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“We should put the prosecution on trial for being elitist and for seeking to create boundaries”

PRESENTATION – this was a playful debate which put “participation on trial” at Goldsmiths University in London – I argued that the whole premise of the debate was unhelpful

Participation on Trial: Statement For The Defence

Participation on Trial
A playful (but serious) critique of participation. A Dada-esque Valediction and Celebration of 10 years of the MA in Participatory and Community Arts, Goldsmiths.

The Crime.  One of misrepresentation and deception.  Of flagrant flimflammery.  Chicanery and con-artistry. Committing daylight robbery.  Pilfering the public purse.  Causing grievous artistic harm.

The Defendants
The ‘Artful’ Art Schools, The ‘Machiavellian’ Academics, The ‘Cunning’ Cultural Institutions, The ‘Foxy’ Artists, The ‘Canny’ Funders.

The Court: Council Chamber, Deptford Town Hall, Goldsmiths, University of London. 1 May 2015, 10am – 5pm.

My statement for the defence:

Crime – one of misrepresentation – that real participation is happening, and wanted, in the Arts

I work at a cultural organisation in south-west London.

My witness statement proposes that we should move for an immediate mistrial.

The arts are about creative participation.

Anyone who engages with the arts is a participant and is participating.

If you are someone who enjoys experiencing art, creating art, producing art, sharing art, talking about art, selling art, then you are a participant in the arts.

The idea of having a category of arts practice that is called “participation” – as opposed to another area of the arts – that is somehow not about “participation” is an absurd and destructive idea.

Therefore this whole trial is based on a false premise.

I move for a mistrial.

How can you be accused of misrepresenting something that is, in the first place, a false construct?

I would like to ask what does the prosecution actually mean by “participation”?

Perhaps the prosecution is referring to the formal “participation” programmes of some art schools, universities, cultural institutions, artistically led companies, or funders?

If so, I suggest that the prosecution gets out more, beyond metropolitan, academic circles.

Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts will tell you that around 10 million people regularly participate in what he would describe as amateur arts activity every year – orchestras, choirs, performances and so on.

Are these 10 million people artists? Or are these 10 million people participants?

The question highlights the absurdity of the premise of this trial.

By putting “participation” on trial you are actually doing your best to recreate hierarchical and corrosive structures in the arts at the very moment when they are beginning to break down and fade away.

That there is something that is authentically called “the arts” and then there is an attempt to get people to “participate” in “the arts”.

It is 2015.

This trial seems to want to go back a generation and replay old arguments.

This trial shouldn’t be seeking to prosecute cultural organisations for misrepresenting the desire of people to participate, it would be a more effective prosecution if it wanted to tackle cultural organisations that still actively promote boundaries between their work – and use words like Participation or Engagement or Involvement – with a capital P, E and I.

The prosecution should focus on prosecuting crimes that will lead to an improved future, not ones that promote old divisions – tired debates that take us backwards not forwards.

Increasingly, in the 21st century, boundaries are blurring: amateur/professional, art-form boundaries, artist/non-artist.

There is a gradual creative revolution taking place in the UK – with a drive for creativity in education (see Ken Robinson’s most viewed TED talk of all time), in the economy (see the creative and cultural sector that is the fastest growing employment sector in the UK), even in politics (see the manifestos of the two leading parties in the 2015 election with more references to creativity and culture than ever before).

Yes there are forces that will seek to fight off this creative revolution – in education, the economy, in politics, in every walk of life.

But when you look out, beyond what you refer to as “the arts” – then you will see that this is a march that is irresistible.

I ask you to leave this courtroom and ask any passer by whether they are in to “the arts” or “arts participation” or “arts engagement”. I predict they will give you a funny look.

Ask the same people whether they like music, or if they would like their child to be able to play a musical instrument at school, or if they like to go out to listen to live music, and you will get a much more positive response.

Almost twice as many people go to the theatre in London every year than go to premier football matches.

So should we be wringing our hands and asking the same kinds of questions about “participation” or “engagement” in football.

No. People play it. People watch it. People discuss it.

People are happy moving between these ways of enjoying football.

We don’t need to spend lots of time creating weird classifications that divide and confuse everyone who loves football.

So why do we do this in culture?

Why are we having a trial about “arts participation”?

We need to spend time breaking down boundaries, we need to create less jargon, we need to separate things out less.

We are all creative and we can all enjoy our creativity in hundreds of different ways. It’s our very own human super-power.

The prosecution’s case, regarding arts participation, is based on elitist jargon.

We should put the prosecution on trial for being elitist and for seeking to create boundaries: between those that do and those that participate in doing.

What a load of nonsense.

1 MAY 2015

Categories: PROCESS: Scratch, Co-Creation and Creativity

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