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Artistic practices, intermediate zones and social utility…

Posted on Mar 1, 2013 by in issue #01 | 0 comments


By  Ramón Parramón 

DirectorACVic, Centre for Contemporary Arts



Artistic practices, intermediate zones and social utility

Utility in artistic practices
Contemporary arts practices cover a wide range of techniques, tactics, strategies, attitudes and positions, carried out using different vehicles which display unique nuances and even structural innovations, making these practices possible on the levels of production, research, distribution, the building of new audiences (users, participants) or education. Despite their diversity, we may define these vehicles for bringing together contemporary arts practices as three groups based upon production and financing: one group led by public institutions (or semi-private institutions financed mainly from public funds), another group conveyed through the arts market (brokers and producers marketing artworks), and a self-managed group (led by producers- promoters). Many current projects combine different vehicles so that “artistic practice” may be produced, communicated, distributed, consumed, or socialised in different areas.

In the current economic crisis, which has grown exponentially since 2008, things have been changing substantially, the ecosystem comprising these three groups of “productive” vehicles suffering the consequences, and all the more severely when these practices depend largely on public funding. Artistic practices channeled through the art markets are also affected, since a great deal of this market is controlled by public institutions themselves (museums, art centres), which in many cases are financially backing the production of artworks. With regard to the private market, it constitutes a particular area which combines many other factors such as private collection, altruism, patronage or money laundering, and in this case we are interested in the socialisable value which such practices promote, or the potential which they have to be socialised.

In this context of the crisis of public values, self-managed practices are clearly liberated and in a certain way take on a role of major importance. A large component of self-management has always been present in art production, is a practice which often takes place in a context of informal economy, and is self-financed by the same actors who promote it. In this new scenario for production, alternative forms of financing are appearing, such as Crowd-funding, which combine self-management with individual contributions through various networking sites, even though their organisational structures subsist by means of public resources.

Since 2010, the consequences of this crisis in the Spanish context have been clearly displayed, and point to the configuration of a new scenario. Within the fields of public administration and civil society, one of the most repeated questions put to anyone proposing a new project based on contemporary art practices is: what use is it? It is a question basically asked to justify the maintenance of a budget for this sort of thing, and what will its return be to the community (or to society).

In fact it is the utility of contemporary art practices which is in question, pointing, with increasing explicitness, to the deep gulf between contemporary artistic practices and the people. When a justification is required for art’s social utility, a recurrent term is referred to: art as a tool. A tool to help people deal with life and the human condition, a tool of mediation in a socially disadvantaged context, an educational tool, a tool which can help improve quality of life, a tool to facilitate social cohesion, a cross-disciplinary tool which helps to build bridges in situations of conflict resolution, a tool which gives symbolic meaning to a particular context, a tool of communication, propaganda, innovation, visibility, a tool of participation, a tool which  encourages critical thinking and aesthetic enjoyment, etc..

Any tool can be used, and may function, in many different ways. A screwdriver, for example, apart from tightening and loosening screws, is essential when used on various materials, with ingenuity, creativity or for a specific purpose, serving to construct (repair) furniture, motors, electrical circuits, appliances, homes, etc.. Furthermore, the practice of art as a tool is multifunctional, its utility generated according to the user, the specific situation, the objectives sought and the participants in the creative action.

One of the functions traditionally assumed by culture (and especially by art) is associated with the idea of controlling perception of the world, and to enter a realm of experimentation and critical analysis in relation to social space. Right now there are new actors in the management of cultural policies, influenced by neoliberal strategies, proposing schedules derived from market needs, interested in increasing audiences, converting cultural activities into arenas of entertainment, by promoting cultural tourism and activities on demand. This entails a major change in the relationship between cultural policies and artistic production, understanding this artistic production as a structure embedded into the relationship between the individual, the collective and the transition from a type of society which has touched rock-bottom to a new one which must be put together.

“When culture is no longer a tool for the design, construction and maintenance of social order, cultural things are seized and taken to auction to be acquired by the highest bidder.”[1]  This quotation is from a dialogue between Zygmunt Bauman and Maaretta Jaukkuri before the outbreak of the current crisis. Recently this idea of culture as a tool or as a public service is being abandoned, the same as with other social benefits, such as health and education. This is being accelerated by the instability affecting most governments, due to their inability to control the resultant chaos caused by global capitalism, a prevalent condition in most countries, especially those belonging to the European Union.

This serious current situation is characterised by a formula supported by “market liberalisation, deregulation of the economy, and especially of the financial sector, the privatisation of state assets, low taxes and the minimum possible public expense.”[2] The inability to control the crisis by political powers is evident, furthermore when most rights won over years, and structures which were part of the welfare state, are either directly endangered or disappearing entirely from public budgets. Structures and vehicles for art and culture are the hardest to justify their existence in a society in which unemployment rates continue to grow and where job insecurity is expanding at a rapid pace.

