Is it Artwashing? A reflexive approach would help artists answer. An essay by Jenny Peevers by Claire Farrell

Is it Artwashing? A reflexive approach would help artists answer.

Jenny Peevers

As someone involved in socially engaged, site specific arts practice, it’s impossible not to be aware of a term that has entered into arts discourse: artwashing. I’ve recently been involved in conversations and debates where artists and producers question whether or not the term describes what they’re unwittingly involved in doing…I’ve questioned myself.

I will try and unpick the term: It is often, but not exclusively, related to gentrification. Examples include situations where the art or artist is used as a PR gloss or as an injection of creativity and interest in an area, making it cool and marketable often resulting in gentrification. It’s thought to have been first used in 2016 in a neighbourhood in L.A., Boyle Heights, by activists who feared the opening of a new gallery would be a catalyst for gentrification.  The term seems to have taken root, especially on social media, where the nuances and complexities of both the artist’s work and the context within which they work are somewhat cancelled out, making the issues divisive. 

Art historian and community artist, Stephen Pritchard’s definition of “community artwashing” is of particular interest to me as it relates to my area of practice. He defines community artwashing as socially engaged artists using art as a form of community consultation “exploiting the social capital of local people”.  I think this statement and the article it’s taken from, ‘Artwashing: Social Capital & Anti-Gentrification Activism’ (Pritchard, 2017) is a generalisation of what is a highly nuanced context for artists to work within, but some of the issues he raises are valid and do concern me. Whilst I’m not going to attempt to offer a definitive position about community artwashing, it is too complex, I do think that artists questioning themselves, their role and impact in a particular place is no bad thing. By embracing that self-awareness as a rigorous methodology it becomes a reflexive approach, something I am now developing in my practice.

Socially engaged projects can present pitfalls for artists.  Examples include situations where artists claim their work, participatory or otherwise, represents the ‘voice’ of the community. Curator and art historian, Miwon Kwon (2004), is critical of the notion of a community as coherent and unified and suggests that artists should be guarded against myth making and presumptions.Hal Foster (cited in Kwon 2004) argues that artists use ethnographic methodology without the rigorous reflexivity needed to avoid ‘presuming’ and authority. Artists positioning themselves as the voice of, or an extension of the community is an inherent risk.  By doing so, they are assuming a position of power, inadvertently taking the power away from the people they are engaging with. Kwon states:

“Just as the desire to engage “real” (nonart) places can prepare the way for…locales ripe for development and promotion, so the engagement of “real” people in community-based art can install new forms of urban primitivism over socially neglected minority groups.”

Artists benefit from a critical awareness of their outsidedness and by adopting a reflexive approach they observe themselves and their role in their considerations of a place and the people who live there. By doing so it allows them to critically reflect on their value systems, language, personal experiences and their position within the power play of artist(s), local individuals and groups, commissioner and developer.  In a recent project, re:connections (an exploration into how arts practice can be applied to understand more about residents emotional perceptions about where they live) I started to do this. I reflected on myself as an outsider through writing a daily journal and interviewed the artists I commissioned before the project started, during the project and at the end to record their thoughts and perceptions. It’s too early to offer any conclusions about the impact of this approach, but it helped me to be sensitive about our collective impact on residents, and to consider the ethical implications of each resident’s contribution. I don’t think a reflexive approach can be a total defence against artwashing - artists in the western world, like anybody else, are part of a capitalist system and therefore can’t operate in a vacuum - however, by having an awareness of his or her relationship with a place and impact on it, it is hoped they would be able to mitigate against exploiting the social capital of local people.  Such an approach would certainly help them contemplate the question in a nuanced way.