The Social Production of Art
In his conference paper The Author as Producer, which he delivered in 1934 at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris, the German critic Walter Benjamin argued that the political tendency of a work of art is not determined by the author’s personal ‘attitude’ towards the social relations of the time, but by the place of the work within those relations. The seemingly irreconcilable opposition between the formal qualities of the work of art and its political or social content is revealed to be a purely abstract one when that work is situated within the material relations of production in which it exists. The meaning of a work of art, Benjamin concluded, is determined not by the intentions of the artist – however laudable, sincere or heartfelt these may be – but by the ideological functions the work serves within the relations of production of the society in which it is produced.
Benjamin was speaking in the context of the role of the revolutionary artist in proletarian revolution and combating the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe; but in today’s international art market, in which the artist has long since turned his back on the working class, individual rebellion is the order of the day. It seems that no exhibition is complete without the accompanying claim that the work questions, subverts, challenges, undermines or overthrows whatever artistic, social or sexual conventions the artist is typically intent on addressing. But situated within the critical and publishing apparatus that establishes the work’s market value and publicity, the patronage system that finances its production and advertising, the gallery system that brokers its display and sale, and the discursive procedures that establish its status and meaning as ‘art,’ the ‘attitude’ of the artist has as much bearing on the actual social meaning of their work as that of a Taiwanese factory worker producing X-Men dolls for the UK market.
A banner, such as the one reproduced above, that is painted collectively on the street, displayed on a street stall offering information and support on social issues, carried on a political march or demonstration, reproduced on leaflets handed out to passersby, exhibited on council estates threatened with demolition, and used in theatrical productions for residents explaining why, has a completely different social and political meaning than the same image painted on a stretched canvas, exhibited in a gallery, framed on a wall, priced in a catalogue of the artist’s work, reproduced in an art magazine, sold to an investor and displayed in the reception of a multinational corporation. As producer – rather than individual genius, bohemian outsider, popular entertainer, or any of the other roles the artist plays under late-capitalism – the author is only one moment in the social relations that encompass the material work, its audiences, and the institutions in which it is produced, circulated, exchanged and consumed.
The Language of Resistance
I was thinking about the possible role of the artist recently while reading a new book by Robert Macfarlane titled Landmarks. It’s about the relationship between the impoverishment of the language we use to describe the natural world and the material impoverishment of that world. One of his points of departure is a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary that includes new words like ‘broadband’, ‘voice-mail’ and ‘MP3 player’, but has removed ‘dandelion’, ‘heather’ and ‘ash’. Without the words and language to describe it, Macfarlane argues, we are less likely to appreciate, value and care for the natural world we seem bent on destroying.
One of his examples of this was the plan by the British multinational consultancy, engineering and project management company AMEC, in conjunction with British Energy (now the French owned EDF Energy), to build a vast wind farm on Brindle Moor, which runs along the interior of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Across this upland expanse they wanted to build 234 wind turbines each 140 metres high and sunk into a foundation of 700 cubic metres of concrete. 210 pylons each 26 metres high would conduct the stored energy off the island. 104 miles of road and 9 electrical substations would service these pylons. 5 new rock quarries would be opened and four concrete plants built. 5 million cubic metres of rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat would be dug up and removed from the moor. 80 per cent of the residents of Lewis opposed these plans, so AMEC began a propaganda campaign in which they characterised and dismissed Brindle Moor as a wasteland, a barren wilderness of nothingness, empty of life, hostile and dead, dreary, depressing, oppressive, useless and without value. What possible reason could there be, they asked, for retaining the moor in its natural state against the vast wealth to be extracted from the winds that blow across it?
To counter this characterisation of their island and home, the Lewisians began a counter campaign that sought to describe, record, express and give meaning and value to Brindle Moor, and ultimately to their experiences of it. Some recorded their walks across its peat plateau, and began to name what they saw there: the infinite number and variety of plant, earth, rock, water, sky, weather and wildlife on land, under water and in the air. Through written descriptions, drawings, photographs and paintings, in maps, imaginary stories, poetic verses, narrative and historical accounts, they began to find and create a language to re-enchant the moor in the public’s perception, to fill the dead nothingness the money men wanted to see with the fullness and multitude of lived experience, to express a value beyond the facts and figures of the accountants, the financial benefits and profits of capital investment and return. After three-and-a-half years of campaigning and nearly 11,000 letters of objection sent to the Scottish Executive, the planning application was turned down. Brindle Moor was saved.
