arts on trial, May 2015arts on trial, May 2015

An old post for a new blog

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

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 DEADtwice!  Undoubtedly, I will do so again…

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


Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t ‘they’? Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say ‘we’ – members of the cultural class? We’re all participating today, aren’t we? But to what ends; for what means?

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning. Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns! Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.

All forms of participation in the arts. There are many others. The Warwick Commission report mentions participation 73 times. Why? Everyday Participation – can virtually anything be a form of cultural participation? Hmm…

So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive? I put it to you that participation lacks intent. For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.

PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.

Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… us. CHANGE THE CONVERSATION! HOW? WHY HASN’T IT CHANGED? Circular. On and on.

STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Nothing but a democratic veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained. Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists. Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.) CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)

What. No artists in the room? Good. IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW. Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans. FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION. Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they? They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes. Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour. Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art! GET CREATIVE!

New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Cultural Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences. Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.

PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES. Artists are always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait? Initiatives like Creative People and Places, Enriching GB (or should that be England?) are part of this.

MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism. Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Our practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!

So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory programming are guilty of a terrible crime: PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CULTURAL INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS A CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.


  1. Francois Matarasso says:

    I enjoyed reading this and there’s a lot of truth in it ,of course. It has the energy and vitriol of a good Gerald Scarfe drawing. Still satire is a highly coloured version of reality – revealing but also partial. The part of this territory you write about is the part that the art world is (somewhat) interested in. I’m not. You ask if I care – well not much about the things that the art world cares about.
    Over many years, I’ve met and sometimes worked with hundreds of people, some who who call themselves artists and others who don’t, but they all work on creative projects because they want to do something constructive, with whoever wants to join in, for its own sake. Often they have little or no support (and no attention from the art world). Sometimes they work at real personal cost. Their resistance – perhaps like most people’s – is getting by, doing something they care about and being the alternative. There’s a lot of bad faith in the world; I try to give my attention to the rest.

    • Stephen Pritchard says:

      Hi François.
      Thanks for your reply.
      I agree with your perspective and I’ll share some writing about my practice that hopefully illustrates how I try to move in between the Centre and peripheries: Inside out AND outside in. I find this an interesting means to gain insight from all perspectives.
      Love your Gerald Scarfe comparison! I use vitriol as part of a deliberate attempt to create oppositions and conflict. Dialectical spaces where good stuff happens in the gaps, the contradictions. I’m driven by playing AND reality, potential spaces, the carnivalesque…
      I think, perhaps, we have quite similar outlooks but very different practices. You seem to prefer to avoid the Centre and work in the everyday; I prefer to sometimes seem to inhabit the Centre whilst, simultaneously, vigorously critiquing it. I like Jung’s notions of the shadow and trickster figures, although I’m not a Jungian. For me, Art (not everyday creativity) is a game – part of The Game – that requires many masks and many unmaskings so The Rules can be exposed…
      Very best as always,

  2. Thank you – i love this piece. Although where to from here for my PhD I don’t know. I’m supposed to be researching the effects of arts in health, producing a systematic review of the evidence, but evidence for what, evidence that not only health workers but also artists can be co-optd into perpetuating the status quo?

    • Stephen Pritchard says:

      Hi Kate,
      Arts in health… Ha ha! (An interesting field…) Everyone is complicit these days, aren’t we? 😉

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