It may be considered that in a less tense social context, it might be easier to argue and justify the purpose and meaning of artistic practice, but even in times of economic stability, these arguments have been a persistent issue. Those involved in artistic practices, while an important part of the cultural sphere, have struggled to explain what functions they perform, which needs they cover, which services they provide, and to which audiences or collectives they address themselves. In terms of connection (more integration, less exclusion) of artistic practices with society (the territory), it still remains to define concepts, activities and cultural policies which articulate this connection.

When we propose that art can play a mediating and cross-disciplinary role within specific contexts, which may cooperate with other social or cultural agents with similar goals but different methodologies, we are proposing possible alternatives which can bridge the gap between art and society. To shorten these distances, right now, is a priority and is essential in generating a new context.
When evaluating cultural activity in general and art in particular, and in deciding policies based upon purely quantitative indicators (audience, spectators, return on investment …), it is evident that the  criteria applied are modeled purely upon market objectives. The same criteria which have been revived during recent decades and from which perspective, social space is considered as the sum of individual consumers.

The concept of Utility, qualitatively understood, cannot be quantified by purely numerical indicators. Utility, in economics, is the ability of a good or service to satisfy a need. A need is a desire which a person has for a good or service. Broadly,  utility is equivalent to wellbeing and satisfaction, therefore it is a subjective value, a capricious response to tastes, preferences and desires ( of consumers – users – participants). The same combination of benefits will obtain a different utility (satisfaction) , according to the tastes and desires of each person. Goods or services are useful, whether a person prefers to possess them or not[3]. From this premise it follows that the higher the consumption of goods, the greater the satisfaction.

From the perspective of cultural and artistic practices, if we measure the utility only by the number of individual users (consumers) , we ignore all reference to the socialisation of goods or services derived from them[4]. We cannot understand the social utility as the sum of individual utilities. The sum of individual benefits is not the sum of social benefits, as in order to be a social benefit, regulation is required to balance common interests, and also collective action is required to build and satisfy common interests.

To enhance quality of life, to develop people’s social skills, to improve their relationship with the environment and to enhance creativity, these, perhaps, are among the utilities we might hope for. A hope which must be cultivated, not so much in the sense of consuming, but from the need to build something new in which the citizen may participate in a shared desire for transformation. We propose here two changes in the evaluation system of cultural and artistic practices: to incorporate qualitative indicators which allow clear objectives to be set in different artistic practices, in order to evaluate these practices more easily; and to work alongside other disciplines and in different fields (which need not belong to the world of culture). These changes are intended to join together the desire and satisfaction applied to social space, and to increase utility from a kind of “expanded art practices” which satisfy the sum of collective interests (desires) . In a context of social dismantling, resulting from the limited responsibility of public administrations, now deficit-ridden and indebted, alternatives promoted by the public and generated within collective contexts must be greatly strengthened. Self-management may be understood not only as a survival mechanism, but also as a mechanism of militancy.
Positioning in adversity
These changes and alternatives remain incipient in the artistic sphere, and we find ourselves in front of an adverse prospect. A prospect of adversity in which it is necessary to find ways in which cultural practices, art, take on an active, purposeful role, addressed to alleviate a situation which existing institutions cannot solve, whether for economic, ecological, social or political reasons. We confront a long-term change which will affect and transform our society. Many writers who analyse the reasons for, and the consequences of, the crisis in which we find ourselves, coincide (Neil Smith, Raj Patel, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Alain Touraine, Ramon Fernandez Duran). Virtually all agree that the current situation posits an open future, no return, in which the solutions or the results may end up in conflict.

“It could be chaos which evokes strong (or stronger) state repression, or may be chaos from which arise very real alternatives for social  organisation “[5]. The geographer Neil Smith argues that the urban future is open, and an air of equality and hope must circulate, leaving aside apathy and cynicism. To Raj Patel, a true picture of the world  can never be seen through the lens of the market, which makes it necessary to regain the right to have rights, the right to participation, the capacity for social commitment, ultimately generating an active movement within society to regain ​​the power which the market economy has seized, and to restore democracy. “To restore politics ,  we will have to have more imagination, more creativity and courage”[6].

For Stiglitz[7] this is the time to propose the society we want, and to think about whether we are creating the economy to bring us to these aspirations. Stiglitz argues that we must create a new economic system which generates employment, a financial system at the service of the human being, in which to reduce the gap between those who have little and those who have much, and above all to build a new society in which each individual can develop her potential in a community respectful of the planet. For Stiglitz, the real danger is not to take the opportunity of current times.

