‘Poetry is indispensable—if I only knew what for.’ Jean Cocteau

In 2003, Glasgow-based artist Lucy Skaer secretly planted butterfly pupae in the Old Bailey, and quietly walked away. If butterflies had suddenly appeared during a trial, who would have recorded people’s reactions? No-one knew what Skaer had done, and nor were they meant to. Art is subtle, and its effects unpredictable; it can’t be audited.

So should art be used as a tool for social improvement? The problem with this question is that social inclusion is made to seem so warm and cuddly and socially left-righteous that any dissent comes across as extremism. But when you get under the surface there’s plenty to take issue with: clueless managers devising unrealistic projects for artists, who are then sent out like missionaries to preach the joys of capitalism to the poor. Solitary painters and cryptic conceptualists shoe-horned into workshop situations when they really shouldn’t be, and a whole lot of middle-management box-ticking making it all look like a Very Good Thing.

There is a way through this minefield. Art can lead to social improvement, but only when the artists—and the communities they are supposed to help—are in charge. Nobody needs to force them—community participation is key to many artists’ practice, regardless of government edicts.

As for the other artists—the ones who shouldn’t be allowed near a community project—they might have plenty to offer society through the intrinsic value of their work. So let’s give the artists a bit of credit, and let them do what they do best. For some that’s participatory arts, and for others it’s not.

Unfortunately, James Boyle, chair of the Cultural Commission, doesn’t agree with me. ‘I don’t think it’s a hugely contentious one,’ he says, when I point out that applicants for the Creative Scotland award are required to explain how the public will benefit from their art. ‘If you’re taking public money for any purpose anywhere, whether it’s the health service or whether it’s an NDPB like the Arts Council, you have to show public benefit,’ he argues. ‘It’s about auditing, it’s about the best use of public money, and above all it’s about accountability.’

This isn’t just about box-ticking. It’s about a huge shift in the government’s attitude to subsidy. Art is seen as a means of achieving social and economic change —and sure, it can do that. The art world has argued often enough in the past that art’s impact was wider and deeper than anyone gave it credit for. ‘Prove it’, said the powers-that-be, so the art world gave them economic impact studies which showed tenfold returns on their investment.

Now artists and galleries are backed into a corner. The concept of subsidy has dribbled away, investment having crept into its place; art is only deemed worthy of funding if it comes with a promise of quantifiable returns. François Matarasso’s influential 1997 study, Use or Ornament?, threw the new mindset into sharp relief. It’s time, he said, ‘to start talking about what the arts can do for society, rather than what society can do for the arts’ (Comedia, 1997).

The returns the government expects for its money are alarming. It hopes that its social inclusion policy will ‘secure integration of people into market, state and voluntary structures’ (Not Just a Treat: Arts and Social Inclusion, Centre for Cultural Policy Research and Dept of Urban Studies, 2002). This recent report commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council concludes with satisfaction that such projects result in ‘greater trust in the institutions of government’ and ‘more dynamic economies’. In Orwellian double-speak this means that those who oppose the state and the free market economy are quietly brought into line.

It’s no wonder then that the art world is showing concern about what it’s being asked to deliver. A group of cultural workers from Scotland and beyond have produced a report, Beyond Social Inclusion: Towards Cultural Democracy, condemning social inclusion policy. ‘For most of the excluded, inclusion operates less as a mechanism of liberation than a top-down programme of social control,’ the report states. Its real aim, the report continues, ‘is to prevent inequality becoming too obvious’.

Edinburgh-based artist and sociologist Owen Logan is one of the authors of that report. While he’s a great advocate of community arts projects, he believes that the philosophy behind many of them is flawed. ‘God forbid that we would stop artists doing workshops,’ he explains. ‘But you have to ask why no-one is turning up for them. In the target areas where the art’s being instrumentalised, people aren’t really interested in the arts. So what do you do about that—do you keep flogging a dead horse or do you ask yourself serious questions about culture?’

One question that won’t leave me is the targeting of these projects at a single social class. ‘Insensibility to beauty and truth, to goodness and glory, is found in offices and colleges no less than in slums and railway carriages’, wrote art education pioneer, Herbert Read, in 1943.

So try to imagine a community arts project targeted exclusively at business people, financial analysts or politicians. It seems ludicrous to imagine them all in one room with crayons, expressing their feelings about deep-seated personal issues. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea, but the fact is they would never agree to it—they’d consider it patronising. So why do we assume that socially-excluded people are any less patronised by such missionary zeal?

