In defence of universalism

This text written for a workshop under the title  ‘Beyond Us versus Them: The Role of Culture in a Divided Europe‘ held at the Representation of the State of Baden-Württemberg to the European Union, Brussels on 2 May 2017. 

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo asked ‘Civil war? What does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not every war between men war between brothers?’  Perhaps Hugo is saying that the way to go beyond us versus them is to reject the concept altogether. This is not a matter of piety or semantics. If we lose sight of the indivisibility of humankind, how can we defend concepts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The crucial importance of that text, however often we fail to meet its obligations, is to make no distinction between human beings.

The effort to establish universal rights was dearly bought. I am a child of those who suffered the massive exercise in self-harm we call the Second World War, the globalisation of violence before the term. My parents’ generation were the victims and perpetrators of unprecedented crimes. This was a civil war between people who had to persuade themselves of their differences in order to kill one another. I regret bringing such sombre reflections into a discussion of culture and its potential for healing, but it is necessary because that conflict is the origin of the post-war settlement that is now falling apart. And the foundation of that settlement is the concept of universal human rights established in the UN Declaration of 1948 and the European Convention of 1950.

The present rise of nationalism is ugly and frightening. But the assault on the idea of universal human rights is worse. The signs are everywhere. Sometimes the attack is formal and legalistic, as in the UK Government’s proposal to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights – not universal, by definition. Elsewhere, it is criminal and chaotic, as in the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines since the election of President Duterte. David Armitage, the American historian, writes that ‘around the world, democratic politics now looks ever more like civil war by other means’. In such a context, is that really an over-statement?

There’s no need to itemise the current attacks on democracy, the rule of law and, above all, the foundational concept of human rights. It is a global phenomenon that is all too familiar. Its causes are multiple but, insofar as it exploits democracy itself, the fear provoked by very rapid social and economic change is a decisive and a divisive factor. Many millions of Europeans now believe, not just that their lives have got worse, but that their leaders consider their suffering an acceptable price for prosperity. That is interpreted, not unreasonably, as making them less valuable than other people. Where then is the universalism of the human rights convention?

What is most striking about recent votes – whether you look at Brexit, the American Presidential election or the Turkish Referendum – is how close the results are and how much people’s choice can be mapped on socio-economic conditions such as location, class, education and age. That sharp division makes thinking in terms of ‘us and them’ not just morally and legally wrong but dangerous as well. To say it again, you cannot defend universal rights by dividing citizens into groups. I’m with Martin Luther King here. We must be judged for our acts, not our ethnicity, religion, culture or beliefs. Only our acts are a legitimate basis for distinction.

So how can we act well in such a divided world? And does culture, which concerns us here today, have a particular role to play? Let me say at once that I don’t believe it’s culture’s task – or within its power – to solve such problems. But it does have a valuable role as a space of encounter, dialogue and – perhaps – better understanding. So I will share some examples of how artists – professional and non-professional – are searching for and often finding ways of reaching across those divisions today.

In Friesland, the agricultural heart of the northern Netherlands, Titia Bouwmeester worked with farmers to create an interactive theatre performance that celebrates their knowledge and labour in dairy farming as they coped with the abolition of EU milk quotas. ‘Lab Molke’ took place on a farm and the process of researching, creating, rehearsing and performing together was an open dialogue about different lives between people from urban and rural communities.

In Porto, Hugo Cruz and Maria João work in theatre with people from different parts of the city, including workers in the cork industry, the deaf community, old people, the gypsy community, refugees and children. After creating several productions with and for each group, they brought five of them together in MAPA, a spectacular community play about the city’s past and future in which their different perspectives were presented at the Teatro Nacional in the city centre.

In Alexandria, Hatem Hassan Salama, brought intimate performances to neighbourhood cafes in working class parts of the city. Working with a storyteller, a photographer, a dancer and a musician, he created impromptu events in places whose traditional and masculine culture was unused to such modern art. But the result was to open such rich conversations art, politics and morality that they went on for two or three hours after the show itself.

