The legitimacy of non-participation

El colegio del cuerpo

‘The problem, of course, is when you choose not to participate, most people don’t see it as a noble protest. Most people don’t notice at all. The absence of your voice doesn’t take up as much space as its presence. And so we have to choose: to be distorted or to be overlooked.’

Nina Simon

These words are from a timely post by Nina Simon about whether, when and how to participate. Participation can be seen as a political act, especially when that participation is organised and promoted by government policy or state institutions. By taking part, we implicitly accept the legitimacy of an activity and by extension the social structures – such as a museum – within which it takes place.

When I first worked in eastern Europe, ten years after the end of communism, memories of the old system’s concept of participation were vivid. I met an orchestral musician in Albania who had had to ‘volunteer’ each summer for construction work on the railway. In western Europe, democracy was promoted as an alternative to, and a defence against such coercive societies, and it is important that voting is not compulsory in most democracies. Participation in democracy is a right – like freedom of speech – not a duty.

That is worth remembering, as engagement continues to be promoted by public cultural policy. There are valid objections to the idea that participation in the cultural ‘offer’ is in itself desirable. Despite the protestations, that offer is ideological. All culture embodies values – that is at the heart of its purpose. And citizens may wish to reject or contest those values. Non-attendance – which is so easily constructed as a lack of education, culture or resources – may be a choice. It may be the rejection of an  offer that is seen as irrelevant or even coercive. Non-attendance may be a political act, an expression of democracy.

Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community [and] enjoy the arts’

Participation is a right – not a duty.