Culture and Social Responsibility

(The Global Crisis in Confidence, 25 Jul 2012)

George Bickers ·

Tristan Tzara, the great Dadaist, once stated that “People envisage the (ever-impending) annihilation of art. Here they are looking for a more art-like art.”  This simple statement focuses our attention on not only what one considers “art”, but also its purpose within our society.

Should we as individuals and as a society be producing art that is for art’s sake alone?

Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable ambition, I assert that it falls short of achieving anything substantive.  At its base, the cultural tools of a society — the art forms it produces — are mutli-layered.  One’s enjoyment of art can access all these layers, from simple distraction to profound appreciation.  But we are primarily concerned with what one takes away from the cultural tools that we as individuals access on a daily basis.

The more that you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses.  (Prof. Robert Solomon, University of Texas, Austin)

Solomon expresses a necessary and vital form of cultural engagement and criticism; a form that recognises that the individual, for both their own sake and that of society, is not simply a product of quotidien power structures but is instead an active, involved, socially conscious, and most importantly, responsible individual.  One who is a member of a reciprocal community that is freed from the prevailing organic and artificial groupings that hold the individual in place.

First, the individual must examine the structures in which he or she is constituted.  We can see “organic” structures that are in place by providence of birth – one’s local community, a social or cultural group, one’s nationality or country of origin.  Alongside - and by definition within - we see “artificial” structures that are created by a need of those within the organic structures to facilitate perceived day to day needs or wants, or for us by externalised forces.  These extend to an individual’s educational peer groups, or an individual’s political leaning and association with others who share similar views, or even the interactions that form around an individual’s work place.

The single factor that unifies all these structures is that they can be transcended in one form or another.  We traditionally believe, for example, that one is very likely to remain in the class one was born in, but one can see it is not impossible - albeit not particularly likely - to move from one class to another.  The first key part of this style of cultural engagement is to recognise and note its transcendental nature.

In realising this, we confront our next challenge.  The critic should notice that in transcending these traditional power structures, the object of criticism has escaped the critic’s definition and renders critics irrelevant.  The challenge lies in accepting that this ‘school’ of thought we are describing is itself a confining structure and so to be effective it must recognise that it can and must be transcended.  By making this assertion, we find ourselves in somewhat Dadaist territory.  The ‘school’ runs the risk of showing “…that you can perform contrary actions at the same time, in one single, fresh breath” (Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918).

We must address this. The school itself represents a type of power structure.  Just because the community that the school advocates seeks to escape from the confines of the power structures the community sees around it, the school itself is not rendered irrelevant.  The function of the school is to highlight and facilitate the methods in which the community is both achieved and propagated, ensuring the community’s  escape from those power structures that hold it back, and ensuring its autonomy.  The school recognises both its position and its potential opposition to the ideal community, but in this recognition it is able analyse and advance the ideals it seeks without compromising them in the process.

Therefore, it becomes clear that it is the act of transcendence, of escape, that stops the individual from being simply a ‘social construct’, a ‘confluence’ of external forces, and turns them into the ideal – a socially responsible, socially aware, contributing member of a new community. A person that disavows the ever decreasing sub-labels that a society dominated and obsessed by collective identities, populated by a faceless mass of ex-individuals. A person that exercises power not simply for his or her own good, but for the creativity, liberation, and benefit of a new, ever-changing reciprocal community.


Art was not the goal, but the occasion and the method.

 (Steve Fitch, musician)

This “school” must recognise that transcendence is not the final goal, and that the resulting position is of lesser interest than the means by which it is achieved. These means of transcendence would be the focus of criticism and engagement.

This school isn’t curious about the results of the art alone, but in the process that leads to the result, so we might learn how it was achieved, in order to highlight and advocate it to the wider conscious.

This school believes that state of humanity can be radically improved by espousing the values of responsibility, and that this can best be achieved through the creation of cultural objects — literature, poetry, “fine” art, film, photography, journalism — and by incorporating the message that individuals have a direct effect on the wider world, no matter how small an action.  That what you do matters.  This goal places a burden on the creator of these cultural objects.  Those whose works are read, viewed, appreciated, and criticised by an audience have a direct effect on the world at large, and should be thus used responsibly.

The quest is to be liberated from the negative.

(Otto Hofmann)

This responsibility of course extends to critics within this school.  It is not for the critic to shun cultural objects that do not subscribe to their world view.  It is their responsibility to engage with them and to identify the parts in which they discern to be instrumental in advocating not only the desires of the individual, but also the ways in which these desires can help facilitate the advancement of a fair, equal, and productive community whilst still respecting and encouraging the desires, and dreams of the individual themselves.  If the negative - relative to the critic - can be recognised and accepted for what it is, and allow something positive to be drawn from it, then this can only benefit the collective.  We neither see nor advocate the end of discourse and disagreement, but instead the acceptance of opposing points of views and the facilitation of compromise to mutual benefit.


As this school measures the actions and reactions of both creative individuals and the members of the power structures they find themselves in, it must be both active and reactive in its engagement and output.

It must be active, in so far as it must use its engagement opportunities to highlight the effects of art and culture on society at large.  It must encourage social responsibility in those individuals who are producing the cultural tools with which it engages.  It must be active in encouraging cross-cultural engagement: pointing out within the criticism how an individual engages with, satirises, derides, and draws attention to the power structures they come in contact with and how in doing so transcends their influence.

It must be reactive in so far as it must respond to the desires of the individual and attempt to reconcile them with the needs and wants of a productive, responsible, and fair community in which power structures do not dictate the progress of individual or communal growth.  Reactive in so far as it meets and accepts the challenges presented by a rapidly changing culture by studying and learning from already existing cultural tools, from both the past and the present, making sense of them, and finding their place and relevance within a new, ideal society.


What was missing was felt irretrievable.

(Guy Debord)

Something is missing from our society. This school’s assertion is that the thing missing is twofold.

First, the individual’s feeling of empowerment within their community and attachment to it, and the individual’s belief that what they do impacts the world around them.

Second, a community that recognises that it does not need to be defined by the structures around it, but instead by its own members and their creative output: whether that output is cultural, political, or economic.  This school agrees with Guy Debord, that what is missing is felt to be irretrievable, but that the best way to retrieve what is missing is through engagement with and criticism of the cultural tools produced by the individuals that surround us: engagement and criticism that transcend, and facilitate transcendence of, the power structures we allow to define our every day existence.