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

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

I believe that there is not enough emphasis placed upon understanding the theoretical and historical perspectives and contexts of 'participation' that are, for me, crucially important to both practice and research that engages with people, place, power and politics.  Similarly, I also believe that, whilst this field is situated within 'the social', there is not enough emphasis on how practice and research may fit with broader understandings of art and society, nor, for that matter, with wider theoretical from other interrelated disciplines.  Too often I attend conferences or read articles about socially engaged art, participatory art and Creative People and Places only to find an often insular, narrow discussion of practice which often is positioned within existing frameworks of practice and research which themselves are often ultimately defined by the state.

This article therefore attempts to open up new ways of thinking about community development and social engagement in art programmes like Creative People and Places.

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PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL: STATE-SANCTIONED ART - A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE

PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL: STATE-SANCTIONED ART - A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE

This was my prosecution witness statement from the excellent Participation on Trial event organised by the lovely Chrissie Tiller and Goldsmiths from May 2015.

I think it remains as relevant to me as it did more than a year ago but I would say that I was a little over-generous in my support for socially engaged art - a term now so completely appropriated by the Institution of Art that it effectively is THE SAME AS participatory art.  Perhaps my views have hardened?  Anyway, I now have claimed socially engaged art is DEAD - twice!  Undoubtedly, I will do so again...

The (eventual) verdict was “GUILTY – BUT WHO CARES?”  Do you care?

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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.

Can participatory art support sustainable social change? A brief introduction to my research…

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Participatory art is a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained.

The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by practitioners, policy-makers, critics and academics. Research into the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. It is also important to consider how socially engaged art interfaces with and is influenced by other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography. This research also considers how critical theory, participatory action research, postdevelopment theory and notions of the carnivalesque might be fruitful routes to new insight about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change.

This literature review therefore attempts to survey key texts from across the many areas described above. It begins by taking the oft cited Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (Matarasso, 1997) as a starting point then develops from there across subsections covering: Socially engaged art – an ‘arts’ perspective; Art as Social change; Cultural policy; What might sustainable arts practice look like?; and Do other disciplines influence social engaged art practice?

I will serialise some of my thoughts arising from my literary research in regular blog posts covering the different aspects mentioned above.  Comments and criticism are very welcome.

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

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Participatory arts or, more precisely, socially engaged arts practice is resurgent. Participation in the arts is, like many times in the past since the Victorian era, being promoted as a panacea for many of the issues facing our communities.  New initiatives such as ArtWorks, Cultural Value Project and Participation & Engagement in the Arts seek a sea change in UK cultural and educational settings.  Research around if and how socially engaged art can ever be truly sustainable at grassroots levels within the communities it seeks to serve is, however, a bit more thin on the ground.

A key value of arts participation is its ability to stimulate creativity within communities developing social capital in so doing.  There are many examples of socially engaging arts projects that, having achieved short-term success, were not sustained.  Clearly, attempts to create social change in communities must focus on both people and places.  As Roberto Bedoya explains so well, participatory art needs to find ways to embed creativity within communities and engage the many disparate elements that define them but UK research in this area is limited and, where existent (like in the recent RSA project in Peterborough), localised.

I believe we need to explore new ways in which participation in art, creativity and place can link to become part of people’s everyday lives, integral to our communities, encouraging long-term social change.  To do this, it may be necessary to completely rethink our current structures for arts provision, to engage people in new ways, to relinquish control, to trust communities more, and a whole lot of other things too.  Sustainability has different meanings and there are many ways to attempt to stimulate sustainable ways of doing things.

This is what I will write about in a series of posts in the coming weeks.  I will ask a number of questions and propose some ways forward.  My immediate thoughts are that participation in the arts may be able to support broader social change in constructive and sustainable ways and that creativity of action and thought may somehow become integral to the futures of people, places and communities.  How this can be developed is uncertain and probably controversial.  We shall see…