Stephen Willats

Pluralism as a Social Function of Art, 1986

There are, undoubtedly, many individual, sometimes personally defined functions for art, all of which are equally valued by society; however, they are all the ones that in some way reinforce what society wants from its art. For example: art is a means of denoting social status, but is also a means of psychological therapy; art is a means of financial investment and is also used in education as a means of learning, and so the list goes on.

In all these functions an innate passivity is implied, if not directly stated, for the artist, whereby he either reinforces the existing and dominant ideological foundations of the culture, or relieves the personal and social stress and conflict that stem from their ramifications. This neutralisation of the artist is despite the fact that most artists, who, without questioning the social model of their practice, will still claim that they want to, and do, influence the social consciousness of society. But in general their unquestioning acceptance of what has been defined through art history and current social norms as a legitimate procedure for art practice, has entrapped them into reiterating existing precedence.


The relativity in people’s definition of what constitutes a work of ort was brought home to me when I was initiating the West London Social Resource Project in June 1973. My method of inviting participation and acceptance of the work was to go round personally introducing it to residents of the four small residential areas where the work was to take place. This introduction was made by the painstaking task of my going to each house in the area and explaining the work and what was involved in participating to whoever answered the front door. Though I found virtually everyone had no contact with contemporary art, or avant-garde notions concerning art, they had no trouble accepting and understanding a work of art that was to the art world very radical, because it concerned and involved them directly. In contrast there was a logical reason for the art world’s rejection of the project as a work of art, for accepting its socially interactive and de-material form would undermine existing social and economic interests vested in the art object, so the cry was: ‘It’s not art!’ But for the residents of the four project areas, especially those that participated in the work, there was no problem in extending or even changing their view of what constituted a work of art.

This resistance by those intimately involved in art to encompass a model of practice that challenged their pre-established interests was demonstrated by one potential participant I contacted in an area of Harrow that formed one of the four project areas. This area of Harrow I had defined as upper middle class, and perhaps here it was to be expected that at some point I would meet someone on the doorstep who had an existing involvement with art. Eventually I came to a house with grills over all the windows and security alarm boxes on the outside walls. The man who answered the door was polite enough, listened to what I had to say, but when I finished proclaimed: ‘Very interesting, but it’s not art, let me show you what art is, my boy.’ With that I was ushered into the house to be confronted with whole walls hanging with hunting and sporting paintings which he had collected over a long time. This was real art, and my work, while interesting enough, was something else, perhaps a community or welfare project, social research, anything that would mean it would definitely not be included as art. For this man to actively take on my work as a work of art would undermine the economic and social investment made with his own collection.

In complete contrast I asked a man why he had taken part in the work, for it had taken up quite a few hours of his time and meant that he was involved off and on over a nine month’s period, and he answered that I was the first person to call at his front door and not want anything from him. As the man saw it, the work put something into his life that was not there before.


Printed in Society Through Art, Stephen Willats, Haags Centrum voor Aktuele Kunst, Den Haag, 1990