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June 26, 2014

The IPPEA Conference: A treat in Utrecht

Just home from an enjoyable couple of days in Utrecht at a conference, International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts, organized by the networkbrought together by Leila Jancovich and her team at Leeds Metropolitan University. The two day conference explored the issues of meaning, measurement, method and values which continue to animate debates about thwp_20140622_016.jpge arts and culture and their relationship with their broader publics. An impressive range of papers and presentations, began with reflections from the playwright America Vera-Zawala on her work in community-based theatre, one example of which concerned the impact of the closure of a mill on the Swedish town of Norrsundet. A play was written and produced with the local community at the precise time of this trauma and, amongst the many fascinating aspects of this process, what stuck with me was the relationship between the artist and the community and the vexed question of who had the responsibility for creative decision making. Participants expressed considerable anxiety about taking control over the direction of the project in deference to the accredited expertise of the theatre professionals. They in turn, for reasons relating to their commitment to the integrity of the process they had initiated, were equally reluctant to impose the right way to proceed. It was an impasse resolved by nothing more complicated than time and dialogue, through which participants took eventual ownership of the narratives of their own experiences.

This story had a perhaps surprising echo in a plenary from Andrea Bandelli about processes of participation in the management of science museums. Science, Andrea reminded us, is not a democracy, although this does not mean that scientific processes, and priorities should not reflect democratically established priorities, or that scientists are not required to communicate with the publics who fund them. There was a degree of fear, expressed by the boards of science museums in Andrea’s study, in managing this balance, especially as science is so regularly deliberately or accidentally, misrepresented in public discourse, as either saviour or villain. There was a telling piece of evidence, though that perhaps this fear was partially misplaced. When asked, attenders of science museums wanted there to be public representation of some form on museum boards. At the same time, when asked if these lay board members should have an executive role in decision making, attenders seemed happy to defer to the experts. Both these stories might be interpreted as evidence of an impulse to be involved with decision-making that gives a lie to one of the more abiding narratives in this field, that of the ‘deficit model’. So much of the official discourse relating to participation starts from a working assumption that people lack some capacity which prevents it. Too often that serves to cement the position of the institution or individual accredited with the means to fill the deficit, who are all too ready to pay lip service to the notion of participation but are also reluctant to embrace the accompanying challenge to their own authority that it brings. It was gratifying to hear some critical voices on this topic in many of the presentations.

CCPS was well represented by both me and Maria Barrett, who presented some initial findings from her research project into the theatre audience of Liverpool. I was presenting some further 'work-in-some-kind-of-progress’ thoughts about participatory arts work as work, which I first blogged about here. It was really useful to think and talk this through in this forum, which included artists who had lived through the processes I was examining. It was especially exciting to meet up with the Artworks team which has been engaged in an extensive sector analysis and important empirical inquiry into this topic. Hopefully these conversations can be productive and ongoing.

In keeping with the mission of the network, the event brought together academic researchers with policy makers and arts practitioners. This sounds blindingly obvious but is difficult to do, and especially difficult to do well and there are inevitably some grumbles in the process. These might be, depending on which camp you’re in, about ‘rigour’ of research, about the use of theoretical ‘jargon’or abstraction, about the fetishisation of anecdote or personal experience or the search for ‘practical’ applicability or the critical examination of assumptions. Such debates can be uncomfortable – exemplified by the intense looking at the floor of some academic colleagues when it came to actually participating in composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven’s Saturday lunchtime interactive music performance. More seriously, such discomfort might stem from public forums like this also being places where professional identities in all these areas are performed, and where stakes in the territory are marked out and defended. That might be inevitable - but the organizers are to be commended for creating a comfortably uncomfortable space for people in these different fields to talk to, rather than past, one another. It was certainly a thought-provoking couple of days in developing my own research. Utrecht was a lovely place to visit and my thanks go to our hosts and organizers for their hospitality.

October 16, 2013

Producing Tastes


This week I had that slightly bewildering/fearful experience for an academic of touching the zeitgeist/ having the rug stolen from under me. Preparing a talk which I had tentatively entitled ‘Producing tastes’ for a couple of presentations this month, I heard some of the issues I was thinking about being addressed in Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture – Democracy Has Bad Taste. My talk is part of a developing writing project on aspects or dimensions of cultural taste and it tries to outline some of the institutional, ‘industrial’ and social processes through which tastes get formed– processes which, like all the most fundamental parts of infrastructure, seem to be obvious and eternal but actually are the products of various histories and struggles. Grayson Perry had a couple of evocative phrases to describe this process – one of which, ‘the lovely consensus’ of people in various positions of power who validate art - I might well appropriate. He is a lively contributor to these debates in the UK - as demonstrated by his authoritative and thoughtful documentary on taste and class last year. Subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, playful and subversive he revels in what he describes as a teasing insider/outsider status which allows him to critique an academic elite, an artworld establishment, celebrities and political correctness as if, as a cross-dressing, Turner prize-winning, CBE-holding, Royal Academy-exhibiting, Reith lecture-giving, Visiting Professor he doesn’t have at least a trace of himself in all these categories.

The talk was always entertaining – but never, I think quite nailed its object. Grayson began by downplaying the prospect of easy answers – but the question of why democracy might inevitably or always produce bad taste wasn’t addressed as much as the less controversial notion that the value of art does not rest in either monetary exchange or bums on seats. Quality was important but it was located somewhere else. Precisely where, understandably for a question which has vexed thinkers for centuries, wasn’t really clear. In place of an answer, though, there was a familiar ambivalence to the notion of the popular. It was evoked as a kind of safety net against pretension on the one hand but also identified as a dubious source of authoritative aesthetic judgment on the other. Perhaps one might expect that kind of ambivalence from a room at the Tate, full of artworld insiders, enjoying being gently mocked by one of their own. Overall the talk, and the questions that followed had what the anthropologists might call a rather liminal, carnivalesque air – a space in which a (validated) clown or fool can poke fun at power for a bit before the rules kick in again, refreshed and renewed.

For me the best moment was when the writer and journalist Miranda Sawyer asked a question about the anger that people unfamiliar with contemporary art might experience in contemporary art galleries– even those who are comfortable with other forms of culture, such as pop music. Part of this anger stems, she suggests, from the feeling that they are being ‘tricked’. This reminded me of a passage from the influential sociological critique of the foundations of taste, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction in which he describes the ‘exclusion’ felt by what he identified as the working class audience, confronted by modern art. It is admitting they don’t understand it that betrays this exclusion, for Bourdieu. The bourgeois audience might not understand either – and indeed David Halle’s study of New York art collectors indicates that wealthy collectors of abstract art were as likely to buy things because they went with the curtains rather than because of any judgment about what pieces meant. What the art-insider-audience knows, though, through their accumulated family and educational experiences, is that the rules of the game require them to remain reverently silent and move on to the next piece.

Debates within these kinds of institutions and establishments are probably never going to be able to be genuinely radical about the assumptions upon which they rest. I’ll listen with interest to see if Grayson can pull it off over the coming weeks. It might be that an important first step in a move to ‘democratise’ questions of taste is for the ‘artworld’ to stop talking about art as something separate or special from everyday aesthetic practices, which are also infused with tacit judgments of what is good, beautiful or valuable. If the director of the Tate genuinely does, as Grayson intimates, collect Cliff Richard memorabilia, I for one would applaud him. Admitting it might also make the many other people who do that, or its equivalent, feel more welcome in the gallery.

You can follow my research at, or through my author page in Warwick’s WRAP repository.

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