Books | A Restless Art: How Participation Won and Why it Matters, by François Matarasso - Museums Association

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Books | A Restless Art: How Participation Won and Why it Matters, by François Matarasso

Beth Hughes on a study of participatory art and its power to prompt social change
Beth Hughes
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In defence of the arts, we often make the case that funding cuts are inhumane because the arts are essential. When homelessness is on the rise, children on free school meals are going hungry in the holidays and suicide is the single biggest killer for men aged under 45, are we creating something that is truly vital? 
A Restless Art presents a convincing case history for participatory art as a socially relevant instigator for positive change, with the power to create a bright future. Released in January, this book is not just timely, but urgent, as political events create a need for greater social cohesion.
François Matarasso gives the clearest definition of participatory art in relation to community art. A predecessor of participatory art, community art facilitates an open forum where non-artists and artists share and create; as a result, the participants own the outcome. 
In participatory art there is an instigator, a practising artist, where the outcome is considered “in the framework of their existing artistic and political concerns”. Control and authorship lies with the artist as the instigator, although Matarasso provides a clear warning about ensuring the lack of power balance doesn’t become oppressive for those involved.
The book is divided into four sections and begins with how participatory art has become a normalised practice owing to a vibrant history of art-making by people who are unlikely to identify as artists. In the second section, Matarasso offers a broad definition, setting intentions and suggesting a practical ethical code within which to operate. 
The third section delves deeper into history, and the final section leaves us firmly in the present considering the future and what can be achieved. 
Interspersed between the theory are case studies – that I don’t touch on them much in this review is not to dismiss their importance – which are the lifeblood of the book, the theory in practice saturating the text in authenticity. In the interest of open access to all, the book can be downloaded for free from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 
The book’s strength lies in the clarity with which terms are defined. Going back to basics, “art” is defined as a conscious act as opposed to “culture”, which is inherited and all-encompassing. 
And professional artists are those who are often defined by having a career in art, a trajectory and who operate in an artistic community. Non-professional artists who “may not have thought much about art before the opportunity to participate presented itself” bring lived experience.
What comes to mind when you think of community art? The pervading, repetitive criticism laid at the feet of participatory practice, as community art’s descendent, is that it lacks quality compared with other art – a claim Matarasso insists is unfounded. 
The book suggests a matrix of how we may quantify quality when the final product can be deemed at least equally as important as the process. This genre deserves to be judged on its own terms, so to apply existing standards is futile.
Participatory art gives a framework in which to understand political and social upheaval, not necessarily to change it. Furthermore, Matarasso warns about setting “change” as a defined outcome; we should believe that change can happen, not that it will or should.
Among a multitude of practical guidance, we are advised that as participatory art “aims to involve non-professional artists in the creative act so it must use language and concepts that they understand”. Although overall power lies with the instigator, participants have strong agency, so it is essential to have a clear agreement based on shared ethics.
At times, A Restless Art reads like a personal memoir, as Matarasso has written his thesis based on his extensive lived experience. The book neatly avoids becoming a saccharine account of how participatory art saves the day, instead being a call to action, saturated with practical guidance. Next, let’s talk about participatory programming. 
Beth Hughes is a curator at the Arts Council Collection
By François Matarasso, Calouste Gulbenkian, £10, ISBN 978-1-903080207

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