A Restless Art – TL;DR

It can be hard to read nowadays. There are so many demands on our time (at least so long as we’re considered socially useful) and there’s so much information, from so many sources. A Restless Art is about 80,000 words long. I’m not a quick reader, and it would take me several hours to get through it—more if I wanted to follow up or think about its ideas as I read. That’s why my recent books (the Regular Marvelsseries) kept to about 20,000 words, with the idea that you could read them in a couple of hours. That was never going to be possible with the more ambitious and complex subject of A Restless Art. Indeed, about 50,000 words were cut from the final version (some of them will appear on this site for anyone who wants to dig deeper). Still, reading the book is a lot to ask. So, in the age of TL:DR, here’s a quick summary of what the book is about. If you want to read more, you can download a free PDF hereor order a print copy here.

The book is divided into four parts, two short ones separated by and two long ones. It also includes 48 colour pages, that give short descriptions of participatory art projects from over 15 countries.

Cabbage Field Opera (Kaunas 2018)


1. The normalisation of participatory art

The first chapter opens by showing how participation has become normalised art practice and policy in the course of the past 20 years. (In saying that, I’m not of course talking about people’s everyday enjoyment of art, which has always been normal, but the official, funded, public (and also commercial) professional culture. A someone who began working in community art when it was marginal and, in the eyes of many, disreputable, I ask why that has happened. This chapter also outlines the inherently unstable nature of participatory art, making a connection with the concept of ‘border-situations’ developed by the philosopher Karl Jaspers.  The chapter ends by suggesting some of the causes and consequences of the rise of participatory art. 

‘This Is Not For You'( Graeae 2018)


2. Concepts    

Chapter Two sets out some foundational ideas about art itself, examining the good and bad consequences that followed the invention of Fine Art during the European Enlightenment. Arguing against the conventional idea of art as an object, or a class of things, seeing it instead as an act in the world. The nature of that act is to create (i.e. bring into being) something that holds meaning or makes sense of the maker’s experience. In this concept art (and culture, of which it is a self-conscious part) is a power, not a good. Its moral, ethical and political value is inseparable from the meanings it carries and the uses to which it is put. The chapter concludes by arguing that this is why everyone is guaranteed the right ‘to participate in the cultural life of the community and enjoy the arts’ in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.       

3. Definitions

Chapter Three looks at some of the terms used to describe participatory practice in the arts, proposing that only two are necessary to understand the field as a whole. It goes on to suggest definitions of  ‘Participatory art’ (an all-encompassing term for the work) and ‘Community art’ (a practice rooted in human rights discourse and with an overtly emancipatory purpose). I argue in this context that only the act of creating art can define a person as an artist, although there is an important difference between people who do it professional and those who don’t. Finally, I explain of why I don’t see most contemporary art or amateur art to be participatory art, even when it involves participation as a strategy.

4. The intentions of participatory art

Chapter Four suggests that there are three broad reasons why people make participatory art, each of which is rooted in distinct theories, policies and ideas about art. They are: Increasing access to art (cultural democratisation); Creating social change; and Advancing cultural democracy. After considering the strengths and limits of each, the chapter concludes by suggesting that they are not necessarily incompatible but that they define a very large territory within which organisations, people and projects position themselves and also move. 

5. The art of participatory art

Chapter Five considers the aesthetics of participatory art, arguing that its form and meaning are radically changed by the cooperation of professional and non-professional artists. It considers the importance of process, seeing it not as antithetical to product but as leading to the creation of art that cannot be meaningfully assessed by existing standards rooted in concepts of fine art and professional production within a capitalist economy. The chapter ends by proposing an approach to thinking about artistic quality that can consider both product and process. 

6. The ethics of participatory art        

Chapter Six looks at some of the ethical issues that arise from the inequalities of power inherent in participatory art. It considers both the nature of change – how art affects us – and the ethical implications that follow, within a human rights context that prioritises the autonomy of individuals to determine for themselves what is in their own interest. It also considers the vulnerability of professional artists and the codes of conduct that can protect them.

Welfare State 2006 ‘Longline, the Carnival Opera’ © François Matarasso


7. Making history

This short chapter explains both why the history of participatory art is important and the subjectivities that inevitably shape my own understanding, and hence the largely English perspective on this story that I am able to set out. 

8. Deep roots (before 1968)

Chapter Eight returns to the invention of fine art   during the second half of the 18thcentury, its association with power and human rights, and its inevitable relegation of all other artistic creation to a secondary status. It briefly considers two contrasting reactions to this situation that emerged during the 19thcentury. The first was the provision of cultural facilities for new urban populations with the intention of ‘civilising’ them: this is one origin of the policies now pursued as cultural democratisation. By contrast, working people worked towards their emancipation through art and cultural development, setting up their own associations that can be seen as initiating ideas of cultural democracy. The chapter then looks at the development of commercial culture, broadcasting and state cultural policy in the ideological struggles of the mid 20thcentury, and how they contributed to the emergence of anew cultural and political ideas in the 1960s. 

9. Community art and the cultural revolution (1968 to 1988)

Chapter Nine gives two contrasting accounts of the rise and decline of the British community arts movement between the 1960s and 1980s. The first concentrates on the theoretical ideas and struggles and how they eventually failed against the rightward shift in Western politics during this time. The second, by contrast, focuses on the artistic and social practices through which those ideas were pursued and shows how successful they would become in influencing the cultural sector more widely.

10. Participatory art and appropriation (1988 to 2008)

Chapter Ten shows how a weakened  community art movement began from the late 1980s to make alliances beyond the art world, securing new resources and credibility  that, supported by a growing body of research, helped secure its place within public policy, albeit under the more neutral name ‘participatory art’. It describes too the costs that came with this new position, including misplaced expectations about the social change it should produce and its accountability.  It suggests that the assimilation of participatory practise in the established cultural sector, while important, has also brought risks of institutionalisation     

11. Without help, without permission (Since 2008)        

Chapter Eleven brings the story of participatory art up to date and shifts the focus to a broader European perspective. It argues that in the more prosperous northern countries, the pattern of development has been similar to Britain’s, with a growing institutionalisation of the work. But in Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Mediterranean countries, a practice that had begun to grow in the early 200s has been shaken, energised and politicised by the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. A new generation of young people are doing serious work, often in precarious situations, that is forging new ways of working in a vulnerable world. 

Urban Dig Project (Athens 2016)


12. Hope in uncertainty     

The final chapter tries to bring together some of the threads of the book, arguing that the change it documents is historic and welcome. It marks a gradual healing of the divide between Fine Art — which remains a vital, critically conscious resource — and all other forms of art. Committed, progressive artists, including the community art movement, played a critical role in enabling this change, but it has mainly happened because of deeper socio-economic and cultural changes. There follows  a brief overview of what participatory art needs (i.e. resources, trust and professional development) and what it does not need – largely condescension. The book concludes by acknowledge the dangerous, unstable and vulnerable state of the world in the early 21stcentury.  It affirms my belief that participatory art, and especially community art, is a powerful, emancipatory and democratic resource with which we can respond to change and imagine better futures. 

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