Understanding participatory and community art (Part 2)

Participatory art

The term participatory art is used in the arts, policy and academia to signify a very wide range of activities. This is confusing and it causes problems if people think they mean the same thing when they actually have different ideas, beliefs and assumptions. So here is a simple definition:

  • Participatory art is the creation of an artwork by professional artists and non-professional artists.

The definition is deliberately limited because it must encompass activities as different as music education, cultural mediation in museums and galleries, applied theatre, projects using art for social change, arts activism, art in health, carnival, street art, festivals and community art itself. These activities, all of which could be called participatory art, have only two things in common, but they are vital and, perhaps, controversial. 

The first is that participatory art involves the creation of an art work. Without that, what is happening is not art but a form of art education or social development. The creation of art requires a framework of values, ideas and references, the application of knowledge and craft, a duration in time, and some form of presentation. Together, these enable a shared artistic activity to create something with an autonomous existence: a work of art. 

That creation exists independent of quality. The art work might be moving or banal, ambitious or modest, sophisticated or naïve, original or derivative; it might be transitory, performative or unfulfilled; it might attract admiration or indifference; it might not be successful, even in its own terms. But there is a difference of kindbetween the dullest work of art and the most inspirational learning experience or community project. Either of these might be preferable to the work of art, but that would be a choice between different things. 

Part of the difference in kind between learning about art and creating it lies in the power conferred by each activity. Both enable us, in different ways, to discover, process, understand, organise and share our experience. But in creating art, we bring something into existence and in doing that we change the world. When we make sense of life, from feelings, ideas and experiences we may not even know we have, in forms to which others can respond creatively in turn, we conjure up new possibilities in all our imaginations. That is the artist’s act and it is a power in the world. 

The second defining characteristic of participatory art is the recognition that everyone involved in the artistic act is an artist. That idea is not always stated or accepted. It is much more common to speak of artists working with ‘ordinary people’, ‘participants’, ‘young people at risk of offending’ or even ‘non-artists’. This language reflects the Enlightenment idea that an artist is a special kind of person, rather than a person who acts in a special (artistic) kind of way. The Enlightenment and Romantic belief that art is a matter of being rather than doing has become so ingrained that it can be difficult to see otherwise. But no one is born an artist. We are born with potential that develops (or doesn’t) according to what happens to us and what we do. A child may have an innate musical intelligence (in Howard Gardner’s term) but she will become a musician only through the acts of listening, practicing and playing. Everyone involved in participatory art is an artist because an artist is defined by the act of making art.

Some people are recognised as artists because of the persistence with which they act as an artist. It allows them to gain knowledge, skill and experience, which, with luck and talent, might make them a successful artist. It will probably make them a professional artist, in the sense that their work is recognised by others and becomes part of a social identity. But art does not depend on persistence. It is possible to create art occasionally, without a body of knowledge, skill and experience. Art created in this way is likely to seem different. It may be less accomplished, for example, or stand outside the mainstream concerns of the art world. But it may also be powerful, urgent and original, because it is its creator’s only opportunity to act in this way, or because it brings a fresh imagination, or because the creator does not know how things ‘should be done’. This is one reason why participatory art is artistically distinctive.

When someone makes a meal, they are a cook; when they complete a marathon, they are a runner. They might be less proficient than a professional, but their action may be notable in other ways. Participatory art happens when professionals and non-professionals use their different skills, imaginations and interests to create something together that they could not have made alone.

Not everyone will accept these criteria of participatory art. It is true that much participatory art activity, such as the education work of some art institutions, barely involves the meaningful creation of art because of low expectations of what non-professional artists can do. Likewise, professional artists do not always offer empowering roles to the non-professionals they engage in the creative act. Such self-limitation fulfils its own assumptions, just as underfunding participatory art restricts its effectiveness, thus seeming to justify the underfunding. Circular argument is a common abuse of power. 

Because participatory art involves a balance of interests, it is full of ambiguities, especially at the edges. As a result, it is easily confused with similar but different activities. Distinguishing between an arts learning experience, a work of art that uses participation as a strategy, a social intervention that uses art as a tool, and participatory art itself is often a matter of judgement. These borders are porous. Participatory art enacts duality in its creative alliance between professional and non-professional artists. It reinforces that hybridity by crossing disciplinary boundaries to work with health, education, social services, regeneration and other disciplines. Participatory art thrives in liminal space, on margins and borders. One test of its quality is the extent to which it unsettles us, in Karl Jaspers’ sense, by requiring us to engage with other people’s ways of sense-making. Its elusiveness is not a weakness. It is intrinsic to this form of art and its value. Participatory art is not better than education, social activism or professional art, but it is different, because, in preventing us from resting on our existing models, it demands that we think, feel, talk and share in new ways with other people. 

Next: Community art


  1. This makes sense to me. I found Part 1 of the argument a bit hard to understand but I completely agree that the difference with community work is about the making of a piece of art. In my own practice, I find the toughest challenge is balancing the needs and views of the amateurs (who often feel the strongest sense of ownership) with the professionals who are sometimes fixed on the artistic vision and unwilling to compromise. The earlier both parties are brought together the better, but the dilemma is; how much does success depend on the artistic value of the finished piece? Or the satisfaction of the participants?

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    1. It’s always a bit of risk sharing extracts from a larger text; I hope that if you read the whole it will make more sense. It includes discussions of those questions of success that you raise, and some suggestions about how they can be discussed (though not answered, because the value we place on art is personal and relative, not absolute). I prefer the term ‘non-professional’ rather than amateur artists in this context, not because I don’t value amateur work – I’ve written a book that celebrates it – but because it has a different intention (which is also discussed in the book).


  2. Yeeess. O. K. . . .It’s a really interesting description, and as Hilary says, makes sense. For me, I wouldn’t call it a definition, more a baseline asssertion. Definitions: oh, so much trouble!


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