‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’
Dr Johnson’s quip, reported by his admiring biographer, is a memorable piece of condescension. It also reflects the response that community and participatory art has often met from the art world. Here, for example, is a 1981 interview with an Arts Council officer, in the long-gone community arts newsletter, Another Standard:
‘In the initial stages too great a reliance was placed by community artists on the social aspects of their work. […] If the ACGB is to argue to the office of arts and libraries that a greater sum should be available for community arts, consideration of the artistic value of the work has to be uppermost.’
The question of what constitutes quality in community and participatory art is crucial to understanding its practice, intentions and value. But we will not get far with rigid ideas of what art is or how it is created. There is good work and bad in community art, as there is in contemporary dance, conceptual art and theatre. Most of it, like most art everywhere, is quite good – and that’s good enough. After all, it is in the nature of great art to be exceptional. But if this debate is defined by standards exclusively controlled by people with fixed beliefs and interests – like Dr Johnson’s about women – it will be hollow.
So here is an alternative – a demonstration of the ambition, standards and quality of participatory art that you can judge for yourself. This staged performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion by Streetwise Opera, with The Sixteen was filmed a week ago at Campfield Market in Manchester and broadcast on BBC Four on 27 March 2016. (It will be available to watch online only until 26 April, so don’t miss it.)
Streetwise have worked in opera with people experiencing homelessness since 2002, in London, Nottingham, Manchester and Newcastle. I’ve written about them before and they have many admirers: even so, financing their work remains a constant struggle. It shouldn’t be. As the film shows, they make great art, for everyone.
The production’s director, Penny Woolcock, has written a moving account of its creation that helps explain the process that led to the performance. As she writes:
‘That’s the wonder of stories when you believe them.’