Many professional artists believe that working with non-professionals leads to an unavoidable decline in quality. That conviction is so integral to how they think about art that they don’t always realise that they do hold it. I’ve known people who would deny it absolutely, who’d be offended at the very suggestion, and yet who work with non-professionals differently to how they work with people they regard as peers. The difference might be subtle (it isn’t always) but it is critical.
Lower expectations, whether acknowledged or not, lead those artists to plan work that they believe will be accessible to the people they want to take part in the project. They simplify the skills, knowledge, concepts and feelings needed to create it. They keep to territories of uncontroversial meaning. It is legitimate and necessary to set clear boundaries when working with children, although that shouldn’t mean that the art they make is banal. But such controls, however carefully hidden, are misplaced when working with adults. Children need guardrails to explore themselves in the world safely. Adults, mostly, do not. They need guidance and company, not to have their decisions made for them and without their knowledge. They need to reach places they could not discover alone, to have experiences they have not yet imagined, or why go on the journey at all?
If an artist starts by lowering their expectations of what can be achieved (even for reasons that may seem sound), they conceive and plan artistic work defined by those expectations. Unsurprisingly, the result is underwhelming, which just confirms their initial belief that working with non-professionals leads to an unavoidable decline in quality. It’s self-fulfilling, pointless and condescending.
Of course, none of this is invisible to the non-professional artists they work with, who understand perfectly well that nothing great or even difficult is expected of them, and are thereby encouraged to reduce their own expectations of themselves, of the project and of art. What follows is a cycle of decline, driven by a mix of inexperience, misplaced good intentions and a willingness to please others.
None of this happens when professional artists work among themselves. On the contrary, a sense of competition, with each other if not with themselves, spurs them to reach higher, to unexplored and exciting places. When a participatory art project is not exciting, it’s because the people who imagined it never expected it to be exciting.
If you have low expectations, you probably won’t be disappointed. But the people you work with will be.
The picture at the top of this post is taken from ‘The Promise of a Garden’ a show by The Performance Ensemble at Leeds Playhouse, August 2021. The Performance Ensemble is a company of older professional and non-professional artists who share the highest expectations of what they can do.
I agree but it’s not easy. As a practitioner focused entirely on participation I think artists forget how thrilling it is for non-professionals to see how clever ideas can convert into artistic achievement. But there are practical issues around the length of time the project can take as simply, we often run out of time. There is a need to analyse more carefully the mechanics of the process so we can allow enough time for those eureka moments.
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For me the answer has always been to use limited resources (time, money, space etc.) as constraints that help you find new solutions. That isn’t meant to underestimate the difficulties, but I learned that you could do something in a week or a morning and what you did in a week would be different, but not necessarily better. One of the most interesting things about art – for creators and audiences – is precisely that we speak of eureka moments, not eureka months.
It’s important for me to ensure that there is high quality in my work. If participants’ experiences aren’t of a high quality, then I don’t believe the product, whatever that is, will be either. How can I authentically share my curiosity, ideas and intention if I don’t do it fully…? For me it’s a journey with others, not on them. So, I need to master the skills in inviting the connections that allow everyone’s curiosity, ideas and confidences to flourish. And be realistic about the time we have (which I often come close to running out of!).
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