It’s unusual nowadays to hear anyone in the arts speak against cultural participation. The directors of museums, galleries, orchestras and theatres – and of sector bodies such as Arts Council England – profess themselves almost universally to be advocates of cultural inclusion and co-creation. Their websites and annual reports shine with happy people being creative. There are critics of participatory art, but they tend not to work in the public cultural sector: they’re journalists, academics and commentators for whom art is just another arena of a political culture war. That acceptance marks a significant change. Twenty years ago, advocates of community art were likely to meet scepticism, if not disdain in the art world. To say it again, even if it is not complete, this normalisation of community art is a historic change.
At the same time, I wonder how deep it runs. Cultural participation is increasingly ordinary outside the art world, for the socio-economic reasons I mentioned in my last post, but among cultural professionals? Someone said to me recently, ‘You see who people really are when they’re in front of a budget’. Perhaps they are not actually convinced of co-creation’s value, but wary of saying publicly that it holds no interest for them. Is that a truth that bites its tongue? Such self-censorship would be wrong. Surely creative actors who believe in free expression do not mince their words for fear of criticism? It would also be dangerous – history shows that people resent being told their opinions are invalid, and this wouldn’t be the first time that the weaker are made responsible for the choices of the strong.
Community art does not claim universal reach or resonance: it is one form among many. It has never been afraid to explain or argue for itself, and nor should anyone who holds different artistic values.