Abstract In 2015, Leanne Schubert and Mel Gray wrote a critical commentary in the British Journal of Social Work entitled ‘The death of emancipatory social work and birth of socially engaged art practice’. In this commentary, the authors argue that artists have moved in to fill the void that increasingly emerges as social workers vacate the public spaces of activism and social change. However, there is little consensus in the existing body of research about the so-called ‘death of emancipatory social work’ and what ‘social engagement’ in the arts precisely entails. The aim of our article is therefore to revisit the relationship between social work and socially engaged art practices. A rhetorical analysis of the differing constructions about social engagement in the case study The New Forest displays different roles of artists: (i) the artist generates change, (ii) the artist imagines, (iii) the artist researches, (iv) the artist acts as an entrepreneur and (v) the artist confirms the social order/takes advantage. Our analysis of how artists deal with the complexity of social problems and attempt to take up an explicit social engagement offers insights for a reconsideration of the emancipatory potential and social justice aspirations of social work. Art, social engagement, emancipatory social work, rhetorical analysis Introduction In 2015, Leanne Schubert and Mel Gray wrote a critical commentary in the British Journal of Social Work entitled ‘The death of emancipatory social work and birth of socially engaged art practice’. Schubert and Gray (2015) consider the growth of socially engaged art practice from the perspective of social work, art and social change. They specifically address the question: ‘Has social work—caught in neo-liberal paternalism—given way to socially engaged art as a medium of social change?’ (Schubert and Gray, 2015, p. 1350). In this commentary, the authors argue that artists have moved in to fill the void that increasingly emerges as social workers vacate the public spaces of activism and social change. Schubert and Gray (2015) problematise the challenges of neo-liberalism for social work practice and use this as a background to explore the potential of socially engaged art practice: ‘[w]hile social workers have been caught in managerial, risk-aversive environments that have squeezed out room for creativity, artists have moved into spaces for community engagement, activism and advocacy’ (p. 1351). Schubert and Gray even argue that, while the ‘social turn’ in art created opportunities for engagement, activism and change, the common ground between art and social work was lost: ‘… socially engaged artists have taken an active and highly visible role, readily participating in protests against social injustice … . This may suggest that artists are more engaged in high-profile activism and political action, rather than the complete absence of social work involvement in promoting social change’ (Schubert and Gray, 2015, p. 1353). They conclude that, if social work wants to consider broader social justice implications and maintain a focus on social change, the relationship between social work and art practice must be reconsidered. However, in the existing body of literature, there seems to be little consensus about, on the one hand, the so-called ‘death of emancipatory social work’ and, on the other hand, what ‘social engagement’ in the arts precisely entails. In contemporary social work literature, which reflects both the evolving debates in social work theory and practice, the emancipatory potential and social justice aspirations of social work clearly represent vital subjects of research and debate (Evans and Harris, 2004; Featherstone et al., 2012; Garrett, 2002; Gray and Webb, 2009; Gupta et al., 2016; Lorenz, 2008, 2016; Marston and McDonald, 2012; O’Brien, 2011). After all, the identity formation of social work theory and practice is not a monolithic construction, but rather a highly complex, diverse and pluralist enterprise (Lorenz, 2008). As Lorenz (2008) asserts aptly, social policy influences do create a context that is regarded as constraining, but in fact this positioning ‘represents an alienable part of the identity-shaping and purpose-defining process of this profession’ and therefore offers a means of reinvigorating a fierce political commitment (p. 626). Social work scholars and practitioners quite convincingly continue to explore and show how spaces and opportunities are creatively envisaged and embraced, for example in respect to the continued existence of professional discretion in social services and bureaucracies, embodying a socially progressive social work in creating a socially just society (Garrett, 2002; Evans and Harris, 2004; Roets et al., 2016). Marston and McDonald (2012) even claim that ‘to cast doubt on the knowledge and actions of social workers as political actors, particularly those social workers directly engaged in work that seeks to redress social injustice and to influence public policy’ (p. 1023), is an effect of how critics have attacked the validity and legitimacy of the tradition in social work knowledge and practice where social justice aspirations are effectively re-imagined and pursued. Moreover, it should be noticed that even Schubert and Gray’s (2015) critical commentary is not totally consistent. Although they claim that social work has been unable to reverse the tide of neo-liberal paternalism, which ‘signals the end of social work’ (Schubert and Gray, 2015, p. 1351) and results in a loss of professional autonomy and creative social work practice, they mention that this happens despite pockets of resistance. They also admit reluctantly that this reminds us of the possibility of a slightly more optimistic interpretation of neo-liberalism’s impact on social work. Also, in recent literature in the arts, however, there