Tag Archive for progress

Some exploratory thoughts on Progress

The idea of progress is a complex concept. Normally it is taken to mean that the human condition is improving over time and will continue to improve into the foreseeable future.

This conceptualisation of progress include a sense of advancement, forward movement, and gaining a higher understanding or ability. It is an upward linear progression, a continuation, a development. Progress is Onwards and Upwards.

It also has the more subtle sense of simple passage of time; a going from place to place, a procession or journey, things being underway – as work being in progress: an unfinished thing that may or may not work out well.

The Enlightenment struggles with the idea of Progress were attempts to rationalise ways forward. Do we have similar impulses and methodologies that allow us to sense ways forward, to make contemporary progress, in a world that seems more fragmented, with uncertain sets of relationships? How will we agree what constitutes progress in a context that is complex, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic? Read more

Poverty and some of its impacts: What might be done?

This article is a composite write-up based on a number of presentations and interviews undertaken in September 2014 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. It is intended as a broad-ranging, general interest exploration of a set of ideas, puzzles and practicalities, covering: 

  • Recent economic trends
  • How poverty gets thought about, recorded and measured; the realities in some people’s lives
  • Policy and social approaches that affect levels of poverty
  • How poverty links to the development of children and families
  • How these influence life chances
  • What things might reduce the numbers of people growing up in poverty

A full write-up of the inputs can be read here: Poverty and some of its impacts


What – if anything – can be learnt from the so-called Trojan Horse Affair?


The so-called Trojan Horse Affair arose from an anonymous letter that was circulating within Birmingham in November 2013. This letter set out  proposed mechanisms for the takeover of schools by new governors (and senior staff) in order to implement a more restrictive faith-based curriculum and ethos. The letter was aimed at people in a number of other cities and claimed that such events were already underway in some schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham.

There was considerable doubt about the authenticity of the letter. Nevertheless, it was passed to the local counter-terrorism police on the basis of needing to establish if any crime had been committed and because some of the sentiments in the letter verged on things that could be regarded as extremist. The police found no immediate links to terrorism. The letter was subsequently referred on to central government departments. It was, at that stage, felt that the letter exposed issues serious enough to warrant deeper investigation.

There were various discussions at local and national levels and a number of reviews were set up to explore what (if anything) was happening. Ofsted (the national body for inspecting education) was sent into a number of schools, some of which had only recently been inspected and judged to have good management in place.

Some of the schools were under the control of Birmingham City Council, as the local authority. The rest had converted to Academy status, independent of the local authority and run under contract by the national government Department for Education.

The whole episode attracted considerable media interest, over an extended period of time. It is hard to believe that some of the issues raised were of significance to Birmingham alone, but since the letter (and its reported activities) arose within Birmingham the episode became labelled the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The daily news repetition of that label, in an essentially negative context, created a degree of damage to the reputation of the city as a whole and, to some local communities, it began to feel like a form of Islamophobia – particularly when the Secretary of State for Education appointed the former head of counterterrorism to head up the government’s review.

This article:

  • Looks at the wider historic factors around the issue.
  • Asks if it could all have been foreseen and prevented from developing as a big issue
  • Reviews the ability of language to clarify or cloud the issues.
  • Sets out the core issues
  • Looks at the outcomes from the various reviews, inspections and investigations
  • Explores the puzzles/issues raised and insights gained
  • Asks is this the end of the Affair, or are there similar beliefs and practices still at play – and how would anyone know?

The full article can be read here: Trojan Horse lessons


Mastering contemporary art: If these were the answers, what were the questions?

Over the late summer/early autumn I went to exhibitions of work by students just completing their Masters degree courses in contemporary art. Their final submissions, assessed for successful completion of the course (ie a sign of some mastery of contemporary art ideas and practices?) were accompanied by notes describing the work, how it was made, the ideas behind it, and so on.

The works on display were of interest but what I was more fascinated by were the texts used to accompany the works. If texts used by successful students captured something of their ‘mastering’ of the process – if they were their final answers – what questions were they being asked: What was being demanded of them in their quest for mastery of contemporary art?

I noted around 60-80 statements that, although overlapping, were unique statements of outcome for the range of students involved. These could be clustered into linked ideas/themes. Other people may well come up with different configurations from the same basic text statements. The version below is mine, and is captured by an umbrella sense of moving on, being on a journey, progressing, becoming, transforming:

Individuality; notions of selfhood


Multiple identities; multiple opportunities

Acknowledging the unknown, unrecognised things inside each person

Part of diversity

Being part of networks

Language of relationships

Intercommunity relationships

Perspectives, cultures, traditions

Hopes and dreams


Unique life experiences

Memories and emotions

Repetitions leaving patterns

Traces of incidents

Transitional changes

Stresses and processes

Controlled change; anxiety of change


Moving into place

Frozen moments

Reliability/unreliability of memory


Authorship and ownership

Personal narratives


Marginal aspects/ main aspects

Cerebral/reality; conceptual/functional aspects

Role of text, language, speech

Glimpses of meanings

Translating meanings, questions and puzzles


New ways of working and thinking

Expressing notions as images

Mapping new territories; challenging preconceptions

Engagement with ideas

Engagement with materials – experimentation; renewal

Internal/external influences

Things as living entities

What may be missing: presence and absence


Mapping, planning, deciding

Designs and clarifications

Scale, pace, time

Technologies, sciences and handmades

Social contexts; environments

Social change

Choices and oppositions:

Simulated/real; conflicts/harmonies; patterns/ambiguities; shape/formlessness; deconstructed/recontextualised; literal/abstracted; learning/teaching; fixed/moving.


