Critical Friends: agency, political power and freedom

By 2008, the year Critical Friends began, the commissioning of participatory, socially engaged art was relatively commonplace, often connected to New Labour government policies of social inclusion, which had been promoted since they came to power in 1997. Participation had become a 'buzz word', often used in positive terms alongside expectations of empowerment. In his book The Nightmare of Participation, Markus Miessen pointed out that 'at a time when New Labour had turned everything into inclusion and everyone into a "participant", one started to wonder about the supposed innocence of the term, its real motivations, and the romanticised means of communicating it' (2010, 51). Miessen questions the idea of participation as a consensus-based, 'politically correct means of innocently taking part in societal structures' (2010, 54). Rather, he sees participation as war, and as conflict (Miessen 2010, 53).

Similarly, Barbara Cruikshank in her book The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects (1999) wrote about 'technologies of citizenship' as participatory and democratic schemes that aim to make individuals politically active and capable of self-governance (that is, turning subjects into citizens). But, she argues, as citizens, we are still made by, and therefore subject to, power. The commissions being investigated by Critical Friends, and perhaps Critical Friends as a scheme itself, could be understood as exercises in such technologies of citizenship. Cruikshank unpicks the history of empowerment and citizenship by questioning the underlying assumption that to empower is to gain agency, political power and freedom. She suggests that citizenship is based on the notion of the state helping people to help themselves and is still a mode of control, rather than emancipation and agency: 'the will to empower contains the twin possibilities of domination and freedom' (Cruikshank 1999, 2). There is a perpetual cycle of attempts (and industries built on providing this empowerment service, such as the art-commissioning industry) to encourage participation, which aims to turn supposedly apathetic, dependent subjects into thinking, responsible, pro-active, independent, self-sufficient citizens. Participation has become a term used to imply a path to such empowerment.

This will to empower can also be connected to New Labour's policy of social exclusion and inclusion, which provides the backdrop to funding criteria for many art commissions, such those being investigated by Critical Friends. Ruth Levitas (2005) has written a thorough critique of social inclusion and the diminishing role of the state in a neoliberal society that increasingly outsources the management of poverty. She challenges the ideas of Amitai Etzioni who advocates social responsibility as a demoralisation of social life' and an increase in unpaid voluntary work through services to communities and families (Levitas 2005, 91). Levitas asks who Etzioni expects to disregard their own individual interests (the bedrock of capitalism) and carry out this unpaid social work on which communities apparently depend (Levitas 2005, 94). She also refers to John Gray (1993) who suggests that welfare provision should be provided by families, neighbourhoods, churches and friends before the state steps in (cited in Levitas 2005, 100). This is extremely relevant where commissioned art is concerned, because commissions are generally framed to side-step radical redistribution in favour of helping people to help themselves. Through the socially engaged art commission, artists often become the facilitators of this self-provision and act as catalysts for Etzioni's 'remoralisation of social life'.

The Critical Friends initiative sought to create a temporary critical distance from the focus on empowerment and to question the positive spin on participation.

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