The social impact of participation in the arts (revisited)

Use or Ornament? - 1
Some of the social impact project reports and working papers from 1995-1997

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK House of Commons has just announced an inquiry into the social impact of participation in culture and sport. Its terms of reference state that ‘Participation in culture and sport has a proven link to a wide range of benefits. The Committee is expected to focus on five major themes, taking evidence on social mobility, health, crime reduction, education, community engagement and diversity. The legacy of the Olympics may also be considered as part of the inquiry.’

It’s not the first time this subject has been examined, either by Parliament or by the Department for Culture. The 1999 Policy Action Team (PAT 10) report on the role of the art and sport in combatting social exclusion is now in the National Archives, which feels odd as I contributed to it. A couple of years before that, I’d led the first large research project into the issue, published in 1997 as Use or Ornament?. It proposed some ideas that have since become commonplace, and met similar opposition to that which faced community artists in the 1960s and 1970s. If you’ve never seen it, download a copy here and decide for yourself. I should re-read myself, as it’s part of the history of participatory art I’m working on: I’m curious to see what it feels like now.

But the main reason for this post is to encourage you to submit evidence to the committee if you have views about this. The value of such inquiries depends absolutely on the quality and range of evidence they receive: here’s a chance to make your voice heard. The deadline is 22 February 2018.


Some hard questions about participatory theatre

‘None of this is to say that a drama workshop should not be a space where people feel comfortable opening up, and talking about themselves and their experience. It’s only to say that we must be aware of the risks present in such a situation; and we must not mistake the emotional intensity that comes when people share trauma for good work.’

‘If you are middle class, you can see theatre about anything – space travel, the labour party, theoretical physics, the black power movement. But if you are homeless, all you get to see is the worst of your own experience, reflected back to you.’

These are two extracts from ‘The Trouble with Outreach‘, an exceptionally thoughtful and challenging piece by Nathan Lucky Wood, just published in Exeunt magazine. It addresses two critical questions in participatory theatre – the use of personal experience and the danger of identifying people with their situation. Anyone interested in participatory art will find reading this valuable –  just follow the link below.


D'oh! 2

Confirmation bias – the tendency we all have to over-estimate data that confirms our existing beliefs – is an obvious trap for researchers, so they have intellectual and professional guardrails to stop them falling too often. But artists are not so safe from confirmation bias, because self-belief is valued in Western art. There are original geniuses recognised only after years of rejection, but for every Vincent Van Gogh there are thousands whose hope of appreciation goes unfulfilled.

That idea often comes up when I’m trying to explain that the social outcomes of artistic experience cannot be guaranteed. There are several reasons why that is true, including the inescapable subjectivity of artistic reception, but the first is that no artist can be sure that their work is good. Think how many musicals close on opening night. For months, sometimes years, whole teams of gifted and experienced artists have given everything to the play believing it to be good. In a couple of hours an opening night audience can show them how mistaken they are. D’oh!

That’s how I feel today, having heard back from readers to whom I sent the draft of A Restless Art before Christmas. The first email was a bit discouraging, but I told myself that the book would be okay with some adjustments. The second, a couple of days later, was like an opening night audience: undeniable.

What is undeniable can also be liberating. It creates a new reality and challenges you to accept it. The first thing I’ve accepted was that my readers are right, and not only because I trust their judgement, though I do. It’s also because, the instant they told me, I saw – like a producer stifling nagging doubts about a production – that it isn’t working. There are conceptual and structural incoherencies in the book (among other flaws).

Confirmation bias. I’ve thought and read s much about it from a research perspective, hoping to constrain and account for my inevitable subjectivities. But I hadn’t seen that it can apply equally well to the literary side of my work. The book’s problems are not in its ideas, which I still think are strong, but in how they are organised, presented and communicated. One of my readers said, referencing Morecambe and Wise, ‘you are playing all the right notes, just not in the right order’. I’d been finding reasons to justify or ignore what I knew without knowing: that there are real flaws in this text. And the need to stifle doubts has only grown as the time I’d set aside for writing the book passed and I worried about letting down the many people who’ve given their support to the project. I’ve never liked being late.

Independent readers have long been my guardrail against confirmation bias but I’ve never come so close to falling and it’s a bit of a jolt. I’m deeply grateful to those readers (old friends and people I don’t know well at all) for having the courage to tell me what’s wrong. Thanks to them, I see it and I see a possible solution, which might involve dividing it into three separate, shorter books. I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a happy and peaceful New Year.

Happy New Year 2018