In Stoke on Trent, Anna Francis has been using her visual art practice to talk with her neighbours in the run down area where she lives. Last summer, she created a temporary community centre in a derelict pub and about 600 people came to fifty different activities in the month: plans are now under way to make this a permanent facility. It will signal new possibilities in a very disadvantaged place that is not much heard.

These projects,  and hundreds of others in and beyond Europe, all see art as a place to begin conversations about where we are and what we might do about it. But they are art activities, not political or even social interventions. They nurture trust, skills, knowledge, confidence and networks because they do not try to produce those things. They happen without effort when people are engaged in and by a shared artistic project that speaks to their lives.

Art is a space where we can still meet, especially when the other platforms for dialogue, such as politics, the media and the online world, have become so polarised that we can no longer hear – or tolerate – each other there. Art can be safe because it does not check our identity papers on entry. It does not separate us from them. Indeed, as these examples show, art welcomes difference, complexity, even conflict – within the protective licence of character, symbol, metaphor and non-reality. Art allows us to enact our unspoken, even unconscious feelings and encounter other people, including the feared foreigner or despised neighbour. It encourages and enables reflection. Art has room for us all, and it can put up with all that we feel, think and want to say – not because it’s all good or even acceptable, but because it’s there and art knows that denying our feelings is more dangerous than doing something creative with them.

But this is just one vision of art. I know that.  It is neither inevitable nor uncontested. I respect but I do not share the fears artists sometimes express about instrumentalisation. Art is not self-sufficient. I believe in art for people’s sake because without people art has no meaning. It ceases to exist. But the trap of propaganda – especially well-meaning propaganda – is dangerous. It attracts those who strip art of precisely the complex ambiguities I value and enslave it to their vision. The risk is real and best avoided by listening, really listening, to those whose voices we find most uncomfortable.

If art is to reach across the divisions in our fragmenting world, it will do so only by being democratic, diverse and tolerant – a culture that lives up to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’ That would be a truly universal culture.

Europe is not a place. It is not a government or an administration. It is a culture, whose greatest values have been forged in response to its greatest traumas. We needed it in 1945; we need it today.


What next? It depends who’s asking

When a campaign takes off as Fun Palaces has, people start asking ‘What Next?’. It’s the wrong question – or at least, to ask it is to misunderstand what’s important about Fun Palaces and why.

Cultural policy in post-war Europe (how long will we keep calling it that?) has been divided between two big ideas: cultural democratisation and cultural democracy. Cultural democratisation got out of the blocks first and it retains the head start it established in the 1950s, partly because it holds the big assets. A product of the Welfare State it sees culture as a social good, like education, work and healthcare, which the state should help citizens to access. Public libraries had been seen like that for decades, partly because they are more obviously educational. Building new theatres, galleries and arts centre,  together with pricing, marketing and outreach policies designed to make them attractive, has been a key part of cultural democratisation. Culture is good and in a democracy, everyone should have their fair share.


You could say that this democratisation was a victim of its own success, because it was the very children who had benefited from better education and public services after 1945 who challenged that provision as paternalistic. Artists were at the forefront of that charge, especially those who began to call themselves ‘community artists’ in the late 1960s and – like Amber – celebrate the working class culture from which they often came. They saw cultural democratisation as the elite’s way of maintaining its power by teaching others to admire its culture and the social values they represented. What we want, they said, is cultural democracy – access to the means of cultural production so that we can remake a culture in our own image.

During the past 50 years, cultural policy in Britain – and most Western European countries – has been a struggle between the advocates of democratisation and the champions of democracy. The first have institutional resources and authority on their side. The second have imagination and applied creativity…

What does this have to do with asking what next for Fun Palaces? It’s all about who’s asking the question.