is disagreement and an ongoing discussion about the im/possibility and significance of social engagement in art, and about the search of artists towards a new legitimation for their art practice (Bishop, 2006; Helguera, 2011; Siegenthaler, 2013). We do follow Schubert and Gray (2015; Gray and Schubert, 2010) in their argument that it might be productive to reinvigorate social work and its emancipatory potential by exploring the relationship with art that engenders social engagement, justice and change. However, this implies a critical analysis of what social engagement in the arts precisely entails, in relation to specific contexts. Inspired by the finding that creating social engagement in art is a very complicated issue, the research questions put forward in our article are: what different interpretations of social engagement in the arts are being constructed in relation to specific socio-political contexts, and what insights does the discussion about social engagement in the arts offer for a reconsideration of the emancipatory potential and social justice aspirations of social work? Our contribution is based on a rhetorical analysis of the differing constructions about social engagement in the arts and the societal role of artists in the exemplary project The New Forest (TNF) that is produced by the Dutch-Flemish theatre collective Wunderbaum. Already in earlier work, Wunderbaum positioned itself at the intersection of social engagement and artistic practice (Rutten et al., 2010). With TNF, the actors have taken up an even stronger social engagement while shaping a four-year project in which the actors aim to build a ‘new society’ by looking—in their art but also through their practice—for new ways of living together in a society in crisis and in transition. This four-year project offers a very interesting case for the discussion about the relationship between arts and social work because the actors themselves, critics and the broader audience explicitly refer to the project as ‘socially engaged art’. The aim of our study is thus to explore how social work can learn from the arts by studying how artists deal with the complexity of social problems and, in doing so, attempt to take up an explicit social engagement. In what follows, we will first explore different perspectives on social engagement in the arts, focusing on how the societal role of the artist is framed in relation to the broader socio-cultural and socio-political context, and on the different functions and purposes of art. Based on a cluster analysis, we will then study the discourses that are produced by different stakeholders about TNF as a socially engaged art project, focusing on the perspective of the artists themselves as well as on the framing of the project in the public debate. In our concluding reflections, we discuss the different perspectives on societal engagement in art and different constructions about the possible and desired societal functions of artists. We argue that a cross-fertilisation between the debates about art and social work in their desire to pursue social justice and change might be very pertinent and productive and embody the potential to reinvigorate social work’s commitment to emancipatory practice and transformative change. Socially engaged art: pros and cons The relation between art and social change is increasingly part of theoretical discussions within contemporary art theory (Bishop, 2006; De Bruyne and Gielen, 2011; Helguera, 2011), for example in discussions about new-genre public art (Lacy, 1995), relational aesthetics (Bourriaud, 2002) and dialogical or conversational art practice (Kester, 2004). From these perspectives, socially engaged art is regarded as a social process that focuses on conflict, contradiction and ambiguity for its ethical and aesthetic content (Schubert and Gray, 2015). Contemporary socially engaged art practices emphasise the idea of art as a medium for social change and the idea that art can generate change by offering alternative imaginations, in a ‘sequence of interpersonal events through which fresh models of reality can be constructed by the actual experience of the audience’ (Schubert and Gray, 2015, p. 1352). Indeed, Lucy Lippard (1997) claims that good community artists ‘animate’ what is already present in a community and, as such, they engage with the community in a collaborative process of art production. In this way, socially engaged art moves from a focus on art making and art as a product to art as social interaction (Helguera, 2011; Siegenthaler, 2013). Meanwhile, a growing group of artists refer to social engagement in and through their artistic work, which is also reflected in the engagement that these artists embody in a broad range of civil organisations and activist groups. At the same time, however, the societal and economic ‘value’ of art and artists is increasingly the subject of a heated debate pursued by a diversity of stakeholders such as artists, art institutions, cultural journalists, philosophers, political and even economic and entrepreneurial stakeholders, specifically in relation to the allocation of community funds to artistic projects. Since several European countries are being confronted with severe budget cuts for culture and the arts, the feasibility and necessity of subsidies for culture and the arts are radically questioned (Elkhuizen et al., 2014). The discussions are concentrating on the ‘technical’ question of the efficiency of funding culture and the arts (e.g. an increased self-reliance is said to stimulate creativity) and on the ideological question of why art should be funded. With respect to terms such as international appearance, creative entrepreneurship, return on investment, efficiency and measurable outcomes, artists are accused of losing connection with society and focusing on their own