A Restless Art: Read This Book

Usually, when I open a new book that touches on the socially aware and community-engaged art which has been the through-line of my life, I feel an anticipatory cringe. So often, the work is tendentious in some reactive way, far from my lived experience — more an artifact of someone’s academic resume than a genuine contribution.

Knowing something of his prior work, I was certain there wouldn’t be a single reason to cringe as I read Francois Matarasso’s just-published book, A Restless Art. But I didn’t know how spacious, grounded, illuminating, and original the book would be. If you are at all interested in this phenomenon — art and social change, social practice, community arts, community cultural development, or any of the other monikers in circulation — you owe it to yourself to read this book.

There’s a lot to learn from A Restless Art (you’ll find a precis here), which traces the history (primarily in Europe, foremost in the British Isles) of art-making with people who don’t understand themselves as professional artists. It offers elegant and effective discussions of animating ideas and values, modes of work, ethical challenges, obstacles and possibilities. Diverse and interesting projects are profiled in interstitial color plates. The writing is straightforward and fair-minded, often anticipating and exploring objections before they distract the reader from its central points. I can focus below on just a few themes of key importance. I hope to give you a foretaste that makes you hungry for more.

Participatory art has become normal. Matarasso’s thesis is that participatory art — work that “connects professional and non-professional artists in an act of co-creation” — is now everywhere, having become an accepted and expected part of cultural provision from the spaces of contemporary social practice art to established museums, national theaters, and major concert halls; from educational settings to policymaking; from broadcasting to public spectacle such as opening ceremonies for major public events; from social-service provision to health promotion; and beyond. In a few short pages, he makes the case that participatory art has become a widespread phenomenon in the milieux that formerly walled anything like it off from “fine art,” a domain distinguished by the wide moat it dug between art and life.

This is inarguably true and brilliantly observed throughout the book. And it has set me to thinking about my own proclivity to focus on boundaries and borders rather than the overlapping territories they try to enclose. I’ve long been disturbed by the ease with which “social practice art,” for instance, has drawn resources from foundations, donors, and public sources without acknowledging the decades of community arts practitioners who devised the methods borrowed by social practice. I am still disturbed. Money goes to artists whose authenticating audiences are the museum-goers who visit exhibits of their projects’ documentation, while the remarkable community artists whose work is validated by the communities co-creating it go begging. (I wrote about this here and here, for instance.)

Matarasso writes about these distinctions too, but they don’t stop him from the seeing the larger picture A Restless Art brought into focus for me, which is that participatory art has become so widespread and normal that it constitutes an epochal movement, a watershed in the history of the arts.

Ideas and aims define the territory. Matarasso recognizes two categorical distinctions. The first is between art in general and participatory art (which involves non-professional artists). The second is between participatory art (which expresses what is called the democratization of culture, promoting popular engagement in institutional culture without proposing social transformation) and community art, (which expresses cultural democracy, pursuing social justice in opposition to the dominant order). Methods may be similar, but for community artists and cultural democracy advocates, the questions of why do the work and what the work can accomplish drive the practice. The book’s language is a little different from U.S. conventions, but I like the formulation Matarasso proposes, which subsumes the definition of participatory art, then goes beyond it to assert core values and principles of cultural democracy:

Community art is the creation of art as a human right, by professional and non-professional artists, co-operating as equals, for purposes and to standards they set together, and whose processes, products and outcomes cannot be known in advance.

The normalization of participatory art hasn’t altered the biases of the conventional artworld. Matarasso is eloquent and frank throughout A Restless Art in discussing the habitual and pointless over-evaluation of participatory art. For instance:

[T]he problem is not with evaluation, which is integral to all creative work, but how, by whom and why it is done. The long and costly effort to prove art’s social, economic and intrinsic value is entangled in a political culture concerned with control, not with knowledge, or the wisdom of experience…. [The] culture of planning, targets, monitoring and evaluation gave people an illusion of control in a complex world, whilst absolving them of responsibility for their own judgements. Further, there is too little recognition that this approach may cost far more, in financial and human terms, than the value of the data it produces.

Matarasso describes how the imposition of unsuitable managerial methods pushes participatory art toward a kind of social service, making participatory arts professionals “responsible for how the people they worked with would be changed by the experience. And by changed, what was really meant was improved.” He explains how the conventional artworld embraced participatory art to expand audiences in a rapidly changing world in which the special status of “fine art” is no longer secure. “The paradox,” he writes, “is that, unwilling to accept its loss of authority, it has applied the techniques of cultural democracy to the purpose of cultural democratisation.”

I love the rubric Matarasso derives from this: describing the result “as a kind of conceptual institutionalisation [emphasis mine], which tries to ensure that participatory art happens in ways and within boundaries that are acceptable to those financing it. The issue is not whether those parameters are in themselves good but that they unquestionably form a system of control.”

The U.S. and European stories of community arts differ in many ways. One that stands out for me is funding. Although the work is under-resourced abroad in comparison with actual need and potential, even in its most difficult periods, funding has been much stronger than in this country with its steadily atrophying public sector and bloated private wealth. Here’s one more quote I wish could be read by every arts funder in the U.S.:

Despite the demand for their work, participatory artists remain second-class citizens in the arts funding system. When a choreographer or curator approaches a funding body they can assume a shared belief in the intrinsic value of dance or contemporary art. A participatory artist in the same position can make no such assumption. the professional expertise of actors, musicians, curators, artists and directors is presumed, their judgement about creative matters trusted. Participatory artists can rarely count on similar esteem. This is not about whether or not an individual artist is admired. It is about different ways of valuing art forms. A grant application for participatory art will be expected to show, each time and in advance, the proposed project’s value — its rationale, need, anticipated outputs, outcomes, and legacy. A theory of change or log frame may even be required, as if it were a development project. that would be understandable from a social fund, but this is typically how arts bodies consider participatory work. The limited interest in artistic questions or the applicant’s record of work is one problem, but the real concern is the ingrained mistrust of participatory art’s intrinsic worth. It is simply not regarded by most people in the art system as a body of knowledge equal to music or theatre. So administrators who rarely have firsthand understanding of the field demand advance guarantees of its value to be verified by evaluation (not experience) on completion.

(I had a great time discussing the histories and relationships in the U.S. and U.K. cultural democracy movements with Owen Kelly and Sophie Hope on their podcast: see episode seven and episode eight.)

There is so much more to learn from this book, strengthened by the fact that the author has been a longtime practitioner in and respected researcher of the movement he describes. He has a vast knowledge of the literature and a personal grounding in the experience. It’s a winning combination and a pleasure to read. A Restless Art can be downloaded as a PDF, or you can order a paperback copy.

Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, and Greg Allman performing “Tell It Like It Is.”

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.

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