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October 8, 2015

What good are the arts? Social responsibility and contemporary art.

Written by Delia Vekony

What ‘good’ can the arts do? Can the arts do anything to aid us in such socially and ecologically pressing times? Is there a need for art when – seemingly – there are many far more urgent issues to deal with? What ‘good’ can the arts offer and what does ‘good’ mean for the troubled society of the 21st century? ‘What good’ for what, ‘what good’ for who?

These questions already suggest that the ‘benefit’ of art is a complex issue. To start with, in most cases – when arguing for their legitimacy – the arts need to demonstrate ‘what use’ they are for the society we are living in today. The paper therefore starts with the demonstration of various theories on the use of art. Subsequently, I argue that the question itself needs to be revaluated as the real ‘good’ the arts can offer cannot be understood within the current, socially and politically defined structure. When understood within the context of ‘good’, ‘use’ and ‘benefit’, the question itself suggests that the use of art should be understood within a utilitarian, teleological framework. In this case, there is no room for thought outside of the social hegemony, and hence the ability of art to provoke real change is compromised by the very means of questioning its role. How a redefined  ‘value’ of contemporary art is to be grasped is the task of this paper.  Among other things I will argue that certain contemporary art practices such as Lara Almarcegui’s 2013 Venice biennale installation, open up a particular space which characterizes the ‘real relevance’ of art for current times.


When calling for the legitimation of pretty much any practice today, people turn to science. If it is scientifically proven that this or that practice is of any ‘good’, then it is more likely that it will get the necessary support. Neuroscientists such as Semir Zeki, Anjan Chatterjee or Vilayanur Ramachandran aid the arts when demonstrating what impact it can have on the human brain.[1]

Brain scientists also research if and how the arts make us become better and more complex human beings. They aim to prove scientifically that art plays an important part in us becoming better individuals that are able to build a better society. In his research, Brain Prize winner Tamás Freund, for instance, proves by researching large pace-maker cells of the brain how artistic and creative experience enhances the complexity of our inner world, and therefore enables complex, respectful and inclusive decision-making at other areas of our lives in general.[2]

It is also known that if the parietal lobe of the brain - the segment that, aside from other activities, is responsible for visualization and imagination - is stimulated by art, the activities of the frontal lobe, that is responsible for human intelligence, abstract thinking, emotional intelligence and other, become far more complex. Put it simply, the stronger the visualization, the greater the stimulus for abstract thinking.[3]

However, no matter how much scientific research is conducted, neuroaesthetics on the one hand cannot map the particular subjectivity of the experience. On the other hand, it treats the arts as instrumental to larger social goals. In other words is examines how much ‘good’ and ‘happiness’ it generates for those groups and individuals that want to conduct a better life within a given social framework.

Similarly to this approach, sociological research also looks for the benefit of the arts within a given power-structure.

Art for social and individual good

“How the arts impact communities” is the title of a paper presented at a Princeton University conference 2002 on the measurement of the impact of culture.[4] Joshua Guetzkow in his research is focusing on three statements; first, that the arts improve social capital; second, that they have a positive effect on economy; and finally that they are good for individuals.

When refering to social capital, Guetzkow is looking at how community art programs in which people - often with some type of social disadvantage - would participate in projects that were designed for community improvement. He mentions a few tangible outcomes of the involvement in the art project such as “fostering trust between participants and thereby increasing the generalized trust of others, … increasing their sense of connection to that community, …learning technical and interpersonal skills important for collective organizing”. When referring to individuals, it is stated that the arts can help improve health, skills and cultural capital. Various tests have been created to measure such impact, one is the Mozart effect, demonstrating that listening to Mozart or other “similar stimuli show improved performance on visuo-spatial reasoning”.[5]

The shortcoming of Guetzkow’s research is similar in nature to that of neuroaesthetics. He presents an instrumentalist view of the arts at the same time as he – instead of questioning the power-game that causes many human problems and to which art is more often seen as a psychological remedy, than as symptomatic of the need for political liberation – explores how the arts can make us better citizens as part of this very power-game.