elitist community. Others, in contrast, blame right-wing governments to have a very conservative idea about art as an instrument for social cohesion and for example national identification. In that vein, Zomer (2006) perceives the emergence of socially engaged art as a reaction to the debate that has emerged, and more specifically the fact that artists are increasingly questioned about their societal relevance. This leads to the paradoxical situation in which, on the one hand, there seems to be a gap between the ‘real world’ and the ‘arts scene’ but, on the other hand, there is a growing body of artists who precisely want to ‘connect’ with society and create social change. The social functions of art In the current context of accountability, effectiveness, efficiency and measurement, the notion of evidence-based practice has become very prominent in the debate about the societal dimension of art (Baetens et al., 2013). However, measuring the ‘social impact or value’ of culture and the arts is a highly complex endeavour and what counts as ‘evidence’ has always been the object of academic as well as public debate (Böhm and Land, 2009; Galloway, 2009). What counts as a legitimate argument when discussing the social value of the arts is furthermore always related to specific and subjective definitions of concepts such as ‘culture’, ‘art’ and ‘(social) value’. In this vein, the distinction of Baetens and colleagues (2013) between intrinsic and extrinsic arguments about the value of art may be highly relevant. Intrinsic arguments about the social value of the arts such as social democratisation (the idea that funding will add to a more equal participation in culture) are losing ground at the expense of arguments that focus on the external functions of arts—in other words, on their return on investment. This ‘economic’ function of art has become a major part in the discussion besides the fact that the art sector itself increasingly refers to profits that can be gained from the investments by the government. The danger here is that ‘social engagement’ becomes a market term that is used to secure funding. As such, it is part of the neo-liberal logic that precisely is being problematised by Schubert and Gray (2015). Extrinsic arguments can also refer to the social ‘effects’ of the arts. Elkhuizen and others (2014) refer to the fact that a lot of scientific research about the value and effects of culture indeed focuses on how art, culture and heritage contribute, for example, to social cohesion by creating networks and stimulating social integration. At the same time, there still are a lot of intrinsic arguments about the value of art and culture ‘as such’. It has indeed been argued that art does not need to have an external added value (l’art pour l’art). Baetens and others (2013) distinguish other intrinsic arguments in support of funding the arts, such as the Bildung’s argument that emphasises the forming role of art and what it can add to the development of democratic attitudes and the democratic argument that focuses on how art can be moving and disturbing at the same time and as such can contribute to a critical public sphere and create a space for critical reflection on culture and society. Elkhuizen and colleagues (2014) link the different possible functions of art to Biesta’s educational concepts of qualification, socialisation and subjectification. Biesta (2009) uses these concepts to discuss the functions of education in general and civic education in particular. Qualification refers to the transfer and learning of knowledge and skills, socialisation refers to introducing pupils into social and cultural traditions, subjectification refers to how people can exist as subjects with their own possibilities for initiative rather than being an object of others. Elkhuizen and others (2014) address these three processes in relation to the cultural debate. Socialisation refers to the general social integrating function of art and their contribution to social cohesion. Qualification refers to culture as civilisation and an introduction into what a society thinks is useful (this is a normative approach). Subjectification refers to the possibility of art to afford the opportunity of individuals and communities to take a critical stance in relation to dominant values by imagining and experimenting with alternatives. The complexity and the subjectivity of the debate about the social function of art and culture also raise the question of who is legitimated to define what valuable art is. This indeed implies that we need to have attention for the larger societal context in which this debate is taking place. Galloway (2009), for example, argues for an approach in the study of the societal value and impact of art and culture that aims to explore what they mean for specific persons and communities in their specific context rather than looking for general laws. Methodology This article is based on a rhetorical analysis of different perspectives on socially engaged art. We specifically make use of the theoretical and methodological framework developed by Kenneth Burke, one of the main scholars within the field of new rhetoric (1966, 1969a, 1969b; for an extended discussion, we refer to previous publications: Rutten, 2010; Rutten and Soetaert, 2013). Rhetoric always constitutes a corresponding terministic screen that directs the attention to a specific perspective on complex social realities: even if a given terminology is a reflection of reality; by its very nature as a terminology, it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must also function as a deflection of reality (Blakesley, 2002; Burke, 1966). This implies that our use of language is always partial and, as we select the terms for debates, we not only select and deflect, but also predetermine the possible directions of the