Cultural democratisation, like all faiths, is rooted in the idea of self-improvement. People who are introduced to art at an early age, the idea goes, will begin a lifetime of personal development that enables them to appreciate more fully the transcendental power of great art. It is the education of a sensibility. Its great trap is the assumption that where you are, what you like or do now, is not of value in itself – it’s just another step on the long stairway to heaven.

In practical terms, that translates into ideas like engagement and audience development (how, incidentally, do you develop an audience, except in marketing terms?). It’s why funding bodies, such as the Arts Council, require that every application demonstrates a development on the last one. The idea of simply funding an artist to continue doing what they do is unthinkable, unless – perhaps like the Royal Opera House – what they do is believed to have achieved a state of perfection. In this logic, cultural participation is always and only a journey of self-improvement. That is why those who see themselves as managing it feel the need to ask of others – ‘What next?’.


If the question arises in a context of cultural democracy – and it does constantly – it is because people are asking themselves what comes next. The table tops were still being wiped clean while social media was fizzing with Fun Palace makers sharing questions and ideas about how to do things better next time. Brockwell Lido Fun Palace asked for advice on how to help parents see that activities were for them and not only for their children, and responses soon poured in from other makers on Twitter and Facebook as people shared their own experience.

And that’s the point – everyone’s own experience was valid. Everyone’s suggestion was worth hearing. There was no answer – such questions don’t have an answer –there was discussion and reflection. That will lead to experiments, more discussion and learning. There is no single path, and perhaps no progress. There is an unending landscape of possibilities to discover and the right – and obligation – to decide which are best.

If cultural democracy has an ideal, it is not some distant heaven towards which we are guided by a priesthood, but the quality of what we are doing, sharing, living now. It is about making sense of where we are, through creative and artistic interacting with others. It’s about working out for ourselves what we think is good and why, always remembering that others think differently for equally valid reasons.

What is next for Fun Palaces? I’ve no idea. But I know that – because this movement is (mostly) an expression of cultural democracy – the thousands of people involved will work that out for themselves. And there will not be one next step: there will be at least 290.


Time in participatory and community art

Time is an important factor in differentiating in participatory and community art. The shorter the project, the less potential for the participants to influence its development. People may share a meal with an artist in a gallery or stand naked in the street to be photographed but their influence on the resulting work is marginal. Such works do not require participants to have or use any artistic knowledge or ability. Their experience, feelings or individuality are not required. One participant could be replaced by another and it would make no substantive difference to the art.

A project that develops over weeks, months or – as in the case of Granby 4 Streets – years has another character. Here, relations can become relationships. There is a basis for real negotiation between artist and participant. Power relations may shift as people acquire (or take) knowledge, skills, resources or consciousness. Time allows an art project to become developmental. The work is under no one’s complete control because it is impossible to know how it will evolve. It can only be the product of a genuine process of co-creation.

There are traps in durational work just as intense moments have transformative potential. It’s also true that short events can be the artistic marker of a long process of shared creation (as in the festival below). It would be simplistic to equate time and quality in a binary fashion. That said,  longer term work has always held most interest for me.

Note: The images on this page offer contrasting representations of Eastern Europe. At the top is ‘Total Chaos’ an immersive art project by artists collective Reactor which took place over four days in 2006. At the bottom the photos are from a 2003 Living Heritage project in Bulgaria developed by local people over a year that gathered hundreds of people to celebrate the ties of a community dispersed by economic and social change.

Connections and differences between participatory art and community art

Gormley 'One & Other' 2009
Antony Gormley ‘One & Other’ London, 2009

One reason why this blog (and the book it supports) is called ‘A Restless Art’ is to escape the trap of what to call the artistic practice I’m writing about. There is a huge range of terms: participatory art, socially engaged art, relation practice, geologic aesthetics, community art, interactive art, activist art… the list goes on. I’m trying to untangle some of that in the first part of the book, which I’ve now begun. My interest is less in the shifting theories behind these labels than in why artists and critics have felt the need to keep defining their differences. That says a lot about the place of the work within and beyond the art world.

