Now that I don’t have to write, I’m rediscovering the pleasure of reading, especially around the subject that has occupied me for so long—the place of art and culture in social life. It’s the wider context that is often most rewarding because it gives a context to the professional preoccupations of those of us engaged in community art.
The Inking Woman came out last year, but I only got to it once A Restless Art was done. It’s one of those books that changes how you think about about its subject. Comics have the reputation of being a male, even adolescent world. Anybody who reads them much will know that’s misleading, but Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate present such a depth and range of women comic artists as to put that image to bed once and for all. Somewhere between history, encyclopaedia and catalogue, the book highlights the work of scores of little-known artists. Nicola Streeten, who also wrote the brilliant memoir of grief, love and family, Billy, Me and You, is a champion of women’s art, and one of the founders of Laydeez do Comics a network that supports women comic artists and discussion of their work. The Inking Woman is a great step forward for a group of artists who have been ignored and undervalued. It is clear-sighted too, recognising that, as with women’s suffrage, there are inequalities within a movement where at least for now, those with social and cultural capital often have the leading roles. As a claim for recognition, for an equal voice within cultural space, it is also an expression of cultural democracy, which is not—cannot be—achieved only through participatory art.
Threads of Life arrived yesterday, and I’ve only read the first few pages. Described by the publisher as ‘an eloquent history of the language of sewing over centuries and across continents’, it is by Clare Hunter, who has worked in community sewing projects for many years (and was a precious mentor to me in my early days in community art). My first impression on seeing the book was, honestly, disappointment, because I’d anticipated a book full of gorgeous pictures. Textiles are a visual as well as a tactile form. But then I started reading and was captivated by the quality of the writing:
‘I trail my hand through long-forgotten fabrics – crêpe deThreads of Life (2019) Clare Hunter
chine, duchess satin, tulle net – grazing my knuckles on a crust of
beading, smoothing down languid lengths of fringing, stroking the
braille of lace, drumming my fingers along a rhythm of pleats: small
collapses of spent glory, discarded, uncherished, their makers unknown.’
The book begins with a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry that looks at that extraordinary textile document through the eyes of a maker, and you soon realise what a mistake it would have been to fill it with pictures. Seeing through Clare’s eyes, her fingers, experience and knowledge, her imagination—that is what matters here. The book has already received high praise and it will surely be a much-loved work by people who love textiles. But it will be valued much more widely, by those like me for whom it opens unknown, unsuspected worlds. Cultural democracy too, for those unknown, uncherished makers whose work is brought to life again through these words.
The book most obviously about cultural democracy on my desk is Museum Activism, a 400-page volume edited by Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell. But as I have only skimmed it, I can only say that the contents page promises a fantastically rich overview of how museum professionals are engaging in the political context of their work and their collections. Museums are spaces of cultural discourse, but also of contestation and accepting that role, difficult as it can be, may be one of the most valuable ways in which they can help us navigate and perhaps overcome the widening divisions in our societies.
Reading these books is so enjoyable because I’m doing it with a freer mind. I’m not concerned, for now, with how they relate to the ideas I was grappling with in A Restless Art, but with what they have to offer in themselves. One difficulty in writing about participatory art is that there are simultaneously too few and too many books to read. There are not very many that are really focused on the practice I care most about, and the few that exist can be hard to find. But the number that have some relevance or connection is almost endless. I’ve added the bibliography from A Restless Art to this site, but I’m aware that it’s of limited value without some notes about the content of the books listed. So, as time allows, I will try to annote the list in the hope of helping potential readers and researchers to find what might be of most interest to them. But please don’t ask me when.