debate at hand (Sumner and Weidman, 2013). Rhetorical analysis aims to track down these selections and deflections implicit in terminologies. In that sense, new rhetoric provides several tools for analysing the situated meaning and motive-generating functions that language performs in relation to specific contexts (Brummett, 2006). Case study The purpose of the study is to develop insight in the complexity and ambiguity of the diverse arguments and social problem constructions employed when discussing socially engaged art. Research on what social engagement in the arts precisely entails can, however, not be critically analysed without gaining an in-depth understanding of particular practices as well as the specific socio-political and historical contexts in which these practices are situated. This study will thus be conducted by means of a case study research design which has been described as particularly relevant to gain an in-depth understanding of a contemporary (social) phenomenon in its real-world context (Yin, 2014). The choice for TNF as a relevant case study is based on our earlier research about Wunderbaum (Rutten et al., 2010). The theatre company Wunderbaum is a Dutch-Flemish theatre company that creates plays about contemporary societal debates and topics. The collective is formed by five actors and has been active since 2001. Wunderbaum mainly works with its own texts (no scripts), which are based on their own research while working without a director. The subjects of Wunderbaum’s plays are mainly social themes that are explored and ‘imagined’ in and through their artistic work. In their socially engaged plays, there is not always a clear differentiation between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Since 2013, Wunderbaum has been working on a four-year project entitled ‘The New Forest’ in which they—more explicitly than before—position themselves on the borders of art and social engagement. TNF is a clear example of an artistic project that is situated at the intersection of art and social work and it specifically examines and reflects upon the social value of art and artists. The starting point of the project is the approach of society as a society in crisis and in transition, which makes it possible to analyse TNF in relation to the current socio-political context. As a response to this crisis and transition, the actors aim to build a new society. The project has different shapes and forms: TNF is a collection of plays dealing with societal issues, a broad range of contextual events such as lectures, debates and interviews, an online community and a network of partners such as artists, entrepreneurs and scientists. Moreover, TNF is an experiment: it is flexible as a project and subject to change. In the first two years of the project, the emerging ideas about the project were continuously revisited. Strategies of data collection Because the aim of a cluster analysis is to confront a broad range of perspectives, we have also collected a broad range of data. We used the following selection criteria for our data collection: the data had to discuss the project TNF in general besides the societal role of the artist in this project. The perspective of the artists of Wunderbaum should be available as well as the perspective of other stakeholders, such as by using reviews, opinion columns, reactions from the public, funding applications, etc. To be able to detect shifts in rhetorical positioning on TNF, the selected data should range from 2013 to 2015. Based on the previous criteria, we have selected the following data: external and internal information about TNF communicated by the artists of Wunderbaum itself: information about TNF on the website of Wunderbaum (such as their mission statement and interviews conducted by the actors); radio interview with the actors of Wunderbaum; personal communication with Walter Bart, one of the actors of Wunderbaum; internal documents written by Wunderbaum both in preparation of and during the project, such as a project plan, a funding application, a pitch text and different summaries of the project; information and opinions about TNF communicated by other stakeholders: reviews, announcements and positioning papers; report of the granted subsidies for the project by Fonds Podiumkunsten; public comments about TNF on online fora. Strategies of data analysis We applied a cluster analysis in which rhetorical positions are identified by charting the terms that cluster around key terms in a text (Foss, 2004). Cluster analysis follows three basic steps: (i) identifying key terms: determining the significance of terms based on frequency or intensity; (ii) charting the clusters: performing examination of the text to identify the occurrence of each key term and identification of the terms that cluster around each term; (iii) interpreting the text: looking for patterns in the associations or linkages discovered in the charting of the clusters as a way of making visible the constructed worldview, by examining terms that oppose or contradict other terms. The principles of frequency and intensity can be used to interpret what is significant about the text (de Bisschop et al., 2011). We developed a cluster analysis based on several key terms. For selecting the key terms, we started from the research questions that we had explained at the outset. We also focused on the intensity and frequency for clustering other concepts around these key terms. To capture the diversity of differing perspectives and ambiguities in this project, we chose the term TNF as the first key term for the analysis to get a sense of the different meanings given to this project by different stakeholders. The same procedure was followed with the key terms art and artist. This allowed us to gain insight in the societal function assigned to the artists in the TNF