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Goetz Ottmann,
Associate Professor Social Work Discipline, ACAP, Sydney, Australia

Community Arts and Social Socio Culture: What is in it for Social Work?

In many countries, socio-culture has become integral part of social work (Dubois, 2003). Not so in Australia. Which aspects of socio-culture, if any, would be of interest to critical social work?

What is Socio-Culture?

Socio-Culture and the Community Arts Movement have similar roots. Socio- Culture emerged from the amalgam of cultural experimentation during the 1960s, social critical theory tenets following Herbert Marcuse, and the community development movement that shaped the civil rights movement in the US. In Europe, socio-culture experienced a rapid growth during the late 1960s and early 1970s spearheading policy responses from the late 1960s onward. By the mid-1970s, community arts had become a core element of the New Cultural Politics in many West European countries (Mielke, 1988) and counter-cultural projects were increasingly funded by government bodies (see, for example, Mckay, 2010). By the 1980s, hundreds of community centres had sprung up around Europe hosting a lively Community Arts scene.

Defining socio-culture/community arts was an important precursor to its institutionalisation. On the one hand, socio-culture was framed, for example at the Rotterdam Social/Cultural Symposium organised by the Council of Europe in 1970, following Marcuse (1937, 1974 [1955]) in overtly politicised terms. J. Janne, the symposium’s chairperson, argued that cultural policy can be either “...conservative, ‘integrative’ and objectively repressive. It is a modern version of ‘bread and circuses’.” Or it can be “’revolutionary’, liberating and objectively transforming. ... Will it be the extension of dehumanised work, or, on the contrary, the antidote enabling work itself to be re-humanised?” (Janne, 1970).

On the other hand, the British Arts Council Working Party entrusted with the development of Community Arts policies, although borrowing the term ‘socio- cultural animator’ from French cultural policy, defined the role of Community Arts in more pragmatic terms. In its 1974 report, the Working Party argued that socio-cultural animators:

“... assist those with whom they make contact to become more aware of their situation and of their own creative powers, and by providing them with the facilities they need to make use of their abilities, they hope to widen and deepen the sensibilities of the community in which they work and so to enrich its existence. To a varying degree they see this as a means of change, whether psychological, social or political, within the community... They therefore differ from practisers of the more established arts in that they are chiefly concerned with a process rather than a finished product ... (The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974)”.

Whereas Janne’s conceptualisation emphasises the socially transformative character of culture, the Arts Council’s opens the door to more remedial approaches. Both approaches (but particularly the former) are of interest to critical social work.

During the 1970s and 1980s, advocates for the more radical strand held on to the principle of ‘self- administration’, the rejection of state authority, and the retention of control over cultural production. On occasions, this led to widely-publicised street protests between movement participants and riot police (Mielke, 1988). In countries such as Western Germany and France, this eventually led to an arrangement where governments administered socio-cultural projects (in the form of the provision of venues and funding) without, however, interfering in the cultural production (see, for instance, Mielke, 1988; Moulinier, 1983). The less radical community development-focused strand was more easily institutionalised often changing its orientation as a result. For example, in Australia, community arts was strongly shaped by government policy turning it into a vehicle for the promotion of cultural pluralism and community development (Hawkins, 1993; Mills, 1991). More recently, a much more conservative offshoot emerged giving rise to a plethora of art therapy approaches that focused, at times exclusively, on remedial outcomes for individuals leading commentators to mourn the increasingly de-politicised nature of community arts since the mid- 1990s.

Matarasso focusing on the example of the UK argues that:

“... problems themselves were often treated apolitically, for instance as part of a discourse about well-being rather than the reality and causes of health inequality. People enjoyed and benefited from taking part in these arts projects but change, such as it was, was mainly personal. Art forms and activities that offered opportunities for celebration, such as parades, carnivals and outdoor events, took precedence over those that demanded more intellectual, aesthetic or political engagement from participants, audiences or the artists themselves (Matarasso, 2013).”

Without a doubt, Matarasso is right. There is no going back to the community arts of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, the ideals of socio-culture from 40 years ago still reverberate with segments of the Australian arts scene today. In this sense, a reconnection with the original spirit of socio-culture should be possible.

Socio-Culture, what’s in it for Social Work?

From a critical social work perspective, the fusion of social critical art and community development is an attractive one. The core principles of community development highlighting structural inequality and emphasising empowerment and participation sit well with social justice-based social work approaches (Bains, 2011; Dominelli, 2002; Gray & Webb, 2013; Noble., 2007). Indeed, enabling individuals and communities to reflect on and influence issues that shape their lives resonates with a long tradition of social justice-focused social sciences. Similarly, supporting people to take part in decision-making processes in an authentic manner is a core concern of anti-oppressive social work practice (Bains 2017). Further, the two traditions of socio-culture briefly outlined above politicise the social and, based on this, develop macro- and meso- alongside micro approaches. In this sense, there are clear boundaries around socio-culture. Remedial interventions that focus on the individual and ignore larger structural issues are not socio-culture. Conceptually, thus, socio-culture resonates strongly with a social justice-focused, critical social work trajectory.

