Doing something and doing nothing

Dossier: documenta 12 magazines project

RP 141 () / Article, documenta 12 magazines project, Dossier

Culture is put busily to work these days. In Europe, certainly, culture is made the bearer of promises – the promise of a better quality of life, of a more educated public, of a more efficient and value-added cultural sphere, and, not least, the promise of regenerated economies. These promises are expressed in cultural policy initiatives that have been rolled out across Europe in emulation of the initiatives of the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport at the turn of the millennium, when culture was lauded as an economic and moral salvation.1

Cultural policy makes efforts to shape the future through art, or rather through the assumed side effects of exposure to culture, its ʻvalue-addedʼ benefits. The association of art and better living may derive from faintly heard echoes of the historical avant-garde, the New World promoters such as Malevich, Tatlin, Popova, Matiushin and El Lissitzky, who saw art as blueprints for the future. However, by this they did not mean that art boosted confidence under current conditions or imposed a sense of collectivity on a disparate and alienated community. Their blueprints did not even push art to re-present tangible images of a future worth living. Rather, they re-functioned art so that it might institute modes of non-commodified production, frequently collective and collaborative. Future-oriented art tested out transformed social relations of knowing, specifically by enlivening audiences, rattling their existence out of the habitual, appealing to a consciousness that re-apprehends the world and itself as new. that re-apprehends the world and itself as new.

Contemporary cultural policyʼs vision of the better life is not one that imagines a fundamental newness in the world. Instead culture is deployed as the little bit that makes a difference. What cultural policy wants to be done is the work of social improvement. In Britain it relies on a language of acronyms and jargon: of art parsed through tags such as ʻsocial exclusionʼ or bodies such as Social Inclusion Partnerships (SIPs), deployed ʻas a means of tackling exclusionʼ by ʻmobilizing community stakeholdersʼ and ʻidentifying target groupsʼ.2 Bureaucratic structures of ʻevaluationʼ and ʻimplementationʼ exist to administer the ʻobjectivesʼ and ʻmeasureʼ the ʻoutcomes and outputsʼ of funded projects in ʻcreating a dynamic environment for the artsʼ and ʻimproving the quality of lifeʼ of ʻhard to reach social groupsʼ. Cultural policy mobilizes art as a plus, an ameliorative measure recruited to lighten blighted lives and neutralize zones of antisocial behaviour. Culture is set to promote ʻsatisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existenceʼ, and allow ʻgroups, communities and nations to define their futures in an integrated mannerʼ.3 This is what cultural policy wants done. What culture actually does is largely more practical. Culture boosts economies and generates wealth, displaying a talent for regeneration, through raising house prices and introducing new business, which is largely service-based.4 The very future of urban areas in the Europe of today is pinned on the ʻregenerative powersʼ of ʻCity of Cultureʼ bids, with culture as the magic elixir that bestows new life. Culture is heralded as the universal grease relied upon to make the cogs of business revolve better and the joints of society interconnect more smoothly.