Socially-Engaged Art & Social Enterprise: Creativity on the brink….

Dr. Kevin Ryan

School of Political Science & Sociology, NUIG

The sociological imagination is sometimes characterised as ‘making the familiar strange’, or, as Harold Garfinkle put it half a century ago, the sociologist endeavours to find ways either to become a “stranger to the ‘life as usual’ character of everyday scenes, or become estranged from them”.1 To embark on such a process of inquiry is to seek to distance oneself from the patterns of thought that have sedimented in social consciousness and cultural practices. But why might we want to engage in this type of labour? This is the sort of question that engenders squabbles along the lines of ‘detached’ scholarship versus ‘engaged’ social science, so let me direct this line of questioning specifically at the latter with the aim of moving towards a thorny issue. Making the familiar strange clears the way for a process of re-perception and re-description, thereby bringing imagination and creativity into play, and it is here – at the threshold of what is and what might be – that the connection is made to social and political struggle. This relation between critical thought and transformative action is often framed by the notion of resistance, as though anticipating confrontation with a mode of power that takes the form of an iron st or a brick wall. But what happens when the resistant subject confronts a welcome sign with the message: come hither, we’ve been expecting you? 2 This is the dilemma now facing artists and activists hoping to enact change: creativity is on the brink – ushered towards an open door that draws it into the neoliberal game of enterprise and innovation. In what follows I approach this situation via the past, moving towards the precipice in four steps.


1.Someone who is masterful at making the familiar strange is Zygmunt Bauman, exemplified by the allegorical framing of power/knowledge in his book Modernity and Ambivalence.3 Here the modern “quest for order” is presented
a story that combines two metaphors: a bureaucratic monster that takes the form of a “commodious ling cabinet”, and a type of horticulture built into the fabric of the “gardening state”. This is Bauman’s way of examining how the power/ knowledge nexus is made practical and technical through the relentless drive to categorise and classify the world
and everything it contains – to carve nature (including human nature) at its joints, thereby ensuring that everything is
in its proper place, known by its proper name and subject to the proper authority. Hiding in the shadows of scientific objectivity and bureaucratic impartiality however is the horticultural decision – selecting those things which are
useful, valuable and thus to be multiplied and cultivated. Everything else is analogous to weeds – targeted for waste management and waste disposal. As a vision of mastery, the quest for order was doomed to fail from the start, not because of a lack of will or determination, but because the world in its infinite plurality cannot be contained by the commodious ling cabinet; there are cases that belong to more than one category, while other cases exceed all categories, including the category of waste. Hence the notion of ambivalence, which within the frame of Bauman’s analysis exhibits an undecidable quality born from the quest for order itself. Order and ambivalence form a mutually- constitutive relation: as the quest for order gains momentum and becomes ever more determined to conquer ambivalence, so the edifice of power/knowledge must sprout new branches of knowledge, which generates more ambivalence, thereby necessitating further branching with more finely-calibrated categories. The result is that the edifice is forever chasing the unruly excess produced by the ordering process itself.


2.Viewed from the margins, the quest for order reads like a process of conquest and colonisation that forecloses upon other imaginable ways of being-in-the-world. Harnessed to disciplinary technologies and biopolitical strategies, it becomes a procrustean insistence on uniformity and conformity, refusing to acknowledge (or failing to register) that this insistence is itself the engine that produces ambivalence. To cut to the chase: the quest for order endures only because its managers and technicians are blinkered and thus blind to the simple fact that change remains an irrepressible possibility, and this is precisely because the unthought is thinkable (i.e. imaginable).

