Matarasso, Merli and the question of social impact

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There is a crucial debate that is often still referred to when questions of art and social change arise. It is essentially a disagreement about the potentialities of participatory art as a mode of effecting social change; predominantly a discussion about policy and methodology – two questions that are at the heart of much of the writing about socially engaged art and its practice.

Matarasso published Use or Ornament? in 1997 for New Labour think-tank Comedia. It quickly became the cornerstone of New Labour’s drive to increase the status of arts and culture in the UK; it made impressive claims about the many possible forms of social impact that participation in arts and cultural activities could achieve. The report seemed to present a compelling case to many policy-makers that participatory arts might be a panacea for all ills by claiming, very positively, that:

‘Participation in the arts does bring benefits to individuals and communities. On a personal level these touch people’s confidence, creative and transferable skills and human growth, as well as their social lives through friendships, involvement in the community and enjoyment. Individual benefits translate into wider social impact by building the confidence of minority and marginalised groups, promoting contact and contributing to social cohesion. New skills and confidence can be empowering as community groups become more (and more equitably) involved in local affairs. Arts projects can strengthen people’s commitment to places and their engagement in tackling problems, especially in the context of urban regeneration. They encourage and provide mechanisms for creative approaches to development and problem solving, and offer opportunities for communities and institutions to take risks in a positive way. They have the capacity to contribute to health and social support of vulnerable people, and to education’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 74).

The report continued by extending the claims for the efficacy of participatory art in achieving positive ‘social outcomes’ because it is different from and superior to other forms of arts experiences (Matarasso, 1997, pp. 74-79). Matarasso warned that projects must be ‘well-conceived and managed’ to achieve positive social impact or they could otherwise produce ‘negative outcomes’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 75). The report clearly suggested to New Labour policy-makers that the project of ‘social inclusion’ could be furthered by ‘a marginal repositioning of social policy priorities’ together with ‘a review of the cultural dimension of social policy by local authorities and other major agencies’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. 79). It also provocatively suggested that art purporting to either conjure ‘demons of social engineering and Soviet Realism’ or romantic notions of the ‘neurasthenic anti-hero, whose artistic sensibility requires protection from the pollution of modern life’, were positions ‘used by people who should know better to frighten us into our places’ (Matarasso, 1997, pp. 80-81).

Although frequently criticised, the most critical response to Use or Ornament? by Paola Merli was not published until seven years later. Her approach focused on criticising Matarasso’s research as flawed, perhaps because of his ‘strong desire to be relevant and useful to the policy process and to contribute to decision-making’ (Merli, 2004, p. 17). To Merli, the research data did not support Matarasso’s conclusions reached. She claimed that:

‘Many of the 50 hypotheses are expressed as relationship between abstract concepts which are not observable, nor measurable. For example: participation in the arts "can give people influence over how they are seen by others", or "can help validate the contribution of a whole community", or "can help people extend control over their own lives", or "can help community groups raise their vision beyond the immediate”’ (Merli, 2004, p. 17).

Furthermore, Merli criticised Matarasso’s questionnaire because it was not systematic, nor formulated to test his hypotheses, nor did it consider or attempt to control social desirability bias; she also attacked him for failing to adequately explore the likely duration of the results obtained or the social groups his participants belonged to (Merli, 2004, pp. 17-18). But it was not just Matarasso’s highly suspect collection and interpretation of data that Merli found wanting, she also questioned his interpretation of social change, claiming that he, along with other policy-makers and intellectuals, shared ‘a particular philosophical attitude towards society’; a ‘benevolent’ vision of ‘"new missionaries", who play guitar with marginalised youth, the disabled and the unemployed, aiming at mitigating the perception which they have of their own exclusion’ (Merli, 2004, p. 18). Contrasting this ‘revival’ of participation with the community arts movement, Merli found that, whereas ‘the original phenomenon was a spontaneous movement… directed to the expression of conflicts’ and devoted to achieving ‘emancipation and liberation from any form of social control… by means of artistic creativity’, Matarasso’s vision was a form of soft social control prescribed by the rich to anesthetise the poor (Merli, 2004, pp. 19-20).

Merli’s proposed alternative to the prescriptive Use or Ornament? was itself, however, rather limp in its attempt to suggest areas for future research – many of which are still relatively unexplored by many socially engaged practitioners and projects to this day. Merli suggested that social impact assessment (an approach very much focused upon investigating the social effects of public policy), and interdisciplinary research (including the fields of psychology and sociology), could be useful methods of evaluating participatory art activities because they recognised the specificity of each intervention and offered a firm theoretical basis for future research in the field, as well as offering evidence about the effects creativity and perception on participants (Merli, 2004, p. 20). In Vygotsky and Sloboda, however, Merli chose to narrowly focus upon creativity based on contested social and cognitive psychological approaches with little to link them to creativity or the arts. She also described Bourdieu’s treatise on art as an elitist tool that reinforces social difference, Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception (1968), as ‘a grounding theory for interesting research on the social impact of the arts’ (Merli, 2004, pp. 20-21). Nonetheless, Merli’s suggestion to utilise detailed interviews rather than questionnaires because they can help the researcher ‘understand - and not simply to measure - the ideas and the feelings of the interviewee’ (Merli, 2004, p. 21) is certainly of relevance to methods used in this research.