Many other prominent researchers explore the impact of the arts from psychologist Howard Gardner to professor of literature at Oxford University, John Carey, who in his book What good are the arts? (2005) points out that there is no reason to think that the arts will produce any behavioral change. He argues that there is no direct proof that the arts can help us become ‘happier’ or ‘better’ human beings in any way. Carey comes up with the infamous examples of Hitler and Getty and argues that people as such had not become other, ‘better’ kind of human beings just because they engaged passionately with the arts.[6]

Although Carey claims that statistics prove that the arts might help reduce violence rate[7] he returns to ‘real life’ quoting Heaney who argues that poetry improves people as it stirs deep acoustic memories. Nonetheless, many of the boys in his classroom who were passionate about poetry still ended up in the IRA killing people.[8] As one would guess, Carey is skeptical.  Still, he argues that art has a particular force, namely in changing how we grasp the world around us: The arts offer “another way of cutting up the universe” and I will return to this alternative way a little later, as it is of particular interest for this article.[9]

Art with a socio-political mission

Before I go into an exploration of just how art is able to come up with an alternative for living the world as we know it, there is a need to look into a popular theoretical direction that concentrates on interrogation. For many if not most contemporary art theorists, contemporary art has relevance if it manages to question the steady and safe social bond. For them the value of art lies in its ability to generate thinking outside of the social frame, of that very cage rationalist, instrumentalist teleological thinking is making tighter and tighter by mapping the world.

Social critic and philosopher Chantal Mouffe finds contemporary art’s central role in its (socio-political) criticism of set values of hegemony. In order to argue for the critical role of art, Mouffe in her book Agonistics. Thinking the world politically (2013) introduces the terminology ‘agonistic art’ that she places in the service of agonistic democracy. Mouffe holds very strong views about agonistics and puts a considerable responsibility on art: “The agonistic approach sees critical art as constituted by a manifold of artistic practices bringing to the fore the existence of alternatives to the current post-political order. Its critical dimension consists in making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate, in giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony”.[10]

In other words, Mouffe expects art to shed light onto the power-structure society is bound by as well as onto subjects and practices excluded and ‘otherized’ by hegemonic operation.[11] Although this might seem like a thinking out of the box, it actually is not - because the critical and interrogative practices Mouffe advocates still play according to the rules of existing hegemony (see note 11).

The philosopher who also treats politics as aesthetical and aesthetics as political, yet has a ‘softer’ approach to the relationship of the two is the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Ranciere acknowledges that art – although political – is a different realm of sensory reality than politics. As he puts it: “The images of art do not supply weapons for battles”.[12] We cannot and should not expect art to have a direct political influence. In this sense, referring back to Mouffe, for Ranciere it is not expected from art to stand for any kind of political attitude, not even for agonistic democracy. For Ranciere rather the goal is to create a ‘body’ or space that can exist outside the dominant (oppressive) political discourse in order to show another (political, but in the sense that all art is political) alternative without any teleological implications.[13] For Ranciere, the force of art lies in its ability to create space beyond taken-for-granted structures. Art tears into the social bond and invites us to re-think, revaluate the world we live in. Whether there is a given action that follows is not the point.

This approach is getting closer to how I see the real relevance and force of art. Nonetheless, in order to clarify just what kind of artistic practices we need, another theory needs to be introduced.

The ground zero of contemporary art

The space Ranciere allocates for art leads us to a space that philosopher Catherine Malabou’s describes as ground zero. I introduce this concept into this paper because I argue that the force of contemporary art that has social relevance today lies in this ability to create such open, non-teleological spaces. What is the space of ground zero and why do we need it? Ground zero is open ‘site’ without predefined structure, a non-teleological space in which the things-of-the-world can manifest without prescriptions and expectations.

In order to create new, yet unknown alternatives, there is much need to generate open spaces, that is create spaces in which the things of the world can reveal themselves in their (possibly endless) complexity. These open platforms in which yet unknown ways of being in the world can surface are states of ‘ground zero’, a term articulated in a seminal lecture Whither materialism? Althusser/ Darwin (2013) by Malabou.

Can we ever find or create spaces that - without imposing themselves onto us – can promise a possibility of the growth of the self? Malabou argues that we live our lives teleologically in an instrumentalist framework. Teleological attitude assumes that we are already aware of the solutions and the means in order to achieve a particular end. This attitude has gotten into the devastating – think of ecology – state the planet is now facing. This behavior is in line with capitalism, patriarchy and a production, gain and growth oriented mindset. What is there to be done? We cannot invent another world-view, another utopia for offering a solution to the mentality we are living with; we simply do not have the time for it. World-views as meta-narratives proved not to work anyway.[14]

In order to overcome the hegemonic structure that still refuses to acknowledge the consequences of this attitude, the task is therefore to “free the repressed status of nothingness” and “reveal it as formative”. Nothingness – existence without structure – has endless possibilities that should not be forced into structure according to already existing social models.[15] Malabou therefore calls for the sensibility and sensitivity to let such empty spaces emerge for yet unknown alternatives to surface.

