Prepositions may be small words, but they tell big stories…

Alliance secretariat Mary Schwarz reflects on the recent desire expressed by Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, for greater ‘access to what the arts have to offer’ alongside Charles Leadbeater’s call for ‘the art of with’… and wonders whether it’s actually the little boy who said he felt ‘A puppet show in my stomach’ who’s on to something truly radical.

Talking with a colleague the other day who, like me, has been working in the sector for over three decades, I shared that ‘back in the day’, my understanding of cultural democracy and the democratisation of culture had been informed by a diagram and a cartoon.

The diagram was Sherry Arnstein’s A Ladder of Citizen Participation published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 1969. This was a typology of eight ‘rungs’ relating to participation, from the lowest ‘manipulation’ of non-participation to the highest ‘citizen control’ of citizen power.

The cartoon showed a grey, balding, besuited, male local councillor shouting at a woman who was holding a piece of paper titled ‘Community Group Proposals’ and accompanied by a diverse group of people. The words he was shouting? ‘You’ve given me your vote, now it’s mine!’

With these in mind, I refined (or rather simplified, to be honest) an explanation about my work around a continuum of practices – and therefore a difference between ‘community arts’ and ‘arts in the community’ (terms so loosely and widely interchanged at the time). I just kept asking ‘Whose art?’ and never, ever accepted ‘Their eyes lit up’ as a mark of quality participation.

The ‘Whose art?’ question still resonated for me when I read Sir Nicholas Serota’s Culture Opinion piece in The Guardian with its references to Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisations who will ‘serve audiences right on their doorsteps, bringing life-changing experiences to people of all ages’.

It also reminded me about Charles Leadbeater’s 2009 essay The Art of With. This discusses the need for the arts to move from the world of ‘to and for’ to that of ‘with’, offering perspectives on the ‘enjoy, talk and do’ mix of cultural experiences that people are after.

However, is ‘with’ enough? Not everyone thinks so. One of the themes at the New Perspectives on Participatory Artsconference in May is ‘Moving beyond “with not for”: changing ideas about collaboration between diverse individuals, groups and organisations’. No doubt similar debates will also arise the month before at the Cultural Democracy yesterday, today and tomorrow symposium.

While Sir Nicholas argues rightly, I think, that ‘the arts provide a place where ideas can be debated, explored and developed and new propositions can be put forward’, I’d argue they’re a place for new prepositions as well.

This thought was prompted by another recent conversation, this time with puppeteer Tony Gee, co-founder of Creation Myth Puppets. Tony was sharing a case study from a school project and what one boy explained he felt, when asked about his emotions: ‘A puppet show in my stomach’.

So while the arts comprise both ‘arts made by others’ and ‘arts made by ourselves’, if we’re honestly seeking the transformative power of the arts, we have to tackle the transformation of power in the arts.

This requires a proper understanding and valuing of the intentions and integrity of great participatory art, alongside hearing directly the experiences of those making that great participatory art. Then we can appreciate its impact – which is, as another boy reflected, ‘Far more than happy’.