project. The paradoxical observation of a new engagement in the arts on the one hand and an increasing questioning of the societal value of art and the artist on the other serves as the starting point of the following analysis. In both the collection and analysis of the data, all of the ethical standards have been taken into account. When retrieving and using interview material and internal information from Wunderbaum for research purposes, the ethical standards with regard to informed consent and dimensions of research ethics in social work (Roose et al., 2016) were considered. Research findings In what follows, we discuss and explain the following clusters around TNF and the social function of the artist: (i) the artist generates change; (ii) the artist imagines; (iii) the artist researches; (iv) the artist acts as an entrepreneur and (v) the artist confirms the social order/takes advantage. The artist generates change Clusters: TNF as utopia, as heterotopia, as activism, as community, as experiment, TNF on the verge between reality and fiction. Wunderbaum’s aim to build a new society has led the public, critics as well as the actors themselves, to question what this new society should look like. One of the connotations that we found, specifically in the beginning of the project, is ‘TNF as an ideal society’ or ‘TNF as utopia’. Often these connotations are related to the question of whether Wunderbaum is ironical or not about this ‘new society’. The collective, however, rather uses the Foucauldian term heterotopia (based also on their collaboration with the sociologist Willem Schinkel) to stress that they look for alternatives rather than for solutions. TNF wants to show ‘the other’, ‘the possible’, without knowing whether this other is better and without having a moral judgement about a different solution. Although critics sometimes refer to TNF as activism, the actors are rather reluctant to use this term. One way that Wunderbaum itself does give an explicit explanation for its social engagement is by referring to it as ‘community formation’: online, but also in real life. The most important question for Wunderbaum is how to shape its social engagement. One of their main strategies is to play with elements of reality, art and new realities; see, for example, the slogan of TNF: ‘More real than life.’ The artist appears in several ways in these clusters about TNF: the artist as an activist, the artist as a political figure, the artist as a socio-cultural worker. Art becomes an action or an intervention. The artist wants to transform society and connect people and groups. In this discourse, there is mainly a focus on the external (social and political) functions of art. One important question raised by the project is whether art can really change society. Wunderbaum addresses this question by using Schinkel’s concept of performativity: by ‘imagining’ a specific perspective, it also becomes a viable alternative. The artist imagines Clusters: TNF as imagination of transition, as experiment, TNF on the verge between reality and fiction. Over time, the content of TNF has evolved. Currently, the project is presented as ‘an imagination of the confusion of transition’. Based on their increasing contacts with experts in transition, Wunderbaum has decided to focus no longer on ‘creating a new society’. It now wants to concentrate on the complexity, the oppositions, the discussions and conflicts in processes of transition. Wunderbaum argues that, as actors, it wants to offer imagination to societal innovators and offer a platform and podium for their ideas and discussions. In previous work, as well as in TNF, they want to create a mirror and confuse their audience, to make them think about the way we live together. Wunderbaum claims that theatre always has been a space where societal themes are collectively explored. By using specific forms and styles, Wunderbaum succeeds in creating complexity and friction (at least some sort of friction with reality). Wunderbaum experiments in TNF with the concept of theatre itself. Especially their exploration of the balance between reality and fiction occasionally causes irritation with the audience. The artist appears in this discussion as the one who offers imagination; art is considered as intrinsically valuable. Through the imagination of the artist, the audience can reflect about him- or herself and about society. TNF creates a space to reflect about the existing and the possible. TNF not only reflects about democracy, but the actors also explore democracy in their own artistic practice. The artist researches Clusters: TNF as research, as experiment, the artist as researcher. The concept of ‘research’ is very important in the discourse of Wunderbaum about TNF and about itself as a theatre group. Wunderbaum uses terms such as research process, research format, analysis of society, sociological think tank, etc. to describe TNF. To begin with, research plays an important role in the preparation processes of Wunderbaum. The actors work with their own texts based on research of movies, books or documentaries, but also based on encounters with people, places and countries. Wunderbaum conceives the artist as a researcher and its art works as a way to communicate about its research as artists. It, for example, refers to TNF as a means to use findings from previous research in its plays. In their artistic practice, they take up roles that are comparable with those of anthropologists or sociologists. Wunderbaum wants to study through its theatre work how people live together and how conflicting positions in society can be negotiated. As such, research is not only an important part of the preparation of the plays. The artistic product itself is seen by Wunderbaum as research. The research is referred to as connections with both societal and artistic