means of recolonizing the life world, including fresh ways of restoring and reinventing culture and or discovering new forms of sociability and ways of being in the world that are positive in their outcomes for both the individuals involved and the wider society and nature, and which point as well to alternative forms of economy outside of both neo-liberal and Marxist paradigms (e.g. Cobb 1990).

3. Transforming society and recognizing artistic movements as social movements representing not just new styles (of, say, painting or architecture) but equally liberatory thinking, praxis, new forms of social knowledge, action and organization and fresh techniques of transformation that fall outside of the obviously or conventionally political or social. There are forms of social transformation in other words of another order than the simply political, and these may typically take the form of either or both the religious and the artistic.

4. Expanding the scope of social theory to place at its center and not at its periphery the imagination, processes of creativity, the emotions, eroticism, performativity and expression.

5. Methodologically by providing the means to see and create connections that are not apparent in standard empirical approaches and which provides an avenue to the non-logical, the mythical, the magical, the dream-world, to madness and to the subjective worlds of the child, the outsider and the “creatives” who are engaged in cultural production for non-utilitarian means – the “excess” of which Georges Bataille writes which marks out the space of the non-utilitarian, of fun, joy and play, of spectacle and of what Bourdieu calls the “cultural negation of economics” (Bourdieu 1986: 55).

6. A means of recovering not only the lost dimensions of social theory, but also significant cultural theorists whose work has been marginalized in the social sciences or entirely ignored – one thinks of Rudolph Steiner for example, much of whose writings and educational practice touch upon art, Bruno Bettelheim, psychoanalyst, scholar of myth and fairy tales and of a profound study of human behavior under the extreme conditions of the concentration camps (of which he himself was a survivor), of C.J. Jung, hardly read professionally by sociologists or anthropologists despite his profound insights into mythical and artistic thinking, or of significant non-Western thinkers such as the Indian Sri Aurobindo. The “developing” world is particularly rich in indigenous cultural theorists whose voices are rarely heard and even cases such as that of Walter Benjamin are interesting as a figure initially marginalized even within the Frankfurt School group of which he was a member and who continued to be so until his “rediscovery” with the rise of cultural studies as a respectable discipline in the West.

David Harvey has suggested that all societies require “spaces of hope” that include the need for utopias and new “myths” –i.e. guiding stories or the very master narratives far from swept away by postmodernism (Harvey 2000) and the poet Octavio Paz has argued for the critical role of artists as those people who tap the well-springs of invention and who often stand against the idea of “progress” realizing all too clearly the dehumanizing and anti-ecological character of our present industrial civilization that the “underdeveloped” portions of the world are rushing headlong to emulate (Paz 1990).

Art and Communicative Action

The French artist Jean Dubuffet in a celebrated lecture at the Chicago Arts Club asserted that “Art speaks to the mind, not to the eyes. This is how ‘primitive’ societies have always understood it, and they are right. Art is a language: an instrument of knowledge and an instrument of communication” (Dubuffet 1967:99). He is I think correct, and this viewpoint, from a prominent practicing artist stands against the pervasive and superficial aestheticization of contemporary everyday life that has been noted and documented by scholars such as Wolfgang Welsch (Welsch 1997) in which art becomes superfluous once beautification and artifice is everywhere (at least in postmodern or postindustrial societies in forms such as advertising). Welsch’s viewpoint appears to be that the positions of Schiller and Hegel, that aesthetics will restore our wholeness and overcome the fragmentation of modern life has failed because of this pervasive aestheticization; my position on the other hand is that they were essentially right and Welsch’s mistake is to confuse aesthetics and aestheticization, the genuinely beautiful with the kitsch that does indeed constantly invade everyday life. But where he is right is in recognizing that there is an alternative to the dilemma of art either conforming to social expectations or adopting a posture of permanent resistance which renders it politically sterile: what he calls the “transhuman” (Welsch 2004:66). By this he means not antihuman, but non-anthropocentric in the same sense that deep ecologists and many Buddhists understand the human self – as participating in a greater-than-human world in which humans are not the sole point of reference or significance but stand in a relational posture and sense of connectedness not only with other humans and possibly the divine, but with nature too. Welsch suggests that artworks emerging from this perspective (which he finds already present in Eastern societies) would transcend the fragmentation of modernity and that this art would have a great impact on values by demanding respect for our connectedness to the rest of the natural world and encouraging an integrative rather than anthropocentric view of reality, with corresponding effects on our environmental behavior, ethics and notions of freedom and liberation – not only from human- made economic and social structures, but more essentially from the closure or solipsistic self-referentiality of the human mind.