If this point has any real relevance for us today, one starts wondering if art, especially contemporary art, is capable of creating such spaces or not. The following ideas might get us closer to an answer.

The force of art

In his book entitled The force of art. Cultural memory in the present (2004) Krzysztof Ziarek argues that art should not be thought of in utilitarian and politicalterms, including art that is political in the sense of questioning hegemony,  since in most cases this interrogation takes place through the tools of the very same hegemony that is being critiqued –  thus only ironically confirming its power.[16]

Instead, for Ziarek, the force of art is to act otherwise, precisely because art functions in a way that is unlike the operation of the power structure we are embedded in  and posits the “ability to let go of power, to transform relations and enable their alternative configurations”.[17] This transformative character of art is very important to Ziarek, more precisely its “nonformalized functions and flows of energy, that is, in terms of the elemental constituents of ‘being’ prior to their actualization into substances, objects or bodies”.[18] This idea of force without form is in line with the Malabou-ian concept of ground zero and also with the definition of the force of art that I propose in this text, namely as an energy that does not strive for a particular goal.Art might still reference social issues and problems, in its subject-matter it might be socially critical, but this is not where its force lies. Art as force is no longer in the service of power and it is not to be understood from the viewpoint of power. Therefore, art’s force becomes political in the sense that it is an alternative to politics.

Just what might be the nature of the ground zero of contemporary art? I want to argue that art is an experience: It is physical and bodily and acts on another realm than philosophy or social sciences, or as philosopher Robert Zwijnenberg states: it is an embodied understanding that rises above and beyond discourse.[19] Compared to philosophy or social science, art overcomes the borders of language and draws one into a bodily understanding of the world (inner and outer) we live in and we are supposed to shape.

Let us see how an artistic ‘ground zero’, in other words, a non-teleological space without prescriptions might emerge in actual contemporary artworks. The piece presented at the 2013 Venice Biennale by Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui at the Spanish Pavilion could be a salient example. At first glance it is evident that Almarcegui’s work displays carefully selected industrial waste; construction material, glass, cement, bricks and other in large separate piles that are too big and too overpowering for the size of the building of the pavilion. The piece does not only reflect upon industrial garbage and the destruction of nature, turning landscapes into a wasteland, it also seems to pay a tribute to the past, reflect upon archeology, the role of the artist as archeologist, talk about sculpture, volume and mass, the accidental, decay, beauty, the aesthetics of destruction, human greed and ignorance, the disrespect of space, the uncanny and the sublime.[20]

As opposed to demonizing the glass industry that does impact the Venice/Murano landscape severely, Almarcegui proposes a complex engagement and consideration of the problem. She does not present a particular narrative in a problem–solution framework, she rather cracks our usual stream of thinking, introducing a rupture and an empty space into the logic we generally use to think about and deal with environmental issues.

In the case of these works, there is neither a beginning nor an end to the associations the work evokes, nor is there any fixed narrative the piece wants to communicate. Furthermore, these works do not purposefully aim to change anything; there is not an open intention. There is simply an opening up of space.

As I see it, contemporary art that is fit for the 21st century operates with questions and ambiguity. Instead of wanting to state something, it rather opens up space for us to draw ourselves into the piece and brings out our own experience, often without a beginning or an end, sometimes through a web of conscious interpretations (like Kosuth’s One and three chairs (1963)), other times as gusts of mental but also emotional and very much physical free associations (like an Abramovic performance).

I argue that art that is non-teleological has relevance for today’s society. Certainly not every contemporary artwork carries this strategy. Many artworks really want to state something, this is the case especially for politically engaged pieces (see for instance the works of Ai Weiwei) or artworks that are autobiographical (see for example Tracey Emin’s oeuvre). To me, these artworks carry a direct message which, paradoxically, limits their space for change and transformation. As emphasized previously, it is not to say that relevant contemporary artworks must not state something/anything. However, the message should not be the point, but attention should be drawn to what takes place beyond the message.

Contemporary art that I think should be listened to retreats somehow in order to reveal space. There is neither a beginning nor an end to the associations, they flow to the rhythm of the unconscious. These artworks leave the viewer naked aftershattering taken-for-granted frames of references – and that is where they stop: because the very moment they would go any further, this would lead in the direction of some kind of prescriptive narrative. In their revealed space – ‘ground zero’ – is a unique 'site' in our culture in which meaning and experience can take place without any teleological, predefined implications.

