Instrumentalisation: a convenient mask

For as long as I can remember, the accusation of instrumentalising art has been flung at community artists, as a way of discrediting their work and its challenge to dominant practice. It’s always seemed wrong to me – not just in the sense of being an incorrect analysis of what we do, but philosophically and politically wrong. People make it to defend the tastes and practices they prefer against critique. Because it’s endorsed by the most powerful interests in the art world, it has often been politically effective. But it has never been more than a self-serving myth, a mask to hide power.

What is meant by instrumentalisation is that art is being used to serve a purpose other than the creation of art. In so far as it has any theoretical basis, it is a version of ‘art for art’s sake‘, the late 19th century appeal to aestheticism. But art has no meaning without people. Indeed, it does not exist without being recognised as art by human beings. Everything we do serves our needs, and art allows us to create, communicate and contest meaning. Among other things, it can move us, inspire us, make us think and give us pleasure – but these are all purposes leading to outcomes. So is using theatre to help people in the criminal justice system to reflect on their lives and choices. It is using art with purpose. Whether you think that is a good purpose or not is a political judgement, or perhaps a moral one. But it is not an artistic judgement.

Ministers congratulate galleries and orchestras when they accept sponsorship from multinational corporations and donations from oligarchs. Critics celebrate their exhibitions and concerts, seeing them as the apogee of culture, expressing the universal non-materialist values of art. Really? You could as easily see our public cultural institutions as instrumentalising art in the service of public relations, business networking and sustaining the structures of elite power, Whether you think that is a good purpose or not is a political judgement, or perhaps a moral one. It is not an artistic one.

There is an important difference between these examples. Artists who work with community groups, who care about the effects of their creative practice, do it by choice. They make art with social purposes because that is what inspires them, not because it is what a funder requires. The work and its purpose comes first, and then the attempt to finance it. No one got rich by being a community artist. Artists who do want to be rich hang about in the right places with the right people, like court flatterers and clowns. It is they who allow themselves to be instrumentalised, to be used in the service of power. Community artists choose to be engaged with society, to put their work in the service of those who have least. Again, what you think of that is a political judgement, but don’t pretend it is some high-minded artistic principle. It’s bad faith and self-interest.

Thanks to Geese Theatre for the photograph illustrating this post; you can read more about the company’s work in A Restless Art (pp. 70-71). The opinions expressed here are of course mine, not those of the company.

Bob Dylan, “Changing of the Guards.”