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What Participatory Arts can teach us about Political Engagement by Malaika Cunningham

The connection between arts and politics has a long history, and one that is both made up of brave attempts to connect the making of art to struggles to empower, give voice to and support the cause of those oppressed or at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, and to infamous attempts to use the arts to prop up corrupted governments, justify the unjustifiable and mesmerise and subjugate the masses in totalitarian and illiberal regimes in the not so distant past as much as the present. So, what does that connection look like today in Western liberal democracies considering that the arts feel especially threatened by austerity measures, and democracy is, apparently, also in trouble? In pitching her guest blog to me, Malaika Cunningham suggested that “participatory arts may give us an original insight into addressing the growing gap between the governed and governors in the UK” and proposed to ask an important question: “In exploring the lessons held within participatory arts practice, may we glean a new approach to political engagement?”. Below is her answer to it, and I hope it will spark another lively debate.


The relationship between art and politics goes back a long way. Both are as old as our own intelligence and in some ways even represent that rationality. 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. Politics today faces a crisis of democracy: with voting and party membership at all-time lows and politics itself becoming a dirty word. The arts struggle to broaden the demographic of 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 in this statement not easily be switched for politics?

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. To co-produce. To co-produce art and policy.

Participatory art is an artistic genre which appears to already address this approach. Indeed, in The Crick Centre’s current AHRC research project into participatory art and political engagement defines participatory art as: a co-productive process of creating artwork(s), often featuring collaboration with both artists and non-artists. Arguably, both the wider arts community, political scientists and policy-makers have a lot of learn from the successes and failures of participatory arts.

1)     Within participatory art, and indeed all co-productive activity, the question must be addressed of why you are doing it. 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 art can also have the opposite effect, and can become another patronising, token method of engagement. Whilst participatory art, 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 art 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 seen it will make us more likely to want to engage. Part of the value of participatory art is its inclusivity. We want to feel part of something. Something we are proud of. We want our decisions to have an impact. We want to know our way around; feel like we have the keys to the theatre, gallery or town hall just as much as elites. Invite us in and listen to us and let us feel how much you need us.

Overall, participatory art 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 art 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.



Malaika Cunningham is a Research Associate of The Bernard Crick Centre at Sheffield University. She is currently researching the potential role of participatory arts for encouraging political and civic engagement as part of the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project. Alongside her academic work,  Malaika is Artistic Director of The Bare Project theatre company, which specializes in immersive theatre and new writing. She can be found on Twitter @MalaikaEliza


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