In the hands of post-structuralist thinkers,4 Bauman’s ambivalence becomes the weapon of choice used to engage in immanent critique. Otherwise put, post-structuralism embraces the unruly excess that exceeds the will to knowledge,5 using this to reactivate the contingency and contestability of knowledge that has acquired the status of truth. This has also long served as a bridge between critical theory and artistic practice, and has proven to be an effective way of becoming “estranged” from the familiar in that it disrupts and disturbs “the true”,6 thereby opening out spaces for alterity to take root. However, this is arguably no longer the radical method it once was, in that its efficacy is derived from encounters with pretentions of completeness and mastery. Let me try to clarify this point: the modern quest for order has been thoroughly overhauled, and the unruly surplus that Bauman calls ambivalence is now harnessed to the neoliberal game of innovation and enterprise. The question of how we have arrived at this situation has been tackled by others, and not without disagreement,7 but here I want to focus on the extent to which creativity is being appropriated while the terrain associated with the arts is simultaneously being occupied. One manifestation of this can be seen in the various attempts at state and supra-state level to leverage “the creative and cultural industries” so that art is poised to become yet another chapter in the history of enclosures.8 But this moves in the opposite direction too, extending outwards from the figure of the artist so that everyone is enjoined to model themselves on the artist-as-entrepreneur, or, as argued by Gregory Sholette:


…enterprise culture requires a kind of enforced creativity that is imposed on all forms of labour. Workers, whose livelihoods have been made increasingly precarious by the collapse of the traditional social welfare state, are expected to be forever ready to retrain themselves at their own expense (or their own debt), to labour continuously even when at home or on vacation, and finally, they are expected to be constantly creative, to think like an artist: ‘outside the box’.9


To take this one step further is to suggest that the artist-as-entrepreneur has become the principle mode of subjectification in the context of enterprise culture. By way of considering what is at stake here I want to look at an example of how enterprise is encroaching on the field of engaged art.

3. The above quote from Sholette is from his book Dark Matter, and in the context of these remarks on enterprise culture he refers brie y to someone who claims to be “a leading authority on innovation and creativity”: Charles Leadbeater.10 Leadbeater is an advocate of social enterprise, and in 2010 – supported by technology giant Cisco Systems – he co-authored a report with Annika Wong titled Learning from the Extremes.11 By ‘extremes’ they mean the most impoverished regions of the planet, among them the favelas of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, the Kibera slum in Nairobi and the slums around New Delhi in India. It is in these places that radical innovations in education are apparently thriving, and Leadbeater and Wong are of the view that the Global North has much to learn from these “renegades, mavericks, and outsiders working in the margins”.12


The rhetorical structure of the report is supported by the emotionally-charged theme of ‘hope’. Part one, titled ‘How to Spell “Hope”’, opens with the story of a teenage girl living in the slums of New Delhi, whose life took a different trajectory after she encountered unattended computers installed by the Hole in the Wall project, an experiment in Minimally Invasive Education pioneered by Sugata Mitra, Professor of Education Technology at Newcastle University.13 For Leadbeater and Wong, this serves as the baseline for their argument: “education plus technology equals hope because it makes learning attractive and playful”.14 This statement reappears at the end of the report in an altered form15 – presented as a quasi- scientific formula that mimics the often-fallacious assumption that facts obtained from detached and impartial research are untainted by values:


Education + Technology = Hope


The report is thus bookended by ‘hope’. It opens with the touching story of a life-changing experience, and closes by suggesting that hope should be available to all – and who would wish to disagree. Yet what exactly does ‘hope’ represent here? The answer to this question can be seen in a second equation that expands on the one above:


