The Art of the Third Way

New Labour's vision of an integrated culture is both prescriptive and proscriptive...

The last few months have seen an intensification in the current arguments over the status, and supposed function, of art and culture in contemporary society. At government level New Labour, having initiated its brash and aggressive overhaul of cultural policy early on in office, has run into a barrage of criticism turning on its apparent ‘plebeian’ and philistine disregard for the ‘high’ arts, in favour of an overtly inclusive and populist agenda.  Whilst the widespread celebration of the opening of Tate Modern reaffirmed the government’s alignment with ‘Creative Britain’, the debacle over Millennium Dome has emphasised the limits of its understanding of cultural value versus accessibility; an obsequiously populist attraction which failed to draw the public.

Meanwhile more locally, the current ‘Protest & Survive’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, adds a new twist to the renewed interest in art’s relationship to the wider spheres of political and social life; whether the impulse is towards a utopian communality through culture, or towards the critical examination of society through its implication in art, never in recent times has the demand for art and culture to find new forms of integration with the world been more keenly felt, and at all levels. What is certain is that few now seek to defend art as a privileged, separate or autonomous activity.  And yet, in the current context, this raises some important questions about the value ascribed to art and, more generally, of the possibility of a free culture in a society that increasingly prescribes its limits and functions.

New Labour’s enthusiastic backing of culture bears witness to the peculiar new demands which they make upon it; namely economic and social regeneration. In the realm of the economy, the enthusiasm for the ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘Creative Britain’ model comes from its role as a workable substitute for an economic policy.  As policy commentator James Heartfield has perceptively noted, the DTI’s shift, in its 1998 report, came out of the realisation that in terms of new thinking about industrial policy ‘there were few ideas around, so the theme would have to be ‘knowledge economy’.’[1]  The ‘Creative Britain’ model had of course been imported from the DCMS which, under Chris Smith, has provided political justification for the move away from the old system of direct, but arms-length subsidy of the traditional high arts, towards their seamless integration in the inclusive and non-hierarchical world of the ‘cultural industries’.  But this shift came with New Labour’s instinct for egalitarian populism, and its suspicion of the old cultural elite which, as with its mistrust of anything that smacks of the ‘old politics’, or the ‘forces of conservatism’, lead it effectively to demand ever greater returns from the subsidised arts.  Despite Smith’s passionate protestation of belief in ‘art for art’s sake’ the subsidy of the high arts as worthwhile could no longer be a justification in itself.  Whilst the New Audiences initiative sought to encourage the broader dissemination of established practices (Opera at the football stadium, Shakespeare in night-clubs), the publication of the DCMS/Social Exclusion Unit PAT 10 report attempted to take the quid pro quo approach to the arts further into the realm of social policy.

PAT 10 makes vividly clear the other strand of New Labour’s approach to culture, which is as an agent for social regeneration.   The report focuses on how the arts and sport can ‘help address neighbourhood renewal by improving communities ‘performance’ on the four key indicators of…health, crime, employment [and] education.’[2]The report asserts that the arts and sports are effective vehicles because they develop individuals’ potential and self-confidence, ‘relate to community identity and encourage collective effort, help build positive links with the wider community’, and ‘are associated with rapidly growing industries.’  This may all sound very positive, but in much the same way as the ‘knowledge economy’ argument apologises for the intractably lethargic state of British industry, PAT 10 effectively transposes the responsibility for social development and progress, however limited, away from the state, and into the realm of culture.

This can only make sense in the narrowed economic and social horizons of the social democratic ‘Third Way’.  As William Clark suggested in a recent issue of Variant, ‘the inequalities produced by the free market and maintained by elites are redefined as the surrogate problem of social exclusion.  The pretence is that private capital has cunningly rebranded itself as ‘global’ and is thus out of reach of government.’  Now reconciled to the law of the markets, the politics of the Third Way is reduced to managerial tinkering, and the fantasy that culture can become the cohesive social balm to the ills of a system for which it declares ‘There Is No Alternative’.