However, since the book is about ‘participatory and community art’, it is important to explain what I understand by those terms, even if others have different interpretations.  I’ve written before about how many British artists stopped describing their work as community art during the 1990s and the ideological implications of that choice. (You can read that paper here.) But the term ‘participatory art’ has a much wider meaning in the art world. In an article on participatory art in the Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics (OUP 2014), Tom Finkelpearl relates the term to art

“created through the participation of people in addition to the artist or art collective. In participatory art people referred to as citizens, regular folks, community members, or non-artists interact with professional artists to create the works.”

This definition, which is clear enough as far as it goes, describes a very large landscape indeed, much of it beyond the scope of this project or my interest. So it is necessary to consider the relationship between this vast field and the work that I – still – describe as community art.  That seems particularly important since the  Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics has nothing to say about community art, although many artists have been describing their work in that way since the 1960s.

So, in this book, I use both participatory art and community art, though not to mean the same thing.

Gormley 'One and Other' - 2

By participatory art, I mean the whole field of collaborative arts work, from Gormley’s Field to Streetwise Opera, where artists involve the public in making art.

By community art I mean a radical rights-based approach to participation in art characterised by a critical social engagement.

'VULNUS'' Transformas, Barcelona 2016
‘VULNUS” Transformas, Barcelona 2016

Participatory art is a vast and varied field of artistic practice of which community art is only one part. But it is important to focus on community art because – as well as being a practice in its own right – it has functioned as an avant-garde to the field as a whole. Community art is exploratory, innovative, radical and challenging. At its best, it’s the R&D section of participatory art. As such, its work has not always been good or successful. Some of its ideas have been dead ends or embarrassing failures. But even these are interesting and worth learning from. The ground-breaking work of community art has tested ideas and practices that have since become established across and beyond the field of participatory art.

Rosie Wheatland, in 'Bed', Entelechy Arts, Bristol, 2016
Rosie Wheatland, in ‘Bed’, Entelechy Arts, Bristol, 2016

Hearts and minds

Oresh Dance Group 2004
Young People’s Dance Company, Oresh (Bulgaria) 2004

There has been a fantastic growth in community and participatory art during the past 20 years, across the world. A practice that was once marginal – with the strengths and weaknesses that implies – is arguably now the most creative, energised and popular aspect of the non-commercial arts. But there are several reasons why it might not always feel like that to artists and activists, for instance:

  • There are many more projects, so even if there is more funding it has to stretch further.
  • Much of the art world hasn’t understood the practice or what it means, so it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
  • The culture of evaluation – which has grown up at roughly the same time – is applied disproportionately to participatory art projects.

In fact it seems to be a principle of many arts funders that the less money you get, the more work you have to do to prove its value. An opera house can receive millions in subsidy without being asked for any serious evaluation of its audience impact, but a young people’s theatre project must show how everyone’s lives have been transformed for a few thousand pounds.

As a result, people working in participatory arts can be defensive about the value of their work and  frustrated at repeatedly having to provide reports they suspect change nothing, if they are even read. Actually, the reports do create change: the steady accumulation of increasingly strong evidence over 20 years is one reason why there is now so much more work than there was.

But it is only part of the reason – because we are only partly rational beings.

Experience – real, lived, powerful experience, changes people more profoundly than evidence. There is more support for this work among artists, teachers, managers, hospital administrators, prison governors and, yes, politicians because they have seen uplifting shows, visited impressive exhibitions, heard extraordinary performers. They have met people whose lives have been changed by the artistic experiences they have been part of of. Both the art and the artists have spoken directly to these audiences: and the experience has changed minds.

Evaluation is essential to good art. Without systems for independent critical thinking it’s not possible to sustain a creative practice. But evaluation is not monitoring and the evidence it produces is not very good at changing opinions. Experience, on the other hand, does change us. It opens our hearts to new realities. It makes us willing to hear arguments and listen to evidence. The participatory art sector may always need to provide evidence of its value, but it should always remember that belief is a matter of minds and hearts.