Technology + Social Entrepreneurs = New Ways to Learn = Hope Made Good


Learning from the Extremes is a normative vision masquerading as social-scientific research. Sponsored by commercial interests (Cisco Systems), it shares with philanthrocapitalism16 the unshakable assumption that there is nothing wrong in the world that cannot be fixed by the entrepreneurial attitude – that innovation can be a progressively “disruptive” force, and thus the solution to poverty and inequality is to “unleash a wave of entrepreneurship in education”.17 For Leadbeater and Wong, the renegades and mavericks working in the margins are shaping the future through “disruptive innovation”, and perhaps they are, but is the lens of social enterprise the only way to interpret these experiments?18 Many of the practices documented in Learning from the Extremes use dance, music and games as the basis of collaborative and peer- to-peer teaching and learning. The Centre for Popular and Cultural Development19 in Brazil, for example, established by Tião Rocha in 1984, uses a recipe for soap, so that children can experience the connection between learning and creativity. In the Indian city of Pune, the Door Step School,20 founded by Rajani Paranjpe and Bina Lashkari in 1989, uses a bus as a “school on wheels” to bring education to children who have no access to schools. A slight shift in perspective might suggest a gestalt quality to this constellation of practices, which can also be viewed through the lens of socially- engaged art.21 Is there a difference then between social enterprise and socially-engaged art? Leadbeater and Wong use ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ interchangeably, but this is by no means an innocuous move. Learning from the Extremes is but one example of how creative practice can be appropriated by the language of enterprise and innovation, but more important is how this responds to inequality and human suffering while leaving the standing conditions intact. Social enterprise is posited as the solution to poverty and inequality, because by harnessing imagination to practical solutions, it surpasses unobtainable ideals such as universal social rights and distributive justice. To frame this as ‘hope’ is like saying the best we can do is to make life as tolerable as possible knowing that things will never really change. In short, social enterprise is a form of capitulation whereby Band-Aid solutions are presented as a radically progressive vision of the future. The message presented in Learning from the Extremes is like an exercise in redaction, and what is redacted is this:


Social Enterprise = Mitigation (Transformation)

4. In a situation where the artist-as-entrepreneur becomes the principle mode of subjectification, then all of us, and not just artists, face a stark choice: embrace the game of enterprise and compete for a share of the spoils – and maybe hope to do a little good along the way through charitable acts of giving and helping – or find ways to live differently.
The problem is how to act, as there is no outside to enterprise culture, no external vantage point from where resistance might be staged or a stance of refusal adopted. Insofar as it is possible to speak of an outside, this is already on the inside, in the realm of the imaginable. But herein lies the challenge, because this is also what powers enterprise culture. Creativity is on the brink of being caged by the logic of enterprise and innovation. The question that follows is whether this matters. If it does matter, then what can be done to engage critically while also decoupling socially-engaged art from the logic of enterprise?






  1. Harold Garfinkle, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Cambridge: Polity, 1987/1967), 37.


  1. I am thinking of Louis Althusser’s theory of ‘interpellation’ as I write this, from his essay ‘Ideology
and Ideological State Apparatuses’: Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127–186.


  1. Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991).


  1. This is a troublesome label given that it encompasses such a diverse body of theoretical and analytical approaches, and I use it here without attributing it to any one thinker in particular. For a succinct overview of key characteristics and the extent to which post-structuralism has become largely synonymous with critical theory per se, see Grant H. Kester, The One and the Many (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 54–55.


  1. This phrase is borrowed from Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 12.


  1. Michel Foucault, ‘The Order of Discourse’, in ed. Robert J.C. Young, Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 51–78.


  1. See: Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 2005); Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (London and New York: Verso, 2013).


  1. See for example the European Creative Industries Alliance (


  1. Greg Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London & New York: Pluto Press, 2011), 7.


  1. The quote is from Leadbeater’s personal website (


  1. Charles Leadbeater and Annika Wong, Learning from the Extremes
Cisco White Paper: Cisco Systems Inc. San Jose, California, 2010) (


  1. Learning from the Extremes, 4.


  1. Learning from the Extremes, 1.


  1. Learning from the Extremes, 1.


  1. Learning from .the Extremes, 28.


  1. See ed. Gavin Fridall and Martijn Konings, Age of Icons: Exploring Philanthrocapitalism in the Contemporary World 
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).


  1. The normative vision presented in Learning from the Extremes draws heavily on Clayton Christenson’s work on “disruptive innovation”, which he describes as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of the market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors” (


  1. For a critical overview of the intersections between social enterprise, philanthrocapitalism and micro-finance, see Linsey McGoey, ‘Philanthrocapitalism and its Critics’, Poetics, vol. 40 (2012), 185–199.


  1. Centre for Popular and Cultural Development (


  1. Door Step School (


  1. I acknowledge that I have not spoken to the people mentioned to ask how they would characterise their own practice, and this would be imperative before making strong claims or drawing firm conclusions, but the point I am trying to make here concerns the power/knowledge nexus. Framing these practices as enterprise, and presenting this as an unassailable statement of fact, is itself to exercise power over the field.