Kester, G. 'A critical framework for dialogical practice' chapter in Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art

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This chapter critically examines the role of community artists in the context of social policy. In particular, community artists must be conscious of being heirs to a problematic history of social work which seeks to improve the poor morally. Kester examines the pitfalls of art practices which fall uncritically into this tradition, and proposes a better way of engaging with communities, by working with self-defined groups rather than atomised subjects in need of 'improvement' by the artist.


  • Contemporary dialogical practices can trace their roots to experimental projects of the 1960s-70s which moved outside the white cube gallery space.
    • These practices often functioned in underpriviledged neighbourhoods, and indeed came to define 'community' as those who were "alienated from the institutions of high art" (read: poor/immigrant/working class etc)
    • In the 1980s these alternative spaces and projects became institutionalised, with a problematic relationship to gentrification of formerly working class neighbourhoods - "a process in which the alternative space acted as both a victim and accomplice".
    • "An appetite for tokens of exoticism or for what is seen as teh more authentic and visceral experience represented by racial or class difference... is a persistent feature of modern avant-garde discourse."
    • By the 1990s, "new genre public art" (a term coined by Suzanne Lacy) had become institutionalised, with funding bodies coming to define their mission in terms of doing social good.
    • This situation raises vexed questions about what is meant by "community", and how to balance the conflicting demands for solidarity with social struggles vs the need for artists to maintain a "skeptical, self-reflexive attitude".

Malleable Subjects and Moral Pedagogy

  • "Recent community art practice in the US draws both consciously and unconsciously on the history of urban reform".
    • Rhetoric of 'empowerment' and 'participatory democracy' are appropriated from 1960s social movements.
    • We must look at the history of the politics surrounding urban improvement, to understand the context in which community art operates.
    • Recent conservative theories blaming poverty on the moral degeneracy of the poor have a long pedigree, going back to Victorian times. They are characterised by a rhetoric of "inner resources" lacking in the poor, which must be inculcated by philanthropic (middle/upper class) ideal citizens. The poor are "malleable subjects" awaiting redeption.
    • Victorian 'visitors' to poor neighbourhoods were the prototypical social workers, and early examples of what Barbara & John Ehrenreich have termed the nascant "professional-managerial class", who claim to apply universal scientific principles to the problems of the working class, in a disinterested fashion.
    • This early 20th century movement to improve the poor by moral means grew from evangelical theory about individual salvation, involving "the spectacle of the repentant subject" who takes sole responsibility for their problems in life.
    • This evangelical framework has been re-purposed by contemporary conservatives, eg blaming social ills on single black mothers.
  • Due to funding policies in the 1990s blurring the boundaries between art and social policy, "the function of the community artist can...be compared with that of the reformer or social worker". Both "possess a set of skills (beaurocratic, diagnostic, aesthetic/expressive)...and have access to public and private funding...with the goal of bringing about some transformation in the condition of individuals who are presumed to be in need".
    • "For community artists the aesthetic plays the same role that science does for reformers or religion for evangelicals, allowing them to transcend the specificity of their own social and cultural position and sanctioning their intervention in a given community". This community is often marked as different from the artist - usually socially inferior in some way.
  • This creates very uncomfortable questions for community artists about their complicity in neo-evangelical programmes, with roots in this Victorian 'moral pedagogy' approach.
    • Artists must be aware of the moves to replace state-funded social provision with philanthropic opportunities for the poor to develop themselves spiritually. For example, state welfare being replaced with private funding for art initiatives.
    • Another aspect of the philanthropic approach is that giving to the poor enhances the giver's spiritual transcendence. There is a persistent myth of the artist as just such a figure, who is "able to identify with, and speak on behalf of, the poor and the marginalized" in a shamanistic process which "reaffirm[s] the artist's social transcendence" by drawing on "the putative universality of the aesthetic itself that allows them [artists] to claim a moral or pedagogical authority in social domains where their intervention might otherwise be regarded with some suspicion".

Urban Warrior Myths: a Case-study

  • 'Soul Shadows: Urban Warrior Myths' was a project co-created with young black men in a prison by artist Dawn Dedeaux in 1993.
    • Kester discusses the strengths and weaknesses of this project. On the one hand it aims to stimulate empathy for its subjects in white viewers, and involved dialogue across cultural boundaries (the artist is white). On the other hand, it draws uncritically on narratives of individual guilt and salvation, acting as a 'teaching aid' to young black men to warn them off criminality, and appropriating the authenticity of black gang leaders to enhance the artist's own credibility. It is unclear how the black men involved benefited from this process.
    • "The project demonstrates some of the challenges that artists face when they operate in the liminal zone between art, activism, and social policy".

The politically coherent community

  • Community artists are often in a position where they represent a community, speaking "through, with, about or on behalf of other subjects".
    • This role can be likened to that of the 'delegate' in Bourdieu's theory of the relationship between a given community and a delegate elected to speak on its behalf.
    • Bourdieu warns of the danger of "embezzlement" by the delegate if they claim to speak for the community in order to empower him/herself.
    • Community artists run this risk because of their priviledged position in relationship to the communities with which they often work. This priviledge can be enhanced by the dialogical nature of projects, where the artist's authority to speak on behalf of a community is /strengthened/ by the fact that they have engaged in dialogue & listening. This situation can "create the appearance of harmony of interests even where none may actually exist".
    • Empathy, whilst being necessary, also has a dark side - it "can also be used to deny the very real social differences that exist between artists and their collaborators, encouraging an exploitative form of 'vicarious possession'" (quoting Adrian Piper) "in which the artist arrogantly claims the authority to speak on behalf of a disenfranchised other".
  • This danger can be minimsed by working with self-defined, pre-existing communities ("coherent communities"), for example trades unions or prisoners rights groups, rather than individuals defined by the artist "as socially isolated or disaffected individuals whose collective identification is provided by an ameliorative aesthetic experience administered by the artist"- eg, 'homeless youth'.
    • Working in this way with self-defined communities tends to produce "a more reciprocal process of dialogue and mutual education, with the artist learning from the community and having his or her preconceptions...challenged and transformed in turn".