‘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.’
This so inspiring; thank you for writing about this project. It’s so heartwarming.
What greater goal can art have than to open up our hearts so we can experience each other’s humanity?
Thanks – I’m very glad you liked it
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Thanks for pointing out this great show. Just watched it online: it’s really powerful. Wonderful to see a re-working of a classic that makes you see it as if for the first time, and look around you differently.
Thanks Christopher: it is very special and, for me at least, works in a way that is different because of how it has been created.
Yes, I wonder if it’s the integrity in that difference that is so striking. The process of creation has an integrity about it which matches the message.
Thanks so much Francois – you’ve been such an inspiration to the whole of the participatory arts movement and we are only able to do what we do since we stand on the shoulders of giants like yourself. What you and the rest of the community arts movement started has paved the way for so much other work. Like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripples reach out endlessly.
We have been working for some time to get one of our operas broadcast – we get constant offers from TV companies to make documentaries dissecting the lives of our performers but we always strive to focus on achievement rather than need and to help people look at what they are good at not what they struggle with. And we know that through any lens, our performers can produce work ‘of artistic quality’. I don’t believe community projects have to strive for artistic quality but it’s definitely possible and we feel we owe it to our performers to show them what incredible talents they have.
The way this works is perhaps best illustrated by a conversation between a Streetwise and a Sixteen performer during the project: The SO performer said, ‘Thank goodness you’re here since you’ll make us sound good.’ The Sixteen performer replies, ‘But we’ve never been in an opera and you’re teaching us so much about acting and being on stage.’
Thanks for adding your voice Matt – it’s great to have your perspective on this.
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