‘All true definitions of art are circular’

Dimitri Shostakovich in Dresden (1950) © Deutsche Fotothek, Wikimedia

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party then it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary from his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.

Julian Barnes, 2016, The Noise of Time (p.91-2)


Sally Cottis by Mik Godley
Sally Cottis by Mik Godley

We have many verbs for the craft actions performed by artists: drawing, writing, playing, acting, dancing, painting, singing and so on. What unites and underlies all those actions is creation. The artist’s act is to create. Unfortunately, the idea of creativity has become so prized in recent years that it has been applied as an adjective to almost any conceivable human activity. It has thus become primarily a quality of things or people, as if it were embedded into their essence rather than achieved through action.

We speak of ‘being an artist’ as we do of being a woman or being old. In doing so we make it an existential condition—something that cannot be changed, that is inseparable from a person’s identity. But people become artists through their acts, not biology or even education. The claim to be an artist can only be justified by what a person does. At 18, Rimbaud was a poet; at 35 he was a merchant who’d once been a poet.

Creation is what an artist does when she is drawing, writing, playing, acting, dancing, painting or singing. Creation is bringing something into existence: an image, a piece of music, a text, a performance, a film—anything that did not exist before it was imagined and made by the artist. The result may be extraordinary or dull, original or derivative, lasting or transitory. However desirable it may be, excellence is not intrinsic in the artist’s act: creation is.

As we can all speak, so can we all create. The quality of either act is separate from its performance: some speakers are hesitant and inarticulate while others become great orators. Talent, training, effort, commitment, will and luck all play their part in an individual artist’s achievement. Any one of those qualities may be sufficient to create a single great work of art. Anyone can have the luck to take a great photograph; only a great photographer can take the hundreds that comprise a distinctive body of work, a creative personality.

Between those edges there is plenty of room for different people to act as artists, creating work with varying degrees of craft, ambition, originality, connection and feeling—people who are known in their families only as a storyteller, or who are admired locally as a musician, or who are recognised by their peers as a fine artist. We become artists in the act of creating art, not because we have studied or been paid or written up. It is artisting that makes us artists, nothing else.

(Adapted from Winter Fires by François Matarasso with Mik Godley, Baring Foundation 2012)

What is the point?

Community artists are often accused of instrumentalising art. We can be said to instrumentalise something when we use it to achieve a different goal than that for which it is designed. In the arts, the argument goes like this. Art is intended to create aesthetic experiences, therefore to use it for another purpose, such as social change, is a distortion of its essential character. This is a version of the art for art’s sake argument. Unfortunately, it is full of holes.

First, it depends on a shared idea of what art is and what constitutes an aesthetic experience. It doesn’t take much knowledge of art history to see that there is not now, and has never been, such a consensus. People have always made art, but they have made it for different purposes at different times and in different cultures.

Secondly, art has always been instrumentalised, for instance as a way of expressing belief. Greek drama was part of a religious festival. The masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque painting were mostly created to serve the Roman Catholic church. J. S. Bach worked as church musician and his principal work consists of more than 200 sacred cantatas he composed for services.

Thirdly, it requires a very simplistic view of human affairs to believe that anything people do has only a single purpose and effect. Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel can offer people aesthetic experiences whilst also affirming a theology, demonstrating the power and authority of the Vatican and being a major aspect of the Italian tourism industry. Arguably, it is the tensions between these meanings that make them so interesting.

Art does not exist without people. It was invented to do what they needed, to empower them, to serve their purposes. So what we should ask is not whether art has been instrumentalised but how, for what purpose and in whose interest. A discourse about the ‘intrinsic value’ of art serves only to mask those questions and protect power. Art has no independent life. But people do.

