Understanding participatory and community art (Part 1)

In August 2016, I published a post about the ‘Connections and differences between participatory art and community art’, in which I tried to say what those terms meant to me. Although the post was pretty simple, it has become one of the most read on this site, which suggests that the question is one that concerns others too. I’ve given it much more thought since then and A Restless Art contains a chapter called ‘Definitions’ that explains better how I understand those connections and differences. Here is a first of three edited extracts from that chapter: the next, including a definition of participatory art, will be published next Wednesday, and the third, on community art, the following Wednesday. The book itself will be available in print and as a free PDF from 18 January 2019.

Between participation and community

Article 27. (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, culture stands between participation and community. Those words express the concepts most widely used to describe art made collaboratively by professional and non-professional artists: participatory art and community art. The adjectives, simple as they are, describe significantly different visions of art and people’s relationship to it. Participatory emphasises the act of joining in, and implies that there is already something in which to join. Art exists, and the goal is to help people take part in it. This is not just consumption, but it may not always be very far from that either. Community, in contrast, suggests something shared and collective. Art is not a pre-existing thing, but the result of people coming together to create it. This might seem a subtle linguistic distinction, but language matters. Participation and community hold different visions of culture, democracy and human rights. At the risk of over-simplification, the first might be seen as a form of cultural democratisation (or giving people access to the arts), while the second aspires to cultural democracy.

The difference between participatory art and community art is complex but critical. It defines theoretical and artistic ideas, intentions, practice, outcomes and interpretation. But because that is not always understood, both terms are used loosely. I have heard them applied to a wide range of activities with little in common except that artists involved people in their work. This confusion has two serious consequences. First, without a clear definition, it is impossible to distinguish good practice from bad, or to defend ethical principles and ways of working from external pressures, such as institutionalisation or appropriation. Ideas about purpose, quality or outcomes cannot be defended without a robust theory underpinning practice. Secondly, people planning participatory art or community art projects without such a theory, and an understanding of how it translates into practice, are more likely to make missteps, create false expectations, and have illusions about their work. Good intentions are not enough when you make art with people. 

The differences between participatory art and community art are critical but they can also be confusing, especially to people outside the field or meeting the terms for the first time. That is partly the result of history. Community art came first, as term, theory and practice. Participatory art is a later development, but is now much more extensive and varied, as already noted. Community art’s lively, mountain spring has become the broad, slow river of participatory art. To add to the confusion, the whole waterway, from source to mouth, is often described as participatory art.

Language has been further complicated in recent years by the emergence of many new terms for certain approaches to participatory art, such as socially-engaged practice, community cultural development, relational aesthetics, audience development, co-creation, new genre public art, dialogic practice, activist art and applied theatre, to name but a few. At the risk of stretching the riverine metaphor too far, they might be seen as the branches of a broad delta formed by participatory art. Personally, I do not use any of these terms. While respecting people’s wish to be precise about ideas and intentions, I think the distinctions are opaque beyond the art world (and perhaps within it). I say this for two reasons. First, participatory art aims to involve non-professional artists in the creative act so it must use language and concepts that they understand. Secondly, I fear that the narcissism of small differences distracts from more serious disagreements. Whatever their specific practice or beliefs, artists committed to participation have far more in common with each other than they do with the power centres of state and commercial art. The essential difference is between participatory art and non-participatory art. There will be time enough to consider internal variations in practice when both forms have equal status and resources. So I make only two distinctions in this book. 

  1. Between all forms of professional artistic production and participatory art, because participatory art involves non-professionals artists; and
  2. Between the field of participatory art practice and community art, because the second enacts a concept of human rights. 

In what follows, I use participatory art to indicate the whole river of collaborative practice in which artists work with others to make art, and community art to indicate a rights-based approach characterised by an aspiration for emancipatory social engagement. It is a journey upriver, from sea to source, from the broad eddies of the delta to its bubbling springs.

Next: A definition of participatory art