Artistic quality and participatory performing arts

Yesterday I facilitated a learning event at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London as part of its Sharing the Stage initiative. The theme of the session was quality, and about 50 people from some of the UK’s leading performing arts companies came to share their experience of participatory work. There were inspiring and thoughtful presentations from Inclusive Creativity, a music group based in Northern Ireland, Geese Theatre, who work in the criminal justice system, and Sage Gateshead, whose work in West Newcastle is challenging them to rethink their very relationship with the community. Through these, we were able to open questions about what quality might mean to the artists and participants, to commissioners from outside the arts and to the arts organisations themselves.

We also watched an extract from Streetwise Opera’s recent production, The Passion, to explore whether – and if so why – as audience members we respond differently to professional and non-professional performers. The discussion that followed was illuminating, as people talked about the complexity of their feelings. One person spoke of how she relaxed and expected to be entertained by the professionals but found herself leaning forwards when the non-professionals sang, with a very different quality of engagement. Another found himself wondering about the quality of the process through which the production had been created. There was debate about the risks and value of taking on such technically demanding, score-based work.

The purpose of the afternoon was not to reach conclusions. There can be no final assessment of the quality of artistic work since that work can only be experienced individually and subjectively. There is no external authority. If Shakespeare is revered the world over as a great dramatist it is because his texts continue to provide theatre makers with the richest materials, not because his status has been fixed. In the absence of definitive judgements about artistic quality, what matters is the quality of our reflection and debate about it. Artworks are not static. They live (like Shakespeare’s words) in us and it is the process of responding to them that gives them life.

Sharing the Stage - 1

One of the ideas I shared with people yesterday was a framework for talking about artistic quality I first developed for the Arts Council in Ireland about 15 years ago. Its starting point was the same: without an objective measure, what matters is how we can understand our own and one another’s views of quality. I suggested five things that contribute to the quality of an artistic production:

  1. Technique – is something well made in its own terms?
  2. Originality – has it been done before, by others?
  3. Ambition – how far does it reach, and why?
  4. Resonance – does it connect with and speak to an audience?
  5. Magic – does it move or unsettle us, linger in the mind, make us feel differently?

There are some things to bear in mind about this structure for thinking about artistic quality. The first is that each person’s response is valid in its own terms. I might go to a concert with a musician friend and express wonder afterwards at the technical accomplishment of the musicians. If my friend points out to me the false notes and shaky timing, it doesn’t invalidate my sense of wonder. It just adds a layer of understanding – and my musician friend might benefit from being reminded that even a ragged performance can still be a moving achievement.

Secondly, it is possible to have an extraordinary artistic experience if only one of these is exceptional. The Sex Pistols probably wouldn’t rank high on the first three, but the resonance of their music for millions of young people in the late 1970s had a global cultural influence.

There are several paradoxes about participatory and community art. One of them is that artists have to believe in their own vision and values to create art. If they don’t believe in something, what are they inviting others to participate in? But unless they also believe in the validity of other people’s visions and values and that those might, even theoretically, be better than their own, they are trapped in some kind of missionary enterprise. And we know where that leads.

What matters about artistic quality is not being right. It’s how exploring it can help us understand ourselves and others better.

You can read more about quality in participatory art by downloading this short paper: