What does it mean to fund art for social justice?

Published: 29 June 2023 
Author: Shoubhik Bandopadhyay 
A young dancer wearing brightly patterned dungarees is posing on a river bank of the Thames in central London. Blackfriars bridge and a London skyline of skyscrapers is visible behind her, while she curls one arm behind her head and is turned to her side
U Dance National Festival and Young Creatives, One Dance UK. Photo credit: Dani Bower

Shoubhik Bandopadhyay, Our Head of Programme – Arts, explores what it means in practice to support art for social justice, and asks how we can work towards a sector that centres love, care, joy, justice and equity.

What does it mean to fund art for social justice? This is the question that guides my work at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and we have answers, plenty of them. We can support a new generation of cultural leaders which is less homogenous than the last one. We can help create just conditions for the cultural workforce, especially when it comes to equity, pay and working practices. We can fund work in places which have been historically overlooked and we can do the same for communities whose culture has not been valued. But what kind of art should we fund for social justice, and what kind of artists? I find this answer less easy to land upon.

Is it about how art is made?

One answer is to focus on how art is being made, to redress the artist-audience power dynamic by co-creating work with participants, giving them control over the process of making, what themes or questions the work explores and what role they want to play in it. This means we often don’t know what is being made when we decide to fund it, except that it will be relevant to the group of people who made it. Underpinning this approach is the belief that non-hierarchical and ethical space for participation in art is the most effective way to achieve social justice.

There is space and appetite for this work, especially where it complements the role of arts centres as democratic spaces which are run in the interests of local people. By co-creating work we situate art within its social context. We share resources more equitably. We give people who may have been passive or disengaged audience members a chance to shape the art being made in their locale. We guard against the risk that art only serves the elite.

What about the role of artists?

But is it the only, or best way? As a cultural sector it feels like we have bought into the ideology of cultural democracy, but we haven’t yet defined the role that artists can play in it beyond facilitation and mediation. By limiting the role of the artist in this way and working through institutions who can speak our language, we also limit the possibility for new conditions and organising to emerge. We favour more predictable outcomes over spontaneity, contradiction and challenge and, in doing so, the unique potential of artists as agents of change goes untapped.

Centring joy, love and justice

These questions were front of mind when I went to a gig recently featuring Sarathy Korwar, who is a drummer, living in London who makes music that draws on Indian classical, jazz, electronic and folk influences. Sarathy is also a recipient of PHF’s Awards for Artists in 2022. It was my first time at one of these events, which is like a contemporary an evening with…’; part gig, listening party and interview. Skin Deep hold a space for the artist to perform and to talk about their process, their ideas and their influences. They also bring the audience into the event by taking questions, creating a space for recognition and generous attention.

Sarathy’s most recent album, kalak, explores the circularity of time. In Hindi and Urdu, kal means both yesterday and tomorrow. The imagined word kalak draws out this circularity in the form of a palindrome, which reads the same front-to-back-and-back-to-front.

The album ruminates on the subject in many ways. We hear rhythms and melodies which repeat without a clear beginning and end, phasing in and out of time to give the impression of concentric circles rotating at different speeds. Some of the songs begin and end in the same way. Across different tracks, musical ideas re-emerge, often in an altered form; the same basic material but reinterpreted. The title tracks draw out a political dimension – Utopia is a colonial project; Back in the Day, Things were not always simpler; A Recipe to Cure Historical Amnesia. They remind us not to look at the past with nostalgia, nor to fetishise new ideas and futuristic thinking when the solutions we need may be right in front of us.

The gig itself was an entirely live show, the musicians improvising on the material from the album, playing in the round, with the audience surrounding them (more circles). It felt important to be in the moment with the musicians, without samples or playback from the outside, from the place with clocks and time. The space held by Skin Deep felt supportive and open, allowing for informal but serious discussion on questions such as the making of the album, the left-to-right linearity of western music notation and Sarathy’s reflection on his identity and its relation to his music-making.

This space, and the liveness of the performance placed Sarathy’s work within a broader movement of art and culture which is centring joy, love, justice and care and resonated with Skin Deep’s mission of making space for black creatives and creatives of colour to work in this way.

The relationship between time and progress

I took a lot from the gig, beyond enjoying the music and the company. I was drawn to the relationship between time and progress, and reflected that progress is usually assumed to be in front of us and not behind – but, if time is circular, why would progress be linear? Working as a funder, tasked with shaping the future in whatever small way I can with the resources I have to distribute, this feels like a relevant question.

These questions were front of mind when we had a session on the three horizons framework, which is a tool used to think and design in the future. You can read more here, but the basic idea is that the seeds of our future are always in the present, and if we can identify them then we can grow them. It is represented in a left-to-right linear chart, moving from the present to the future. It was hard not to think of Utopia is a Colonial Project – the future never arrives because it is always a frontier ahead of us. This might be ok if we’re thinking about technological futures, but what about humanitarian and cultural ones? Can a tool like this accommodate values which might be universal, not only across peoples and cultures, but also in time. Is a society based upon love, care, joy and justice more relevant last year than next? It might look different in 1950 or 2087, but it’s manifesting the same reality in a different form. The same basic material but reinterpreted.

Co-creation may have been the third horizon twenty years ago, but it is our present today and, for all of its benefits, it won’t create a culture change on its own. Perhaps we will always look to the next horizon, but we need to embed those timeless values – love, care, joy, justice – into our work and centre equity by bringing more people into that space, however they are making art or shaping the culture. Could we imagine a strategy that begins and ends in the same way?

Head of Programme – Arts