themes. Based on the content of the plays, TNF is a study of how people live together, about new ways of living together in times of crisis, but also about the functions of art (see above) and the relationship with other actors such as politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs. The artist as an entrepreneur Cluster: TNF as company and as institution. Wunderbaum wants to invest strongly in partnerships and collaboration with diverse actors such as entrepreneurs. The choice to also involve companies in TNF was pragmatic, since policy requires that artists take an entrepreneurial stance, such as by collecting parts of their incomes themselves. TNF, for example, experiments with crowdfunding in which citizens and companies are asked to invest in TNF. Furthermore, the choice is also artistic and based on content: by relating to commercial partners, TNF is a community that thinks about how society should be built. However, Wunderbaum has mixed feelings about investments from companies, because this input largely remains financial and does not actually contribute to the ideological project. The system of crowdfunding too has also been the object of scepticism by both the actors and the critics. The artist is considered as an entrepreneur: financially, but also socially. Financially, artists are expected to generate income and to contribute for example to tourism, the city or the international reputation of the arts scene. On a social level, the artist is represented as a social engineer or social entrepreneur. The artist is someone who contributes to integration, social cohesion, revitalisation of neighbourhoods, etc. Here, the focus is on the extrinsic functions of art, both socially as well as economically. TNF is also characterised by the search of Wunderbaum about these roles and about how to act as an ‘entrepreneurial’ art collective. The artist confirms the social order takes advantage Clusters: TNF as loss of taxes, as disruptive, art needs to confirm the social order. These last clusters are not based on the use of language that comes from Wunderbaum, but come from a specific review article and responses from readers to it. Both the article and the reactions to it have been published on the website of Wunderbaum. The question that is critically addressed in the article is whether artists should offer concrete political suggestions and should receive subsidies for this. The opinion piece is critical about the growing group of artists who no longer believe that ‘imagining’ ideas about society is sufficient, but also believe they need to offer concrete alternatives. For some, TNF is even seen as dangerous and disruptive. Wunderbaum recognises that building a new society sometimes leads to negative responses. Is the current society not the best possible one? In the critical perspective, there is also the question about the need of state funding for these kinds of projects. TNF is regarded as a waste of money, since the own interest of the actors is said to be more important than the interest of society. In one response, the argument is that artists are precisely important actors in questioning the political-social status quo and even offering specific alternatives. One claims that, through imagination, disruption and change, different perspectives can be created. It is clear from the cluster analysis that TNF carries a lot of connotations. These meanings are constructed by different stakeholders, at different moments of the project, but also at the same time with different stakeholders. Wunderbaum does not give clear answers to what TNF precisely is and does, and what not. As such, TNF is first and foremost an experiment. Discussion Based on the analysis, we have found that the meaning constructions of Wunderbaum about TNF are mainly concentrated around two major clusters: ‘the artist changes’ and ‘the artist imagines’. With TNF, Wunderbaum wants to relate one way or the other to the societal problems they are confronted with as persons, as artists and as researchers. With TNF, Wunderbaum takes up a social and political role by looking for alternatives, by organising democracy in the project itself and by creating and reinforcing fictive as well as real communities. In this project, Wunderbaum gets confronted with the (im)possibilities of art to achieve social and political changes. The actors are also confronted with the opinions of the audience and reviewers about their societal role. Some expected more explicit solutions from Wunderbaum, others saw the idea of shaping a new society as purely ironical, still others missed the depth and complexity of the earlier work of Wunderbaum. Wunderbaum reoriented TNF from the focus on ‘change’ to a project that ‘imagines’ the paradoxes and complexities of transition in its full complexity. In a discussion between Wunderbaum and Willem Schinkel, the sociologist argues that Wunderbaum can use its own profession to create something new based on different perspectives on transition. Wunderbaum argues, however, that they are better positioned to create a platform for social imagination rather than for real changes. Wunderbaum thus legitimises its social role in TNF based on extrinsic as well as intrinsic arguments. Wunderbaum refers to external, social and community-forming effects of TNF, but also legitimises the project based on the intrinsic value of art. Both the Bildung argument and the argument about democracy are thus applicable to TNF. TNF offers its public the opportunity to be a citizen in society and to participate in discussions about social and political themes. Furthermore, TNF stimulates reflection on society by moving and disrupting people through imagination. Whereas Wunderbaum refers to the external as well as to the internal value of art for legitimising their societal role, the current cultural policy mainly uses external arguments for legitimising support to the arts. Next to social effects, also economic effects are measured to justify subsidies for the arts. TNF connects to this discourse by emphasising the social and economic return on investment. The project is, however, not only seen as positive. Some critical voices even see it as a waste of public funds. Although critics blame the arts to lose connection with society and as such become marginal projects, the attempts of artists to offer political alternatives are regarded as disruptive practices that need to be kept at bay. A possible explanation lies in the way ‘public good’ is being defined in these critiques. The assessment of the social function of art is strongly influenced by a specific normative—and always political—perspective on what society is or should be. This claim is illustrated based on the concepts of ‘community formation’ and ‘democracy’. In the current social context, there are different ways to think about the concept of social cohesion. The socialising and qualifying function of art and culture refer to thinking about democracy as socialising people and communities into the traditions of a particular society. However, art and culture can also contribute to subjectification. Art thus offers the possibility of giving individuals and communities an independent, critical position in response to dominant thinking by imagining and experimenting with alternatives. Hence, there should also be room for the subjectifying function of art. In the current social climate, education, social work, but also the arts seem to neglect their subjectifying function. This discussion illustrates that starting from different socio-political positions also influences different expectations about the social functions of art. Depending on the perspective one has on the social role of the artist, other orientations towards art and culture will be considered as legitimate or illegitimate. Conclusion: a fertile cross-fertilisation between art and (emancipatory) social work The aim of our study was to analyse TNF by Wunderbaum to gain insight into different perspectives on societal engagement in the arts and, as such, engage in the debate on the so-called ‘death of emancipatory work’. Building on the analysis, we will revisit the two research questions outlined in the introduction: ‘What different interpretations of social engagement in the arts are constructed in relation to specific socio-political contexts?’ and ‘What insights do the discussion about social engagement in the arts offer for a reconsideration of the emancipatory potential and social justice aspirations of social work?’ With regard to the first research question, our research clearly illustrates that social engagement in art is a very ambiguous issue. Our case study shows a diverse range of strategies and roles of artists in their attempts to create social engagement, ranging from roles where artists foster emancipatory and transformative aims (generating change, imagination and keeping research-oriented attitudes) rather than conservative approaches where artists function as entrepreneurs and affirm the social order. This finding may be very promising and inspiring for a radical revisiting of the aims and features of social work in contemporary times, when neo-liberal imperatives continue to impact on, and shape, social work (Garrett, 2002; Marston and McDonald, 2012). In our research findings, it is obvious that art can show social problems in all of their complexity without generating compromises, as a disrupting and subjectifying practice in our dominant conceptualisations of social topics and issues. As such, socially engaged art can stimulate critical and ethical professional attitudes inspired by social imagination. With regard to the second research question, our research therefore entails that we can no longer uncritically presume that we should accept the so-called death of emancipatory social work (Schubert and Gray, 2015). Remarkably, however, Schubert and Gray (2015) also address that a slightly more optimistic interpretation of neo-liberalism’s impact on social work might ‘open the possibility for a new boldness, a new willingness for political contestation at a collective level and a new approach to governmental invention—a new politics’ (p. 1351). This may have vital implications for practice because a critical reflection of a social worker’s own construction and enactment of ‘social justice’ and a critical questioning of the dominant constructions of social justice in the discipline and practice of social work can strengthen the emancipatory potential and social justice aspirations of social work (Lorenz, 2016). By using creativity, art can imagine viable alternatives in different ways and make reflection possible about what is not already there (what if). Art projects therefore also embody the potential to reinvigorate social work’s commitment to emancipatory practice and transformative change, which shows the relevance of searching common ground and creating cross-fertilisations between the debates about art and social work in their desire to pursue social justice and change may be very pertinent and productive. The analysis of socially engaged art projects such as TNF might indeed enable social workers to critically reflect on the ambiguous identity of social work (Gray, 2002) by generating questions and public debate about what it requires to keep social engagement and social justice aspirations at the heart of social work (Lorenz, 2016). In that sense, social work’s mandate is to uphold ‘the premise that there are always alternatives’ (Lorenz, 2016, p. 14). 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The British Journal of Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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