Understanding participatory and community art (Part 3)

Community art

The roots of participatory art lie in community art, even if it has spread far beyond the ideas and approaches pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s. Community art may not be the movement it was then, but the practice continues because it is theoretically coherent, artistically innovative and socially powerful. It can also be a joy to do, and art thrives when it gives pleasure. So how is community art different from participatory art? The answer requires a more complex definition than for participatory art: 

  • Community art is the creation of art as a human right, by professional and non-professional artists, co-operating as equals, for purposes and to standards they set together, and whose processes, products and outcomes cannot be known in advance. 

This definition contains the two characteristics of participatory art. The creation of art is intrinsic to community art and differentiates it from other forms of social action, including education or community development. It is not a social or a political act. Though it may have social and political consequences, the act itself is artistic. Art can be used for other purposes, as discussed in the next chapter, and that may be valid and valuable, but it is not community art. It also involves professional and non-professionalartists. We want others to treat us on the basis of what we do, not who we are, because we can only control and, therefore be responsible for, our actions. Anyone creating art is an artist in that act, whether or not they do it professionally, and however we assess their performance and its results. 

As I have argued, these characteristics define participatory art. But that definition is intentionally loose so as to accommodate a very wide range of artistic work. From its earliest days, community art has had sharper, more demanding ambitions, based on ideas about art, society and human rights. So my definition of community art includes several other elements. The first, and simplest, of these is that being able to create art is a human right. It is something that everyone is entitled to do, without permission or approval, because of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

That document’s claim of equality between people is a foundation of community art practice so professional and non-professional artists must be co-operating as equals. They have different roles and contribute different resources, but everyone who participates has the same rights in the process. They must negotiate, agree and share what will happen, because, in a rights-based process, there is no legitimate basis on which anyone, including the professional artists, can impose their vision or authority on the group. 

That negotiation requires that they work for purposes and to standards that they set together. A person can act as an artist and do so ineptly, but no one intends or desires to be mediocre. Artists practicing community art, whether professionally or not, want to create something good, but only they, together, can decide what good m eans. What they are working towards (their purpose) and what level of achievement will satisfy that purpose (their standards) are not for outsiders to determine, though audiences will eventually make up their own minds. But the purpose and standards of community art are integral to the meaning of the work and must be established and agreed by the people who make it. 

Finally, and as a direct consequence of the previous two statements, the processes, products and outcomes cannot be known in advance. Professional artists can know what will happen in a participatory project only if there is no equality between them and the people with whom they intend to work. In such cases, the purposes and standards have been set before they meet and the process is disempowering or even manipulative. Community art is not a score to be conducted. It is improvisation, like jazz. Its players agree themes and boundaries at the outset: after that, art emerges as they pay attention and respond to one another.

Community art is exploratory, innovative, radical and challenging. At its best—and like all art forms it is entitled to be judged on the basis of its highest achievements—it has been the research and development section of participatory art. It has not always been good or successful. Sometimes it has marched boldly into dead ends or floundered in disaster. But even its failures are interesting because they are experimental. For 50 years, community art has tested ideas and practices that have become established across and beyond the field of participatory art. They may lose their radical, dissenting, emancipatory edge in that transition, but the practice itself continues, undiminished.


  1. Lovely analogy: Community art is not a score to be conducted. It is improvisation, like jazz. Its players agree themes and boundaries at the outset: after that, art emerges as they pay attention and respond to one another.

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