This model of limited social reformism for culture however also informs certain aspects of what would have been seen as radical artistic practice until recently. The March issue of Public Art Journal devoted itself entirely to the potential of PAT 10  in advancing the model of art as a integrated social practice.  In her foreword, Davina Thackara asks whether, ‘…after a century that opened with the birth of Modernism- an ideology which celebrated the supremacy of the artist as individual, and the art object as unique product- are we now, at the start of the next, witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm based on broader cultural representation and an altered notion of the public as active and direct participants within cultural production?’[3]  The transformation of the radical critique of authorship and commodification into an ideology of social cohesion through cultural participation is no doubt unintended.  But the ensuing subordination of artistic freedom to the needs of a supposed ‘community’ can only be the next logical step.  This doesn’t seem to matter to Dave Beech who, in the same issue, points to practices that are ‘built on the double foundation of popular sentiments and artistic self-consciousness- of responsibilities to the viewer and responsibilities to the work.’ Taking his lead from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, Beech attempts to demonstrate that art’s modernist ethical mission and status becomes irrelevant when the social framework that supports it changes or disintegrates.  If, he writes, ‘the social relations of modernity are at issue then we can assume that one the chief casualties will be the social relations of art.’  Further on, he echoes Debord’s pessimistic analysis of a polis disintegrated by the power of the spectacle, stating that ‘globally shared experiences these days are bonded with screens not paving stones… broadcasting technologies and the cultures which they carry have  not just expanded the public, they have put it through a mincer.’[4]  Yet beneath the veil of Beech’s quasi-philosophical terminology lies an apology for an art that is happier to accommodate the attentions of a half-interested public, rather than risk alienating itself from an already fractured public sphere.  This is why he points approvingly to Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo,  Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass and Cornford & Cross’ Cadbury-purple public fountain in Bourneville, works all distinguished by their over-sentimental alignment to the assumed sensibilities of their audience.  Nonetheless, the success of these works does point to the popularity of art which is eager not to exclude, even at the risk of limiting, rather than extending the range of artistic enquiry.

In such a context, the question of artistic freedom has to be posed differently.  Whilst it is true that the modernism of the last century wrought a corrupt and false autonomy for itself at the cost of its engagement with the political and social contingencies of the real world, the current enthusiasm for the ‘reintegration’ of art into everyday life is in danger of proscribing the limits not only of artistic imagination, but of the social and political imagination too.  In this, Matthew Higgs and Paul Noble, co-curators of ‘Protest & Survive’ are right when they declare that ‘Our time is painted as the End of History- a time where a good citizen of the New Order is a spectator to the minor tweaks of our market Equilibrium…We feel that imaginative life has been bought out too cheaply…Our protest is for the survival of idea(l)s.’  It’s true that ‘Protest & Survive’ contains much work that is concerned with a direct intervention into the social sphere, and much that is deliberately utopian, not to say fantastic.  Nor can one ignore that much of the work dates back to an era where protest was alive because the sense that the world could be transformed still existed, and that art could involve itself in that potential for change.  But one has only to compare Cornford & Cross’ Bourneville fountain, Utopia (Wishful Thinking), with Rob Pruitt’s Wishing Well at the Whitechapel, to understand the difference between art that is reconciled to the present, and art that hopes for the future;  in Bourneville, Cornford & Cross renovated a dilapidated pond fountain, and filled the pond with the patented purple of the Cadbury chocolate empire.  A middle-class, public-spirited gesture of limited local amelioration, in keeping with the industrial philanthropism of the Cadbury dynasty.  Pruitt’s Wishing Well,  on the other hand, stuck in the exclusive environs of a gallery of contemporary art, presented a pond built from the cardboard cases of Evian mineral water with which it was filled, a small electric fountain at its centre.  Improbable, impermanent, and built from prosaic commodities; yet as a metaphor for a world that could be transformed through a simple act of imagination, it held the actual and the potential in taut proximity.  Perhaps because of this, few people seemed to want to make a wish for the future; it had already been made.


[1] James Heartfield, Great Expectations: The creative industries in the new economy, Design Agenda, 2000

[2] Policy Action Team 10: a report to the Social Exclusion Unit, p22, DCMS July 1999

[3] Davina Thakara, Foreword to Public Art Journal, vol.1 no.3 March 2000

[4] Dave Beech, ‘Public Art after Virtue, ibid.



Published in Art Monthly no241, November 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated