Public art; art in public spaces, art in the public realm… Community arts; arts in the community; artists working with communities… Social engagement; participatory arts projects… Artspace; creative space; maker space; open access… These are just some of the expanding plethora of terminologies that contemporary artspeak has adopted to assert its social value, broaden its audience, and stake its claim on social capital and the public good, as well, of course, as its claim on public funds. On closer examination all of these terms are loaded with taken-for-granted assumptions. They bunch together competing ideological and pragmatic motivations that run the gamut from wanting a slice of the pie to wanting nothing less than a revolution. They often elide the reality that most so-called ‘public’ space remains in state or private ownership and is therefore almost always controlled and regulated by institutional bureaucracies or commercial interests, and so not genuinely ‘public’ at all.
The pervasive models for the role and practice of artists and their support organisations serve corporate and state interests, upheld by the soft coercion of ‘best practice’ and ‘professionalism’ required by state and local level funding bodies and their requirements. These models are inculcated at art schools where, right from the start, the default position for most is personalised, competitive, reputation-based, placing a stress on an ability to accumulate social capital, critical acclaim or market value as an individual. The way the arts are networked make subversion or deviation from these models very difficult to maintain with any kind of long term sustainability. In this climate any idea of ‘community’ is rendered banal, envisaged as a mass public of consumers to be satisfied, sensibilities not to be offended, or participants to be patronised. In this scenario the gravitational pull of vested interests and state agendas is too big to circle around. The centre ground predominates, and art is instrumentalised as public good or private status and idealised as an amalgam of both. Artists and arts organisations don’t want to risk their existing relationships; for example, with people in their local council who they rely on, who in turn are connected with other funders, who in turn are connected to the cultural and economic structures that empower them to maintain their position, amongst whom other artists and organisations are also networked.