The Ethics of Change

Change triggered or facilitated by participatory art does not end with the project itself. since change occurs in human contexts, its future consequences are liable to be unstable and produce further change. how, in this context, is it possible for an artist to act ethically? By what right does she set out to produce even the conditions of change? And what responsibilities does she have towards those who may be put in the path of change, without being fully aware of that possibility or its effects? 

In the mid-seventies, the project for which I was working ran a small creative writing group, which was mostly attended by young women. At the end of the first year, I was surprised to notice that at least 50% of the group had either separated from their husbands/partners during that period, or were considering doing so. It took me a little while to under- stand that if women are working regularly in a context that is challenging and affirming, they may not confine their increased self-confidence and self-esteem to three hours on a Wednesday afternoon. the possible verdict in terms of advocacy of the transformative powers of the arts: high for those agencies interested in self-actualisation, low for those promoting traditional family values. As our major funders at that time were the Arts Council of Great Britain and Devonshire County Council, I did not feel it was the most useful statistic to highlight in the annual report. (1)

This experience, shared by community artist Gerri Moriarty, perfectly captures the complex ambiguities of social change. It shows how out- comes occurred that were neither foreseen nor intended and that they affected more people than those who chose to take part. In that com- plex situation, only the people concerned have the right to assess the costs and benefits of their participation. Did the artist have any obligation to take account of these potential effects of her work? It is hard to see how, even if she had been aware of them, she could have advised the potential participants. It is in the nature of personal change that we cannot understand how it might affect us before it has, so even if we have been told about and consented to possible risks, we might feel differently after we’ve experienced them. they have changed us, and we choose differently as a result. 

Educating Rita (1983) is a film based on Willy Russell’s play of the same name. It traces the relationship between Frank, an English professor (Michael Caine) and Rita, a young hairdresser (Julie Walters) who signs on for an access course in literature. over the months, Rita’s ideas change wildly, not only about the culture she sets out to acquire but also about herself. her marriage ends. she makes new friends, but wonders what price she, and they, are paying for their education. Educating Rita is a moving portrayal of the realities of personal change. In Rita, Willy Russell put something of his own experience, as a working class boy who found a way from cutting hair to studying and then writing literature. his film is a valuable lesson for anyone who hopes to bring about change through participatory art. 

Is there a way through this tangle of ethical dilemmas and responsibilities? I think so, and this is a rare question on which I have never felt much doubt. I do not like work that tries to change other people, if only because I find the idea of anyone trying to change me intolerable. those who recognise that participation in art is good for us (at least potentially) are sometimes accused of ‘instrumentalising’ art, but that is a specious idea. human beings instrumentalise almost everything, in the sense of making it serve their purpose. the history of our relations with other animals and the natural world is defined by instrumentalisation. Visit a farm if you doubt it. however, most cultures, most of the time, accept that human beings must never be instrumentalised. Making people less important than some idea or purpose is the mark of dictators and ideological terrorism: it leads, sooner or later, to death. the concept of human rights was invented precisely to resist such crimes. And the definition of a crime against humanity is to instrumentalise people. human beings are an end in themselves. Anything less is an attack on their freedom and dignity. For that reason, if for no other, participatory art must never be seen as a way of changing people, especially not to make them more acceptable to whoever is organising or paying for the project. People change with the experience of participatory art, just as they do through education, sport or voluntary work. But there is a world of difference between giving people access to the resources for personal growth and trying to change them, without their knowledge or con- sent, into the people you want them to be. It’s the difference between teaching and learning, between instruction and empowerment. 

Participation in the cultural life of the community is a human right. It has no associated responsibility. People do not have to demonstrate improvement to justify the costs involved. I am cautious about the possibility of informed consent but being honest about difficulties people might face is essential. It requires sensitivity about what to say, how, and when, if the equality of a relationship is to be protected. one approach is to integrate those discussions in the creative process, so that everyone has a voice and experience to share. In this way, it might be possible to see consent itself as a process, or what in social science research has described as ‘rolling informed consent’.(2)  Change, after all, is something that can happen to everyone who enters the transformative space of participatory art, including the professionals. 

At the end of Willy Russell’s play, Frank comes to regret how Rita has changed through his teaching, because he himself no longer values what she has acquired. half-drunk, he challenges her: 

Found a culture have you, Rita? Found a better song to sing? no—you’ve found a different song, that’s all—and on your lips it’s shrill, hollow and tuneless. (3)

They part in anger, but in the final scene, she returns to thank him after she has sat the exam he didn’t want her to take: 

I had a choice. I did the exam. […] An’ it might be worthless in the end. But I had a choice. I chose, me. Because of what you’d given me I had a choice. (4)

That is a solid ethical foundation on which to build a practice in participatory art. It is enough to give people choices about their own education, culture and development. that is empowerment. 


  1. Moriarty, G., 1997, Taliruni’s Travellers, An arts worker’s view of evaluation, Stroud, p. 17
  2. See Heather Piper and Helen Simons ‘Ethical Responsibility In Social Research’ in Somekh, B. & Lewin. C., eds., 2005, Research Methods in the Social Sciences, London, p. 57; and Simons, H., 2009, Case Study Research in Practice, London, pp. 103 ff.
  3. Russell, W., 2000, Educating Rita, Harlow, p. 98
  4. Russell, W., 2000, Educating Rita, Harlow, p. 10

This is an extract from A Restless Art, How participation won and why it matters, by François Matarasso, (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 2019). The complete book can be downloaded as a PDF from this site; print copies can be ordered from Central Books for £10 plus postage.