Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street

This is a copy of my abstract submitted for the forthcoming Creative People and Places conference entitled (unbelievably) People, Place, Power.  It was rejected.  Perhaps it was not academic enough or badly written?  Or perhaps it might have been a little challenging for some panel members?  Anyway, I stand by my words...

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street, Doncaster.  An example of Creative People and Places programming.

ABSTRACT

The proliferation of projects seeking to increase participation in the arts can appear bewildering. From Creative People and Places to Education, Learning and Outreach teams sprouting from almost every arts and cultural institution across England, the race is on to engage as many people as possible in the arts - not just as audiences but also as participants (although audiences can frequently be participants and participants are often audiences).  Attempts to engage new people in new places or new people in old places can be spectacular (good for attracting large numbers of people); sometimes dressed-up as ‘grassroots’.  The troubles are two-fold: initiatives seeking to ‘democratise culture’ – existing state-approved culture – to encourage more people in more places to take part in existing state-funded provision; and, they always turn participants (people) into numbers, state-sanctioned categories – data for evaluations and reports that ‘evidence’ success at every opportunity.  People become numbers, places little more than coloured pins on territorial maps.

Initiated by the state via (not very) arms-length bodies, initiatives like Creative People and Places and all of the other institutional outreach activities are funder-initiated.  The terms of engagement are determined many miles away from the places where people don’t take part in the state’s authorised arts and cultural offer; in ivory towers that always reinforce class ceilings, by people who see, for deeply ideological reasons, the under-participating masses as in dire need of a good dose of ‘civilisation’.  Power in the hands of the few.  Not institutions who must, according to funding criteria, tick boxes.  Not uncomfortable ‘new’ partnerships tasked with delivering art to new people in new places.  Not artists often paid less than recommended rates to carefully comply with increasingly prescriptive project briefs and outcomes that perpetuate division of labour and precarity.  Certainly not people: the participants.  They have no power other than to choose whether to participate in a ‘trickle-down’ offer of what amounts to little more than the scraps from the table of our long-standing oligarchy, the English cultural elite.

Is this an attempt to colonise people and places?  Another gilded Trojan Horse harbouring cultural agents armed with state-sanctioned wellbeing, inclusion, diversity and employability – creative ‘salvation’ disguising the sanitisation of the ‘masses’ with our nation’s soft power weapon of choice?  Are arts professionals, artists, a myriad of partners performing as little more than depoliticising missionaries, mercenaries and middlemen (and women)?

This paper seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy. Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Perhaps people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  Has the ghost of Matthew Arnold stirred once more?  Cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?