We made slavery illegal because we recognised that one human being must not be made to serve the purposes of another. This is the instrumentalisation that matters. People are their own ends: they must not be subjugated to other purposes. However bad things are, there is never a justification for making people the means to achieve other goals. Theology, political ideology, art – whatever faith we may place in these abstractions, we must never place them before real, living individual human beings. We are the point, never the means.

Coming together: midwinter thoughts about community

Eriskay Ceilidh 1996
Ceilidh in Eriskay Community Hall 1996

On 24 December 2015, the Beatles allowed their music to be streamed online for the first time. The most frequently played song since the launch is ‘Come Together’.

The European winter brings people together. Nights are long and cold and wet, even without snow. Gathering round the fire for a little cheery feasting and familiar tales to pass the time are ancient customs. Christian theology adapted to existing practices as it came North from its warmer heartland, finding common ground in an idea of community. In midwinter, when cold and hunger threaten each individually, the affirmation of community is literally vital. That might be what people mean when they evoke the spirit of Christmas.

Community is not just a powerful need: it is a complicated idea. Every group, in defining itself, excludes others. Our need for belonging can also be manipulated.  Because, as Raymond Williams observed, it ‘never seems to be used unfavourably’, the word has been exploited for power and wealth. Its use to mask ideology or self-interest has left it tarnished. And so some are now cynical not just of the word, but of the idea too. In Britain, what was once called community art is veiled with the much more ambiguous term, ’participatory’.

But this is not just a matter of words. In thinking about community, and working with groups who identify as communities – whether defined by place, experience or commitment – artists connect with key ideas about society, politics and art. Disregarding this rich territory has sometimes left participatory art seeming merely rhetorical by comparison with its older relation.

We start the new year at midwinter, looking to dawn, renewal, the chance of something better. In the deepest night, hope is humanity’s secret resource. When news bulletins speak of conflict and suffering, artists could do worse than renew their thinking about community in all its complicated senses. In the end, it is true that we are all in this together.

The restless purposes of community art

‘In the Netherlands, community art is predominantly result-oriented, whereas, until recently, in English-speaking countries the focus was on participation and the process.’

These words come from a book produced in preparation for Leeuwarden’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2018. The Dutch city’s programme aims ‘to strengthen community feeling through cultural participation’, and much thought has been given to how and why this happens. The Search Compass is described as a ‘methodology for cultural intervention’ and it gives a good overview of current thinking about community art in the Netherlands.

'Maxima Komt!,' Community Play (Stut Theatre)
‘Maxima Komt!,’ Community Play (Stut Theatre)

Holland been an important centre of practice for at least 15 years, with some great work being done with its changing communities. Rotterdam has an International Community Arts Festival and CAL-XL in Utrecht is a centre for documentation and reflection on community arts. Some of the best work I’ve seen has been the Netherlands and yet, reading The Search Compass, I see some of what I’ve missed or misunderstood. Because my own approach has been rights-based, I may have underestimated the social purpose of some Dutch projects and how that shaped what was happening. For instance, the book suggests that community art projects:

‘have in common that they imply the participation of a specific target group in a cultural event, that it concerns a creative process under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals and that they seek to achieve a social goal.’

This vision of community art as an agent of social change under the control of professionals makes me uncomfortable, though I know it’s how many people see it. Achieving social change has always been one of the objectives of community art – but only one. Moreover, such change can occur in other ways than ‘under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals’.

Part of what makes this practice vital is the tension between this objective and others rooted either in democratization of art or cultural rights. The different emphases placed on these three goals, by different people in different places at different times, make it ‘a restless art’, as people try to balance competing but not necessarily conflicting purposes. There isn’t a ‘right’ purpose to community arts: there are many depending on people and situation. But each raises ethical, political and artistic dilemmas that need to be considered – and discussing them openly is one way of doing the work well.

This week, I’ll have a chance to talk about these questions with people involved in community arts in the Netherlands: it will be a rewarding few days.