Alain Touraine makes it clear that there is no possible internal solution to the crisis. Touraine sees two possible routes, one towards the European catastrophe, unable to reform and control financial transactions. A world in which the links between economy and society have been broken by globalisation and in which no one manages to exercise control. The second, more optimistic, is based upon the consolidation of the defence of universal human rights as the only way. This way consists of using the mutation from one society to another, beginning with new social and cultural movements, “considering the capacity of human beings to build, thanks to language, artistic representations, and the creation of a “ future”, considering the source of their own creativity, as the guarantors of their own rights[8].

There is a common thread in appealing to inherent human creativity as one of the essential elements for a graceful resurgence in front of adversity. A creativity which must be worked upon, and expanded  into different areas , and which must manifest itself as social creativity, brought together through collective actions with potentially shared goals.

In a radical way, by analysing the recent past and the “catastrophic” present for the planet, Ramon Fernandez Duran suggests that this moment of crisis is a consequence of the collapse of global capitalism, which began in 2000 and which will run until 2030, coinciding with the decline of fossil fuel, the energetic concentration of which is irreplaceable by any of the currently known alternative energy sources. He argues that the beginning of the end of this energy is generating a total historical rupture[9]. His documented analysis points to an  “atrocious” vision of the continuous present, and his hypothetical future scenarios  “extremely fluid and changing”, presenting an opportunity for transformation.

New stories must be constructed to interpolate in a symbolic way an awareness of global interdependence, the personal responsibility for contemporary developments. New stories, expressing possible solutions, to replace competitive individualism with cooperative individualism.
Intermediate zones: unstable nuclei – floating Peripheries
This need for new stories also presents a new paradigm for cultural and artistic practices. So far some of them have played a symbolic role close to the centres of power, while others are located in a supposedly peripheral  area, to investigate alternative options or take a critical position  of the system. When the system collapses, critical action must regroup as direct action and therefore propose structuring discourses (narratives) within the new social reality, participants in the processes of transformation. Spheres of action, up until now peripheral, and from which these practices have so far operated, will take on greater importance in the contemporary context.
An intermediate zone is a place of mediation among different things. There is a type of artistic practice whose function may be understood as a vehicle for forming relationships between different social entities (in relation to education, science, town planning, within a particular community …) . These practices act in intermediate areas. In these zones the centres become unstable, are brought into question, upon which the peripheral increases in value, strengthened because it gathers a constructive narrative of change. The need to find a way out of the extreme situation, justifies the raison d’être for the peripheral, and its utility (understood as the yearning for something new).

The centre-periphery relationship is a prolific concept in various fields such as geography, urbanism, economics, sociology or politics. Within the cultural field, it has also generated a large amount of visual and symbolic narratives. Specifically the aesthetics of the urban periphery has been, and will always be, a magnet for artists, architects, filmmakers and writers. The periphery is a floating thing, multiple cohabiting locations in relationship with other more established, more institutionalised places which we call centres , heavier, denser, with more commitment, less autonomous , with less fluctuating structures. Being a centre carries an historic, moral, structural and systemic responsibility which reduces its dynamism. The centre must continuously position itself in competition with other nuclei of economic, urban and social power, decision-making, control, and thinking.

Centres of economic decisions are concentrated in a few individuals with vast fortunes of capital, speculating on legalised financial systems under the standard of greater personal enrichment. This financial structure has marginalised the actions of governments, has hurt wage-earners and is moving the unemployed and those in unstable working conditions even further to the edges. Urban and social peripheries no longer match, but still  the tensions polarised by economic imbalances become increasingly accentuated. Social differences between higher and lower incomes grow, increasing poverty levels.

According to Alain Touraine, social categories have fragmented, causing the appearance of numerous smaller groups where “the poor are distinguished from the poorer, so as to differentiate one group from the other”[10], immigrant workers arouse the rejection of a large part of the population, creating other subgroups , a fragmentation which has led to a blurring of what until now were called social classes, which means for Touraine, the end of the social or  a “postsocial” condition.

The periphery is a space in which one can continually reinvent and remake, a place of creativity and exploration. “The monster is always on the periphery. In the centre we have our customs, habits, our morals, and so on. And on the outskirts we collect all that is transgressive”[11]. Traditionally the periphery was a place of displacement, of indifference, of misery, exclusion, invisibility, a space outside the boundaries of the visible and controlled. Right now it is the space where hybridisation is staged, where everyone who wants to be part of a process of transformation should be, because the centres (of power) have become unstable nuclei, decaying spaces, structures governed adrift, and the peripheries are those places where something new may be built. Being on the periphery or part of it, in a cultural sense, has become a way of proposing alternative forms, a space of flux[12] from which to reclaim a new outlook on the world, new possible societies.