Glasgow-based artist and gallery director Sorcha Dallas has had her fill of such ineffective community projects. When she and Marianne Greated set up Switchspace in 1999, they were tired of being roped into ill-conceived education initiatives where they, and other artists, were obliged to dumb down their practice.

‘In community arts and that sort of teaching framework, a lot is decided by people who think, “oh let’s do a project to do with racism”’, she explains. ‘They talk about these broad issues, and it’s extremely patronising a lot of the time to go in and expect to cover those topics, or raise those issues, with people who are living with these things on a day-to-day basis. You should be listening to them really.’

Dallas puts the blame on bureaucrats ‘who have no practical experience or no understanding of what’s best for that group’. Instead, through Switchspace, she and Greated organised artist-led initiatives, working with schools in a more long-term, experimental way.

The great thing about art today is that, regardless of government policy, much of it is naturally geared towards community participation. This trend—exemplified by the work of 2004 Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller—has been christened by French critic Nicolas Bourriaud as Relational Art. This he defines as ‘hands-on utopias’ (Relational Aesthetics, les presses du reel 2002).

For many ‘Relational’ artists the finished product is of little interest to them, and neither are galleries. They like to orchestrate, or perhaps just initiate, the coming together of different people by unconventional means. By ‘slightly redirecting the flow’, in Deller’s words, their work can really change the world, if only a little bit.

Katie Bruce is one such artist, and she considers herself lucky to have landed the job of Social Inclusion Co-ordinator at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). ‘I’ve been quite fortunate,’ she says. ‘The way I think about non-signatory art (where a single person doesn’t have their name at the bottom of the thing) is very positive. My practice feeds into participatory art stuff, and likewise, what I do there feeds back into what I do anyway.’

Bruce is curator of GoMA’s recent exhibition, elbowroom, the result of an eight-month art project with women’s groups. She’s also organised an artist’s residency which involves workshops, and a number of additional outreach projects for artists who have ‘previous experience of collaborative work with community groups’.

I ask her whether it’s fair that so much art funding is restricted to artists who effectively play the role of social worker. ‘I do recognise that not every artist works in that way,’ she admits. ‘And therefore there needs to be different areas of opportunity for artists.

‘I’ve heard some artists say “oh we don’t want to be reduced to just doing workshops”’, Bruce continues. ‘And I think there’s a general feeling among some artists that workshops are the worst of the worst of things to have to do. I would say it’s only one part of what an artistic community should be able to offer.’

That makes sense to me. If Bruce wants to send artists into refuges to approach the issue of domestic violence, she’s right to ask for a certain amount of experience. It’s also vital to recognise that community arts are not the only kind of art worth funding. Other kinds may contribute less explicitly to the nation’s wellbeing, but ignoring them would reduce art to the role of servant of the state. And when has that ever been good for art, or indeed for the people it’s supposed to serve?

Su Grierson, president of the Scottish Artists’ Union, shares this view. ‘If all funding for the arts becomes channeled through community objectives and government funded agencies, and if this funding is attached to the usual imposed requirements of box-ticking and justifications, then the only arts that survive will be those that are tame, popular, politically correct and useful,’ she says.

In a rare outburst of ministerial free-thinking, the English Minister for Culture, Tessa Jowell, recently recognised the limitations of government thinking on art. In a refreshing paper published last May, Government and the Value of Culture, Jowell promoted art for art’s sake, and acknowledged the blunt truth that art projects don’t make poor people any less poor. Although it’s not apparent that anyone at the Scottish Executive was listening, the minister publicly bemoaned the fact that politicians tend to see culture ‘in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas’.

It’s at this point—when you defend the right of solitary artists to express themselves – that the revolutionaries tend to get upset. Aesthetic purity and an emphasis on individual freedoms were at the heart of the CIA’s project to win hearts and minds during the Cold War. Abstract Expressionism provided a perfect weapon in this propaganda war.

But abstract art is not the exclusive domain of capitalism. Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ wasn’t much of a community arts project, but it was revolutionary all the same. That wholly abstract black canvas, placed at a jaunty angle on a gallery wall in 1913, would influence art across the world, for years to come.

It was this same art for art’s sake which would find its way into the inspirational posters of the Soviet Revolution. Without that spark of pure creative imagination, the revolution wouldn’t have been quite so revolutionary.

So should art be used as a tool for social improvement? Yes, it should, but only by the artists themselves, and only those who want to. Then, and only then, will there be a revolution.

Catriona Black is an animator and art critic for the Sunday Herald