Overall, I argue that various contemporary artworks have a potential very few cultural practices have: namely that they are able to create a space of the potentials of nothingness in which we do not simply think, but also exist without prescriptions. This non-teleological space might be able to shed light onto yet unknown comprehensions of who and how we are in the world and therefore help yet unknown alternatives to emerge. In this space we might be able to have a bodily understanding of the decisions and their possible consequences that are ahead of us to make.

Délia Vékony is an art historian, living and working in Budapest, Hungary. She is a full-time lecturer at the Department of Arts Management, International Business School, Budapest. She completed her BA and MA in art history at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and she is currently doing her PhD at Leiden University, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS). She occasionally curates exhibitions, acts as an advisor for various commercial contemporary art boards and she regularly publishes for art periodicals.

[1] It must be stated that when arguing for contemporary art specifically their arguments can and cannot be used as these scientists – with all respect –, under the term ‘art’ understand mostly figurative images from modernist times. When it comes to contemporary art in which often there is not an art object to look at, neuroaesthetics cannot say much.

[2] Tamas Freund, “Agyhullámok és kreativitás”. TEDxDanubia Conference 2011.

[3] Daniel Goleman, Romboló érzelmek. Hogyan legyünk úrrá rajtuk?, trans. by András Tótisz (Budapest: Trivium Kiadó 2005) 210,211

[4] Joshua Guetzkow,  “How the arts impact communities?” (paper presented at the Princeton University conference entitled “Taking the Measure of Culture” June 7-8, 2002)

[5] Guetzkow, “How the arts impact communities?”

[6] John Carey, What good are the arts? (London: Faber and Faber 2005) 101,102, 129,130

[7] …and can interfere with violent personality development. Carey remarks that art workshops held in prisons helped to reduce violence rate by 20% and while the prisoners partook in the project one detention centre reported a 58% decrease in offensive behavior.

[8] Carey, What good are the arts? 115,116

[9] Carey, What good are the arts? 111

[10] Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics. Thinking the world politically (London: Verso 2013) 77.

[11] As an example, she introduces Alfredo Jaar’s project Questions (2008) in Milan. The piece was an open political statement against the Berlusconi government through the display of texts such as ‘Do politics need culture?’ in public spaces.

[12] Jacques Ranciere, The emancipated spectator. (London: Verso 2011) 103.

[13] In order to demonstrate what he means by the power of art, in his essay Aesthetic separation, aesthetic community (2011) Ranciere refers to the artist collective Campement urbain who camp in the much troubled and even currently dangerous outskirts of Paris, in the notorious banlieux. Their aim is to reverse the discourse that - due to mass individualism advocated by capitalist productionism - sees the crisis of the outskirts in the lack of social ties. Although these outskirts are overpopulated, cramped and one hardly gets the necessary private space, this claustrophobic existence does not result in the making of a strong community, rather in frustration. Campement urbain addresses this claustrophobia by providing private space for individuals. A veiled scarf wearing participant (fig) for instance was wearing a T-shirt onto which she had written: “I want an empty word that I could fill” (2011:54).

[14] Catherine Malabou, “Whither materlialism? Althusser/ Darwin” (paper presented at Kingston University 2013) available at:

[15] Malabou, “Whither materialism?”

[16] Krzysztof Ziarek, The force of art. Cultural memory in the present. (Stanford: University Press 2004)

[17] Ziarek, The force of art. 3,4.

[18] Ziarek, The force of art. 5,7.

[19] Personal conversation with Robert Zwijnenberg 2015.

[20] In these ecologically pressing times many artists create work that in a way or other reference ecological matter. However, they do not present a straighforward ecological message, but open up space for the complexity of the issue. During the 55th Venice Biennale it was enough to walk a few hundred meters in Venice to get to the Skandinavian pavilion in which Finnish artist Terike Haapoja has created a series of installations that concentrate on the non-human and look at nature as a “sovereign agent”


Carey, John. What good are the arts? London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Freund, Tamas. “Agyhullámok és kreativitás”. Talk presented at TEDxDanubia 2011.

Goleman, Daniel. Romboló érzelmek. Hogyan legyünk úrrá rajtuk? Translated from English to Hungarian by András Tótisz. Budapest: Trivium Kiadó, 2005.

Guetzkow,  Joshua. “How the arts impact communities?” paper presented at the Princeton University conference entitled “Taking the Measure of Culture” June 7-8, 2002

Malabou, Catherine. “Whither materlialism? Althusser/ Darwin” paper presented at Kingston University, 2013.

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics. Thinking the world politically. London: Verso, 2013.

Ranciere, Jacques. The emancipated spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2011.

Ziarek, Krzysztof. The force of art. Cultural memory in the present. Stanford: University Press, 2004.