More questions than answers: stories, art and ownership

On Tuesday, I spoke about participatory art at a conference in Valletta. The questions people raised afterwards were mostly the kind I can’t answer—doubts about power, vulnerable people, appropriation and the relationship between professional artists and non-professional artists. Participatory art presents lots of ethical, political or philosophical dilemmas to which you can only respond with the guidance of your own beliefs and values. Even if I know how I would deal with a situation (and I often don’t until it happens) it’s just my response. Still, talking about these sensitive issues is a good way to prepare and learn. Tuesday’s questions about artists wanting to work with vulnerable people, and especially migrants, is a case in point. Consciously or not, some artists do see people as subjects for their work, though they tell better stories than that. The borderland between co-creation and exploitation is marshy. Anyone who wants to go there should at least be aware of itsdangers.


I had valuable conversations about these tensions with people doing community work (not always art-led) in Malta, Italy, Germany, Poland and the Baltic States, and learned more about the scale, diversity and seriousness of participatory art in Europe today. With Giovanni Trono, co-artistic director of AltoFest in Naples, I discussed the difference between story and art. Giovanni told me about the origins and purpose of the festival, in which artists live for two weeks with hosts, creating work in the intimacy of (and in response to) daily life. It challenged my thinking about participatory art. The exchange is risky on both sides and its mutual vulnerability can produce rich forms of co-creation. He also talked about the years that he and his co-director, Anna Gesualdi, had worked in a secure psychiatric hospital, and their problems in explaining the differences between theatre and therapy.  And we came back to the questions that came up after my talk, including the meaning, handling and uses of other people’s life experiences and the rights and responsibilities that are involved,

A story is not, in itself, art. Our stories are central to identity and sense of self. We narrate and exchange them all the time, but we control the telling (if not the reception) because they belong to us. Some of our stories are intimate, precious and shared rarely, if at all. Some concern hurt and suffering. Telling them might be dangerous, and vital too. It can be part of recovery from trauma, securing rights or achieving justice. But a story is not, in itself, art. Enabling others to share their stories publicly is not necessarily art either. It’s a form of witnessing.

It’s true that art can be witnessing too, but it has different rules and responsibilities. In judicial contexts a witness is expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In social life, similar, if less rigid expectations govern our exchanges. An artist must also be truthful, if their work is worth anything, but they use fiction, symbol and metaphor. Their creation is a form of illusion, even deception. They use every trick they know to influence their listeners’ feelings or sympathies. In art, we can tell as much or as little of our lived experience as we choose. We can select, change and hide things. In fact, an artist must use creative technique to transform reality into something beyond it, to find the universal in the particular. Some participatory art fails that test. It’s not enough to put a frame around someone’s story to make it art. The task is to help them turn their experience into art that is different from, greater than, the storytelling they can already do for themselves. It’s not about sympathy. It’s about respect,

To offer—to expect—anything less, is to short-change the person they want to work with. Indeed, it may even prevent that person from acting as an artist at all, confining them to the status of witness. At best, it makes weak, underpowered art. At worst it traps a person in an identity defined by others: migrant, prisoner, patient. A person might be living with mental illness or homelessness and want to make art about anything except that experience. They might want to tell stories about a grandmother, the moon and the sea, or their love of music. They might encode something about mental illness or homelessness in that work, but in ways only they know. They might disguise themselves or play at being something else. Art’s deniability makes it a safe place to encounter others when we are vulnerable. And that can make it profoundly empowering. Sometimes we learn to speak or take a stand by backing into the limelight.

Literalism is a quick way to stifle art. It’s taken me decades to see its weakness in my own work and in my work with others, and I’m not done yet. Art demands more: poetry, magic, ambiguity, feeling—all in the service of truth that touches whatever it is that’s universal in us. It’s really hard to do, even with training, experience and no one to satisfy but yourself.  It’s even harder to do it with others, with people who approach the act of art-making with the distinctive qualities of a non-professional artist. But that’s why it’s so rewarding. That’s why it matters when it does create something beautiful and true that no one could imagine before they started talking, working, even living together. It is really hard, but oddly, it’s also really easy to begin, because we all have stories and we can all make art from them.