Spare Tyre Productions 2
Spare Tyre production, Feeble Minds, 2009 (© Patrick Baldwin)

Community and participatory art has long roots in Britain. Its practice owes much to ideas that were developed in the 1960s and to policy pressures of the 1980s and 1990s. That long evolution has many strengths – it’s a rich field involving thousands of activists that supports a complex debate about participatory art. There’s probably more research and analysis published on it here than in any other European country.

But there are drawbacks to this weighty history too. In particular, it can be hard to escape the terms of a debate that is so well established. That struck me as I read a short report on participatory art in London published a few years ago by Arts Council England. It’s a useful introduction to the issues, based on a review of 13 excellent participatory arts organisations, such as Cardboard Citizens,  Streetwise Opera and Entelechy Arts. It asks what they have in common and what difficulties they face, before suggesting some solutions.

But the report’s analysis is framed in conventional terms, including familiar distinctions between the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ value of art activity, and between ‘process’ and ‘product’. It worries whether the work has ‘true artistic merit’ without asking what that phrase means. And its solutions – better evaluation, learning and advocacy – are also conventional: they have been proposed for many years in British policy discourse.

These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are specific to the culture and country in which they are being discussed. My recent conversations with artists in Greece, Serbia, Portugal or Holland have not turned on these questions because the context for their work has been so different. In other words, the way participatory art is imagined in Britain is shaped by how everything else is imagined in Britain.

We talk all the time of ‘thinking outside the box’, seeming not to notice that the phrase itself is a cliché. It is really hard to think outside the framework of beliefs and assumptions that make up our own culture and identity. Mostly we don’t feel the need to do it much, if at all. But artists, whose work aims to be creative – which means making something new – need to be better at it than most of us. And not only in their artistic practice, but in how that practice is conceived and discussed.

One way of doing that is in dialogue with artists who work in different places and other ways. It can be challenging, but also liberating, to discover that other people don’t see evaluation as a way to convince funders – or may not even see those funders as desirable partners in the first place. Thinking outside the box begins with wondering whether we’re even asking the right questions.

Adult Participatory Arts

3 thoughts on “The difficulty of thinking outside of the box

  1. Very interesting to read this post having just finished the short report ‘Impact Pioneers: Lessons in arts evaluation’ released by Project Oracle last week.

    One recommendation reads

    ‘We need to popularise a shared understanding of evaluation and clear terminology to go with it. Currently some arts organisations and funders refer to evaluation in relation to the quality of the arts experience or the enjoyment of participants; whereas academics, evaluators and statutory commissioners are more likely to be concerned with socio-economic outcomes.’

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  2. Interesting to learn about Project Oracle – thanks for that. Do you have a link for the report you mention? The problem identified in the quote arises from differences in what people value. A shared understanding and clear terminology isn’t going to solve that basic problem. We need democratic and political methods not technical ones to resolve disagreements about what we value.

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