The Propaganda War
Apart from the success of the campaign, this story will sound all too familiar to anyone fighting to save their estates from councils and property developers. And in fighting for our own success against the similar denigration of our communities, our homes and our estates in preparation for their destruction for the benefit and profit of the rich, there are lessons to be learned from its example.
The fact that, like the energy company AMEC, Labour councils, housing associations, property developers, the Tory Government, the press and the media go to such lengths to stigmatise council estates, their communities and their homes as broken, come to the end of their life, as a failed experiment, a socialist dream turned nightmare, as architecturally flawed, as poverty traps, havens of crime and drug dealing, breeding-grounds for anti-social behaviour, the cause of rioting, as run down, mouldy, rotting, dirty, as full of immigrants and benefit scroungers, as disused brownfield land, industrial wastelands that need cleaning up and putting to use, as valueless and vacant voids from which wealth can and should be extracted – the fact that these images of the homes in which 17 per cent of UK households still live is propagated and repeated, over and over again, in every newspaper, BBC news item, crime report, soap opera, reality TV show, government announcement, political manifesto, council meeting, developer’s and builder’s conference, architectural presentation and academic symposium – in fact in every public discourse about housing estates – shows just how important representation is to the attack on social housing in this country.
By the same logic, however, if what is said about our homes and communities is so important to preparing the ground for the plans to destroy them, so too, then, does what we say in their defence. For far too long we have confined our campaigns to rebutting the arguments of our enemies. In doing so, we have limited ourselves to arguing over the financial viability of the existence of our homes and the architectural merit of their forms – rather than for the communities that call them homes; to arguing for the sufficiency of their existing housing densities and their ability to meet the demands of a supposedly rising population – rather than for the value and rights of the residents that currently live in them; to answering the barrage of facts and figures councils and developers throw at us to confirm their campaigns of slander, lies, stereotype, racism and class war – rather than demanding that they first justify their arguments to us, not only financially, but socially and environmentally.
Anyone fighting for their homes knows that the words used in the propaganda war being waged against them have been twisted and distorted out of shape to mean something very different, and often the exact opposite, of their previously accepted meanings. ‘Affordable housing’ that no one but the rich can afford; state-subsidised ‘starter homes’ for property investors; ‘high-income’ households forced to pay market rents on a minimum wage; ‘luxury apartments’ with leaking roofs; disused ‘brownfield land’ on which working-class homes are built; ‘sink estates’ that have been deliberately neglected of maintenance; ‘subsidised’ social housing that was paid off years ago; ‘mixed communities’ of white, middle-class, buy-to-rent landlords; ‘robust consultations’ that ignore what residents say; a ‘housing crisis’ that has been engineered for the profit of those who benefit from it; and, of course, the ‘regeneration’ of estates that demolishes the homes of their residents and breaks up their communities – these are just some of the words and phrases that have been sucked of meaning, wrung out and redeployed as empty buzz words in a formalised, repetitive, unilateral discourse parroted by politicians, councilors, developers and architects alike in order to silence opposing arguments, objecting voices and different experiences.
There are many things we need to start doing to counter and oppose the ideological hegemony of this cross-party assault on working-class lives and culture, and which has the backing of the entire middle-class edifice of the press, media, entertainment, art and culture industries, and – to its eternal shame – the architectural profession. But we can start, like the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis, by finding and creating new languages and forms of representation to give voice and shape and value to the experience of living on housing estates. We can speak, for example, of the socialist principles of their architecture, in which the size of the flats and the number of bedrooms are distributed to accommodate the needs of their occupants rather than their desire for social status; of the refuge they offer the working class from a real estate market that has turned homes into commodities for the profit of landowners and the rich; of the sense of community they retain and nurture, and the support network they provide for the millions of residents abandoned by the Neo-liberal state; of their threatened existence as perhaps the last examples of collective living in the terraced ranks of London’s competing streets.
These, however, are only abstract ideas. They need to be written down, spoken, heard, recorded, drawn, painted, photographed, filmed, carved, built, planted, played, sung, acted, danced, expressed, shared, displayed, screened, read, performed and communicated through the particularities of lived experience – our experience. Resistance isn’t the theme of a contemporary art exhibition, the content of a performance poet’s speech, the form of yet another subversive work of art or the best intentions of a political artist: resistance is social practice. Collective, proletarian and political – three words anathema to the depoliticised, commodified entertainment that passes for art today – such practice is the real folk art of working class experience, and we are all inheritors of its history and custodians of its future. Find your voice, speak your words, tell your tales, defend our homes.
Architects for Social Housing
Illustration from a banner by Andrew Cooper (2012)