In a parallel essay Michel Maffesoli argues for a similar move, signaled in aesthetics, in which he proposes “to take as my point of departure not the libido dominandi, exercising control over the self and the world, nor the libido sciendi, giving me knowledge of how to master myself and the world, but rather the libido sentiendi, the desire to feel” (Maffesoli 2004:71). By this means he suggests “One shifts in this way from a political morality to an ethic of the aesthetic. This emergence is no longer perceptible using our favoured tools of analysis – the self mastering rational individual and the notion of social, national or international contact. The challenge of the ethic of the aesthetic thus consists in reflecting what lies alongside or behind the democratic ideal as formulated by Hannah Arendt: a community ideal. Walter Benjamin said that ‘each age dreams of the next’, and I think that it is important for us to assume responsibility for what is in the process of being born, on pain of seeing the dream turn into a nightmare” (Maffesoli 2004:72). Art then, despite the frivolous nature of much contemporary art, points us in principle in a number of very important directions: to a non-political radicalism that proposes new images of community, solidarity and relationships with nature and to our own bodies and senses; to a deepened sociological methodology that lies not only far beyond the methodological individualism that has so often paradoxically pervaded the social sciences but which recognizes that huge areas of human experience including the emotions and the sensuous (Stoller 1997) have been suppressed by the overly rationalistic assumptions of mainstream and classical social science, leading to a sadly impoverished philosophical anthropology underpinning sociology, political science, economics and development studies; and to forms of knowledge and communication that are actually central to the human experience and hence to ontology – the non-cognitive and non-rational dimensions of human make up which actually provide the deep wells of action, motivation, desire and creativity.

Philip Quarles van Ufford, Ananta Kumar Giri and David Mosse in their discussion of what they term ‘emergent ethics’ or the crossing of the boundary between facts and values suggest that “the notion of ‘emergent ethics’ involves recognition of the tensions between the two sides of development: the ethical and the aesthetic. Development as a shared global responsibility entails two concerns: the ethical concern with ‘care of the other’ and the aesthetic ‘care of the self’. We suggest that development ethics must deal with these two at the same time, as well as acknowledging that links between them are problematic” (Quarles van Ufford and Giri 2003: 23). This is a valid point, but the danger in their approach is the restricting of aesthetics to the idea of self-cultivation, whereas here a much more extensive concept of art is being proffered. They do however approvingly quote Fred Dallmayr who rightly argues that philosophy is not just a second-order discipline commenting on what is, but also has a critical and constructive role in creating new spaces of both self-development and mutual flourishing (Dallmayr 1998), a role that has largely been abdicated by sociology. This, we are also arguing here, is the proper role of aesthetics as the theory of art, and of art as the embodiment of that aesthetics. This view also takes us beyond the position of Niklaus Luhmann who has suggested that “Art has very few direct effects on other functional systems, and this is why society rarely responds to the differentiation and autonomy of the art system. It tends to attract attention when certain functional systems fail to recognize or accept their own specificity and therefore consider developments within the art system to be an encroachment or mistake that needs to be corrected” (Luhmann 2000: 181-2). As a formal way of simply stating that art attracts attention when it becomes critical or subversive of other “systems” (in particular the political), this is true, but it is an impoverished conception of art as a whole which has a far wider role and much deeper characteristics than this systems approach can admit.

I have argued elsewhere (Clammer 2005) that cultural studies in general, and here I would include the sociology of art, can make a significant contribution to fields as apparently remote from it as development studies, since all social change involves a transformation of subjectivities and hence of identity, desire and emotion, and that the tracking of these shifts points to deep levels of culture which touch on the uncertain and existential nature of human life (e.g. Clammer 2000). As David Harvey has pointed out (Harvey 2000: 208), our ‘species being’ is, perhaps uniquely amongst the inhabitants of nature, also ‘species potential’. We are in that sense ‘open ended’ beings and culture, of which art is an essential part, is our main means of enhancing those capacities, our main evolutionary tool and as such both our major way of relating to the world both of nature and other humans, and of transforming it, ideally not only in ways more just and sustainable, but also making it more enchanting, sensuous and meaningful. Which is after all, the main purpose of art.


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