From these intermediate zones where nuclei become unstable and delocalised peripheries proliferate, artistic practices can position themselves as an active part in processes of transformation. We must take this opportunity and contribute to the necessary revolution which requires the involvement of many other parties. Firstly they must be redefined, in the same way that many social collectives or many activities attempt to influence government policies. There is no turning back, as the above-quoted authors have noted, there will be no return to the previous situation. We must write a new story under progressively precarious conditions . We must analyse, discuss and take positions for later broadcast, not only among politicians, but also various social groups, which  must also be redefined.[13]

1. Detects various self-management experiences in the field of artistic practices and observe the following:

  • Do you think that they pose a real alternative?
  • Do they represent a survival strategy?
  • How do these strategies coexist with other proposed models?

2. Select several examples and see if they can be part of the categories raised or if there are cases-hybrids that combine the production, mediation, dissemination and distribution to give rise to new formulations.

3. What other qualitative indicators could be defined in order to increase the value of artistic practices in relation to society?

4.  What values ​​should be promoted to cover a role in the public sphere? What factors play against?

5. Art should be useful? Find examples for and against.

6. State your own questions regarding the text.



[1]   Zygmunt Bauman speaks with Maaretta Jaukkuri: “Liquid Times, liquid art”, in BAUMAN, Zygmunt. ” Art, liquid?” Sequitur Ediciones, Madrid, 2007. Dialogue first published in 2007 by the National Academy of Arts in Bergen, Norway. KHiB, Bergen 2007.

[2]  LANCHESTER, John. “¡Huy! Porqué todo el mundo debe a todo el mundo y nadie puede pagar”.(Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.)  Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona 2010.

[3]  Different glossaries on fundamentals of economics refer to the concept of Utility, for example those in the University of Havana webpage: / cult_econom / glossary / u_v_w or the wikipedia definitions: (economics)

[4]. The economy of culture supposes a field of work which is concerned with the application of theory and economic analysis on the problems of art and cultural practices. Tools of economics operate in cultural and artistic activities, from production, exchange, consumption and welfare.  (MARCHIARO, Pancho. “Inconsciente colectivo. Producir y gestionar cultura desde la periferia”. Universidad Pascal, Córdoba, 2007. pp 421-422).VV.AA. (2007) ( Collective Unconsciousness: Producing and managing culture from the periphery. Foundation ABACO/Univ. UBP. (Chapter 1)) It is not the aim of this text to enter the specific field of economy despite referring to terms proper to it.

[5].  SMITH, Neil. “Cities after neoliberalism??”. in VVAA. After Neoliberalism: Cities and Systemic Chaos. Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona – Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, ​​Barcelona 2009. p.29

[6].  PATEL, Raj. The Value of Nothing. How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. Los Libros del Lince, Barcelona mayo 2010. p.208

[7]. STIGLITZ, Joseph E. “Caída libre. El libre mercado y el hundimiento de la economía mundial”. Santillana Ediciones Generales SL, Madrid 2011. Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy  W. W. Norton & Company Publishers, 2010

[8]. TOURAINE, Alain. “Después de la crisis. Por un futuro sin marginación”. Ed Paidós, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, México, 2011. pp 158 “After the crisis. For a future without marginalization”

[9]. FERNÁNDEZ DURAN, Ramón. “La Quiebra del Capitalismo Global: 2000-2030, Ecologistas en acción, Virus Editorial, Baladre, CGT, Madrid, 2010  “Breakdown of global capitalismm: 2000-2030”

[10]. op.cit. Pp. 62

[11]. ARGULLOL, Rafael. “Centro y periferia. Criaturas fronterizas.” At Posted on 28/8/2008 ( Centre and periphery. Border Creatures” – Posted on 28/08/2008)

[12]. The concept, developed by Manuel Castells in the mid-90s, in which the space of flux overlaps or merges with physical space, has been confirmed. He argued that to be competitive in the new economy, in productivity and between regions and cities, it would be necessary to combine three key elements: IT capacity, quality of life and connectivity to international networks. Of these three elements, ​​quality of life has suffered more evident relegation, due to the economic and social dualisation established in the cities. In: Castells, M. (1993), “European Cities, The Informational Society, and the Global Economy”. Tijdschrift voor Sociale economische in Geografie, 84: 247-257.

[13]. This text is a revised version of the text published in MESTRES Angel (director). “Música para camaleones; el black album de la sostenibilidad cultural”, Transit Projectes, Barcelona, Madrid, 2012. Digital version available at: