How participation won, and why it matters

Date: February 2019 | Posted by: Mary

Kathryn Deane, visiting Professor at York St John University in the International Centre for Community Music, reviews François Matarasso's A Restless Art.

 

It is, it seems to me, virtually impossible to be a practitioner in the field of participatory art (more on that term later) without also being a theoretician of the field, and François Matarasso is the ultimate doer-thinker of this practice; and A Restless Art very much the Book of Why?

 

Matarasso’s job here is, first and foremost, to satisfy himself about the nature, meaning and purpose of this art: to make sense to himself of the art forms of participatory and community art – art forms designed specifically to make sense of the world to those experiencing the practice.

 

He achieves his goal first through much practice (this is easily his 10th, maybe 15th, significant publication in the field); and second through a limpid writing style drawing heavily on Story: peppered throughout his 280 pages are over 40 case studies as well as innumerable references to activities not only in the UK but from the 40-plus countries he has visited in his four decades in the practice. This book is a cross between the European Grand Tour and Cobbett’s Rural Rides.

 

And third, he invokes a process of disassembly familiar to many repairers of things: taking it apart, looking at it, and then putting it back together again. A director I once worked with described the process of direction as like ‘taking a bicycle apart, and spreading all the bits around you, to see how it works.’

 

Thus, in going back to first principles Matarasso lays out in an early chapter some concepts of art: art as object, as meaning; art and children; and more. Take special note of the arguments that it’s all the Enlightenment’s fault for inventing the fine art tradition, with its split between ‘cultured’ art and ‘folk’ art, and the privileging of art as revered thing, over art as everyday activity – for he comes back to those themes frequently.

 

Chapters on the intentions and the art of participatory art should be familiar territory to most practitioners. But they need exploring nonetheless, otherwise you won’t know how the bicycle works. More practically, you won’t know how to argue with the fine art brigade about the importance, the essentiality of participatory art.

 

Why make participatory art? Matarasso asks. It’s because we’re humans: it’s what we do, is the broad answer. Matarasso also identifies three specific intentions underpinning participatory art:

 

  • increasing access to art (or cultural democratisation)
  • creating social change, and
  • advancing cultural democracy.

 

Other intentions are available, of course, including creating personal change which Matarasso bundles into social change. In a tightly argued section, beginning with the necessary references to Freire and Boal, he makes the often overlooked point that personal change is conditional on social change, not the other way around.

 

The unholy pair of cultural democratisation and cultural democracy get a good shaking-out. First, definition. Matarasso describes cultural democratisation as equivalent to increasing access to art; an act that he gives a cautious welcome to. If art does all those things that we say art does – why would we want to restrict access to it? Well, ’we’ wouldn’t – but ‘they’ might.

 

‘The issue is not, has never been, that people don’t enjoy art. It is about whether the state recognises the art they enjoy, and whether they enjoy the art that the state recognises.’

 

In other words, people don’t need some sort of Lady Bountiful offering artistic soup to the huddled masses. They don’t want cultural democratisation, they want cultural democracy. Well, at least the Campaign for Cultural Democracy did, in 1984, though little was heard from them subsequently. Until 2018, when the Movement for Cultural Democracy became Twitter-vocal.

 

In a beautiful section on advancing cultural democracy, Matarasso gently but ineluctably builds the argument for the centrality of cultural democracy in human lives. Culture is the ‘parliament of our dreams’ he says:

 

‘Being able to represent ourselves within that cultural forum is how we can defend our values, identity, experience – and rights. So here is a tentative definition:

 

  • Cultural democracy is the right and capability to participate fully, freely and equally in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and create, publish and distribute artistic work.’

 

The final section of this chapter is an underplayed examination of the issue of multiple agendas in participatory art projects. Matarasso takes as his Story for this section the subject of Arts on Prescription (which in its more generalist manifestation as ‘social prescribing’ is about to become bigger than big) and the scheme run in Gloucestershire whereby people with various health conditions are referred to weekly creative workshops.

 

Evaluations showed there were health benefits (GP consultation rates dropped by 37 percent and hospital admissions by 27 percent) and financial benefits (there was a net saving to the NHS of £216 a patient). And, Matarasso supposes, artistic benefits (practitioners did good (whatever that means) creative work and participants undertook creative expression); and social benefits (participants enjoyed the social contact).

 

These multiple purposes do not diminish each other, says Matarasso, On the contrary, ‘[health outcomes] … are more likely to result from the committed engagement that good art demands.’ Well, up to a point: my own evaluations on this subject suggest it’s a bit more complicated than that. ‘Participatory art’s strength is that the instability of intentions is not problematic,’ Matarasso concludes. Up to a point again, for it depends on who is experiencing those instabilities (hopefully not the participants): because it requires, as Matarasso says, everyone involved to open themselves to other ideas, experiences and values.

 

This is so scary that the only response of many funders and policy makers is to treat the practice hostilely, choke off its funding, demand ever-more ludicrous hoop-jumping and castigate it for being not only what it is, but being successful at producing what they want.

 

Chapter 5 is about the Art. Centred on another beautiful description – this one, of a harrowing refugee play by the Dutch Fada Theatre: ‘non-professional’ (another definition which I park for later) actors bearing witness to their own lives and circumstances. The description leads to a careful deconstruction of what participatory art is about and why it is simply wrong – no, irrelevant – to judge it by the norms of fine art theatre tradition. We have all struggled over the years with what this means in practice, Matarasso more so than most and mostly he has rigorous argument on his side. Try these three concepts for size (the titles are my own):

 

The well-meaning dangerous manager Production values of participatory art can be low – judged by the (arbitrary) standards of a fine art work. So ‘we’ (ie those of us ‘in charge’) feel the need to forestall criticism by making excuses: it’s a good play – for refugees, amateurs, considering what they’ve been through. Through the lens of Matarasso’s experience, we can see such apparently well-meaning excuses as condescension: ‘the othering that assigns to some people a subordinate position, while simultaneously reinforcing the speaker’s own superiority, conveyed in the claimed right to judge.’

 

Category confusion So when I’ve stopped applauding artists for overcoming weaknesses I’ve defined for them, how do I judge their work? Don’t apply the criteria and standards of fine art to participatory art: ‘not because of limitations in the quality of the [participatory] work. The limitations are in the criteria and standards [of fine art].’

 

The inseparability of art and life This one is really tricky, and the arguments become circular very quickly: this play is a political act because of the themes it deals with. But, then, it’s an artistic act because of the way the themes are presented.

 

Suddenly, Matarasso’s claim to the singular ‘art’ (as in the book’s title) makes complete sense: ‘the participatory arts’ would be sub-categories of specific art forms: theatre arts, music arts, visual arts – and hence inviting correspondence with the fine art traditions these art forms largely inhabit. But ‘participatory art’ is an art form itself, and must be judged against the standards of other participatory art activities of relevance. What standards? There has been an insidious practice among the participatory arts naysayers to point to participatory arts failing (which of course it has, like any other art form): be uplifted, therefore, by Matarasso’s rallying cry to simply turn that on its head: ‘Like all art, as a practice and a form, it should be considered on the basis of its highest achievements’ (my emphasis).

 

It is excellent to see a whole chapter on ethics, participatory art being fundamentally the practice of ethics in an artistic framework. Matarasso’s take on this is orthodox, his lodestar being that it is unethical to seek to make change without the informed consent of those involved; and his models the power imbalances in, say, doctor-patient relationships.

 

And so we arrive at the obligatory History – and the equally obligatory confessions of partiality, authoritativeness and bias. Matarasso owns up to an impressive list of mea culpas here – but his frame of reference is so broad and knowledgeable that it’s unlikely anyone knows more than him about which bodies are buried where, let alone the implications of their entombment.

 

Some histories start in the 1960s or 70s; some from post-war, and a few trawl back to Victorian times. Matarasso reckons it all kicked off in the late 1700s: one of his leitmotifs running through the whole of this book is the continuing influence of the European Enlightenment and its invention of the western high art tradition: that ultimate cultural weapon for keeping the masses in their place. Because the Enlightenment was a human – specifically, male – construct it didn’t even need truth on its side. The dominant history of Western art, with its tales of individual genius and narrow standards of taste is not, says Matarasso, fact: it is merely a version of events, and a ‘questionable one at that. It has denied the legitimacy of artistic work that it does not control or benefit from.’

 

In other words, his thesis in all of this is an eternal struggle for cultural democracy: the elites inventing forms of culture and education (and critically the funding for these) that would mark them out from the common herd; the working classes subverting these forms for their own empowerment.