Working backwards, then, from this analysis of the explanatory texts used by emerging artists to explain their various ‘masteries’, we get the main themes of making contemporary art. These describe mastery as being a journey that can be charted as it moves along. The main constructs of this ‘becoming a master of contemporary art’ flow from a deep self-awareness by the artist – of who they are, and are not; the gaps, the linkages, the shapings. This allows the artist to draw on residual traces of life events and translate versions/interpretations of these into imagery – successfully, if the artist is reflexive, critical, willing to engage with new ideas and test out new materials – in well-thought-through ways that are aware of the choices being made, of what is being left out, and of how the work sits in context.

The above was derived from a consideration of masters level students. They were at the end of a course: It was understandable that they would have been expected to explain what they had learnt, show development, demonstrate progress. They were, after all, trainee artists .. potential artists .. people on a learning journey. What about established artists (those recognised as already having a degree of mastery) – are they still expected to explain themselves, to record their ongoing journey, to demonstrate progress?



Contemporary art: Is it possible to claim any sense of progress?

Art history is often presented as a series of fragmentary stages, movements and schools with one arising out of, or in parallel with, or in reaction to others. In other descriptions, art is portrayed as the manifestation of individual emotional or conceptual drives. Alternatively art is presented as arising from changes in social, economic or political contexts; or linked to developments of available media out of which art can be constructed. Such descriptions rest on phraseology that has contested, varying meanings for different people.

Apart from settling on a notion of what constitutes ‘contemporary’ in relation to art (Art since 1960/70s? Recent Art? Art of now? Art produced by living artists? etc.) there are issues of identifying what it is that might separate contemporary art practices from previous ones. One might, for example, settle on four drivers: globalisation, post-colonialism, sexual identity, and commercialisation; and look at the interplay of these in establishing the contexts within which various examples of contemporary art have been/ are being/ might be produced. Another perspective may wish to identify local or international concerns that repeatedly tend to feed through into the thinking that wraps around contemporary art. Examples of such concerns may include: identity, history, time, place and so on.

Except possibly to insiders within various groups or practices, none of this necessarily represents any formal sense of progress. Contemporary art can simply be seen, not as a development on previous art nor as a precursor to future practices, but simply existing in its own right and on its own terms. This, in turn, raises questions about what meanings can be ascribed to terms such as ‘development’ or ‘progress’. We are then left having to make sense through three highly variable terms: progress; contemporary; art.

At the wider level, notions of progress have been linked to Western, enlightenment-rooted, rationally-based ways of defining the world and our existence within it. Variants within this see progress as inevitable; or as the result of technical mastery over natural forces and the environment; or as a result of intellectual mastery over superstitions and irrationality of beliefs.

Counter to these runs a sense that progress somehow involves retrieving things that have been lost – a sense of connectedness, an appreciation of humanity, an acceptance of difference, and so on.

Art has variously been taken as representing the emerging, developing culture it sits within, or as independent of broader cultures with the artist acting as a free-wheeling creative individual, or as the creative front-runner of a society yet to be realised. Within two of these there are clear notions of progress through art/society interactions. Within the third there may (or may not) be the idea of an individual’s art practices developing, maturing, progressing over time.

With the emergence of new art markets (eg in the new Russia) or the emergence of recognitions of different sources of contemporary art (eg Australian aboriginal art; Chinese art etc) people who manage art commercialisation and art markets may say that there has been a contemporary set of expansions to the market and to feel this to be progress, if not in the art itself then within the marketing of art.

Again in opposition to the idea that there is a natural, essential, beneficial sense of progress there are viewpoints that the world and our position in relation to it (including any notions of culture/art) are fragmentary, transient, contingent, and only having any meaning as we are willing to attribute to it at the time. One recent key idea about contemporary art is that there should be no precise ideas about it. This implies accepting multifaceted definitions around diverse and overlapping art worlds that are simply contemporaneous. Attempting to avoid grand narratives, however, doesn’t necessarily preclude attempts to work out smaller scale agreements or clarifications of difference. There will always be views, even if different and fragmentary, about what art might be for (if anything) and its relations to identity , place-making, language and social relationships.

Within all of this:

Is there any sense within which there can be said to be a certain set of developments; a set of flows forward (from something to something else)?

Is there a feeling of progress and progression (or is there merely stasis)?

Is it possible to identify newly emerging themes and approaches?

Since the above was written there have been articles on:

The nature of ‘contemporary’ and?the nature of ‘progress’