What Participatory Arts can teach us about Political Engagement

art of with
By Joseph Houlders

The relationship between art and politics goes back a very long way. Both are as old as our capacity for reason and in many ways they epitomize it. They have used each other, abused each other and given a lot to each other over time. So perhaps it is not surprising that they should both currently be down and out in such a similar way. Both face problems of participation and legitimacy; a narrowing demographic and a loss of confidence. Politics today faces a crisis of democracy: with voting and party membership at all-time lows and politics itself is becoming a dirty word. The arts struggle to broaden their audiences and continue the ongoing battle of proving their social worth for public funding. “Art should not be sequestered in special zones, where special people – the artists – deploy their special skills and experience.” (Leadbeater 2010). Could art and artists in this statement not easily be switched for politics and politicians?
As their problems are not so different, potentially, their solutions are not either. Both need to forge new relationships with their audiences and electorate. Rather than encourage participation through old worn out routes, perhaps both the arts and political spheres need to listen to how people already engage and allow this to form new routes. With increasingly discerning citizens this engagement must be meaningful. We need asset based approaches which invite people into the decision making room as equals; to listen and to co-produce art and policy.
Participatory arts is an artistic genre which appears to already address this approach. Indeed, in The Crick Centre’s current AHRC research project into participatory arts and political engagement defines participatory arts as: a co-productive process of creating artwork(s), often featuring collaboration with both artists and non-artists. Arguably, the wider arts community, political scientists and policy-makers have a lot of learn from the successes and failures of participatory arts. The lessons which come to mind are as follows:
1) Within participatory arts, and indeed all co-productive activity, the question of why you are doing it must be addressed. The process of participatory art has been shown to have a multitude of social benefits. It can improve the wellbeing and confidence of participants, it can improve communication skills and community cohesion. However, bad participatory arts can also have the opposite effect, and can become another patronising, token method of engagement. Whilst participatory arts, like co-productive policy making, may have excellent social outputs, the focus of work should always be to create the best art you can. The fundamental aim should be to create the most affecting piece you can, or the most technically good or at least art which everyone involved is proud of (including the artists). Similarly, the focus of co-productive policy making should always be on creating good policy, collaboration should not become the point of the process or you will likely end up with bad policy and further disillusionment.
2) Another understanding that must be apparent in every stage of participatory art is that everyone involved has something unique and important to offer. Why else would they be an equal decision-maker in the creation process? Participatory arts must build on the interests and assets of the community, and cannot be successful if the ends, means and skills needed have been decided before entering the room. This asset-based approach is important in political discourse as well if we wish to change the elite structure of ‘helping the needy’ within our social policy.
3) A sense of ownership and authorship of elite spaces and artwork can also create more meaningful engagement. When one’s input is valued, required and its effects are seen, it will make us more likely to engage. Part of the value of participatory arts is its inclusivity. We want to be part of something. Something we are proud of. We want to know our way around; to feel like we have the keys to the theatre, gallery or town hall just as much as elites. Invite us in and let us know that we are needed.
Overall, participatory arts can teach some valuable lessons on engagement, both from its successes and failures. If we use a meaningful invitation to participation, such as co-production of policy, as an end in itself it will become meaningless. The focus of participatory arts must be held within the art created, just as the focus of political participation should be social change. Put another way, the value is not to be found simply in the act of listening, but in what is said.