 

And thus, via pioneers such as Wesker and Littlewood, we arrive in the late-1960s in pretty much the same place as other recent recorded histories of participatory art: with its radical failure. But, argues Matarasso, a failure only of theorising. In its practice – especially the wider practice of participatory art – it was (as I also have argued) alive, kicking and developing. True, Owen Kelly’s vision of the role of community artists as being ‘to maintain a clear analysis of what we have done […] and the ways that it fits into a revolutionary programme aimed at the establishment of cultural democracy’ proved a non-starter.

 

However, the ream of stories Matarasso presents here on the development of a participatory art form which uniquely intertwines both social and aesthetic purposes; which serves the communities it works in and for; and which is resilient enough for more than a few companies in the field to be celebrating 40th and even 50th anniversaries, is powerful testament to the value of work which has ‘helped millions find new life chances through new skills, confidence and social networks. Always on the margins, their survival may be their most profound political act.’

 

But, as the communities of place – geographical locations where community artists set down roots and served participants from cradle to grave – gave way to communities of interest (people who had common experiences) the artist’s job changed. The ‘language of remedialism’ entered the discourse, and the work became separated from the rights-based approaches of the first generation of practice.

 

The received narrative then goes on to discuss the effects of the National Lottery (which poured squillions into the arts, some of it eventually for participatory art) and the election of the first New Labour government (which had a more sympathetic attitude to the agendas of participatory art than government hitherto). But Matarasso then throws a lighted match into the bucket of fireworks by baldly stating that ‘the transformation of the British cultural landscape in the past two or three decades is a local expression of a global phenomenon, and participatory art’s normalisation within that landscape is the incidental result of historic change.’

 

Sorry, guys, it wasn’t participatory art wot won it after all. It is probably a mixture of a long period of economic growth and technology developments creating a cacophony that not only allows us a form of cultural democracy (see? Be careful what you wish for) but demands we use it (to serve Big Data’s needs, obviously, not our own).

 

On the more recent history, Matarasso makes a good case for several points. First, while the recession following the crash of 2008 has undoubtedly hit arts funding as well as care homes, probation officers and social workers, in money terms participatory art has suffered relatively little. Second, Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme – essentially participatory art – is popular, big, and thriving. ‘Some of the work,’ says Matarasso, is ‘very high quality, in artistic, ethical and even political terms, and most represents good practice by today’s standards.’

 

Third, the assessment of Creative People and Places ‘uttered from the epicentre of the British arts establishment’ makes exactly the same arguments that the community arts movement made to the Arts Council in 1973. That sounds like a win, albeit one taking a third of a century.

 

There is, however, one major stumble in A Restless Art. In an early chapter Matarasso sets out ‘definitions’ of participatory and community art. Participatory art, he says, is ‘the creation of art by professional artists and non-professional artists’. This grates, terribly. It is impossible to define ‘professional’, and even if you did so satisfactorily, the binary division goes against the grain of this whole book. It requires Matarasso to deny visual arts’ ‘socially-engaged practice’ (Gormley’s Field, for example) as ‘participatory’. Even worse, he not only denies that status also to working with amateurs, he later leans heavily on amateur work as an actual example of participatory work. More: having developed the definition of participatory art, as above, he then more than once changes its goalposts so as to suit an argument he wants to make. 

 

The final chapter of this remarkable book which tells such a remarkable tale has the scent of valediction about it. Matarasso tells us what participatory art now needs: money (‘underpaid, overworked artists cannot do their best work’); trust (to end the nonsense of funders ‘who rarely have first-hand understanding of the field demand[ing] advance guarantees of its value to be verified by evaluation’); and professional development (the membership associations get a shout-out here, as does ArtWorks Alliance). And Matarasso tells us also what participatory art does not need: a likely to be popular list, containing as it does condescension, appropriation, education and proving its impact.

 

Profound and detailed, beautiful and practical, text book and story: François Matarasso’s A Restless Art could be the only work on participatory art that you will need to own and want to read.

 

Kathryn Deane has worked in community music for more than 30 years, and is now visiting Professor at York St John University in the International Centre for Community Music

 

 

François Matarasso (2019) A restless art: how participation won, and why it matters London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, UK Branch

ISBN: 978-1-903080-20-7

234pp plus 48pp colour plates

Hard copy soft covers available from £10 plus p&p here

PDF available free from here and the ArtWorks Alliance Knowledge Bank

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