How does socio-culture in the form of more abstract art resonate with critical social work? Many socio- cultural artists work (implicitly or explicitly) with ideas inspired by Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse viewed conventional mainstream culture as a distraction from the social conditions experienced by low wage labour. This kind of culture ultimately affirmed and justified the rule of elites. He argued that art should be available to everyone not only the moneyed classes. More importantly, Marcuse argued that autonomous culture can turn into a vessel for subversive phantasies that can provide alternatives to the elitist and repressive social imaginary normalised by conventional culture (Duarte, 2017). In Latin America, such ideas gave rise to experiments that used culture as a vehicle for popular education fostering critical consciousness. Building on the work of Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal famously developed the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ (Boal, 1979) turning spect-ators into spect-actors offering them theatre as a site to experience, discuss, and eventually overcome oppression. Culture and the arts in socio-culture are used to stage the repression that lurks in everyday life to stimulate discussion and work towards the empowerment of those affected. These ideas were carried further by socio-cultural protagonists using culture to highlight the stigma and repression levelled at identities (i.e. black, CALD, Indigenous, LGBTIQ, etc.) or celebrating the subversive culture of the subaltern (Hebdige, 1987; Spivak, 1988). Again, this kind of culture and art that socio-cultural facilitators seek to foster is a natural ally of anti- oppressive social work.

Points of Tension

A number of commentators have argued that community arts looks tired, has been hollowed out by individual-focused remedial interventions (i.e. arts therapy), and is in need of an update (see, for example, Matarasso, 2013). Clearly, much of community art is no longer experimental or considered ‘cutting edge’. With its institutionalisation in the 1970s and 1980s, community art has found legitimacy and entered the main stream. The urgency and the critical outlook that defined the movement during the 1970s is often giving way to community-focused entertainment. Most importantly, socio-culture is facing political pressures and funding has dried up. Many community artists found that taking a therapeutic tack allowed them to tap into new funding streams. As a result, in many community centres, community arts is offered in a therapeutic guise (i.e. combatting social isolation, depression, anxiety). Furthermore, there is increasing pressure to bring the aesthetic ‘quality’ of artistic output more sharply into focus. This often challenges the organic, participatory process at the core of socio- culture imposing pre-conceived notions of what cultural output should look like. No longer working towards the empowerment of participants, this kind of hollowed out community art is preoccupied with branding, aesthetic uniformity, consistency of narrative, the quality of visual representation, and ultimately the marketability of an event. Management committees increasingly seek to control the artistic process and output demanding clearly identifiable and measurable outcomes and community organisers have become concerned with delivering a slick product and demonstrating ‘value for money’ when acquitting community grants. This often renders problematic open-ended and, thus, ill-defined participatory co-creation processes that traditionally formed the centre of community arts initiatives. In other words, the neo-liberal managerialism that has taken root in the community arts sector is transforming subaltern arts into the mainstream arts Marcuse was rallying against.

Despite of the developments of the last 15 years, the spirit of socio-culture is alive and well within the Australian community arts scene. However, what the above tensions illustrate is that the empowering aspects of community arts are strongest when aligned with a clearly defined political project. As the following case study summary demonstrates, anti-oppressive social work can provide some of this impetus.

Artful Inclusion

The Artful Inclusion Project (AIP) was a socio-cultural project that sought to mobilise socially marginalised residents in Sydney’s inner-city region to offer them opportunities to co-create empowering art-focused community initiatives. AIP used reflective workshops to assist participants to view their lives within the wider exploitative social context and to imagine new futures. The sharing of these experiences with other group members facilitated the development of an embryonic collective identity and narrative. In terms of social outcomes, AIP aimed to broadcast this voice in order to create awareness among community members. In addition, the project sought to strengthen participants’ networks potentially creating new valued links with local organisations and communities. In terms of cultural production, the AIP aimed at staging performances and visual arts initiatives co-created by participants. The AIP was primarily an educational project. It was developed to offer social work students an opportunity to experience and co-facilitate socio- cultural projects. The AIP gave rise to two projects:

The Pete Rainbow Project involved up to 20 ex- prisoners re-entering society after a lengthy custodial sentence. They participated in 18 workshops that led to the creation of Pete Rainbow – a puppet made of recycled materials that embodied and represented the experience of the participants. A collective narrative that emerged over the course of the workshops became the story line animating Pete Rainbow.

The Photography Project involved four sex workers in their early and mid-twenties in eight workshops that produced ‘representations of self’ – photographs that gave participants the power to represent themselves the way they want to be seen in different contexts.

Both projects included reflective discussions brainstorming themes such as trust, love, freedom, family, intimate relationships, and keeping safe, themes that resonated strongly with participants. In addition, the artists facilitating the projects employed communicative action approaches (Habermas, 1981) that resonate strongly with anti-oppressive social work practices. Students were able to experience how the projects fostered a sense of power and control, validated participants’ experiences and identities, built confidence, and encouraged self-affirmation, and assisted in imagining alternative futures.

The AIP demonstrated that socio-culture could be used in social work education to illustrate anti-oppressive social work in practice. Furthermore, critical social work practice can strengthen the social critical perspective at the core of socio-culture and has the potential to re- invigorate and expand the scope of community arts.


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