Book Review: A Restless Art

Jane Alexandre

A RESTLESS ART: How participation won, and why it matters

François Matarasso
Lisbon and London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 2019

What are the possibilities that arise when professional and non-professional artists create together:  asking questions, looking at problems, envisioning solutions, working at boundaries of disciplines?  Matarasso identifies as a “community artist”; his long work history includes creating, thinking about, writing about, and observing others engaged in all the various manifestations of art wrapped up in the term “community art”. His credo:  “I believe that knowledge can, indeed must, be produced outside the academy, and that art is both a valid research method and a form of knowledge:  it is why I work in community art”.

Of late, his attention has turned to what he proposes as “participatory art”:  “a specific and historically-recent practice that connects professional and non-professional artists in an act of co-creation”.  This, says Matarasso, creates a new, unstable art form:  it works across boundaries as it invites new collaborations, as well as connections that can be, as he puts it, “unsettling”.  Participatory art projects can connect and interweave art practice with such disciplines as “social work, politics, philosophy, environmentalism, therapy, community development, activism, health, aesthetics, social justice” and many others.

Copious illustrative examples, both written and photographic, accompany the text as Matarasso describes the development, growth, and “normalisation” of participatory art.  He describes changing concepts of community-based art projects, defines modes of practice, and examines their intentions and ethics, finally placing this all within a meta-picture of the evolution of fine and performing arts.  In his view, community art and participatory art (which are carefully defined and distinguished from each other herein—participatory art abandons the idea that a project be led by a professional artist; rather all are on an equal footing) are of immense significance in that they connect “everyday cultural participation with the self-consciousness of contemporary art practice, and so [heal] a rift that was opened with Enlightenment’s invention of fine art (les beaux arts) in the 18th century”. 

Community art matters to people’s lives, argues Matarasso.  Tensions arising from co-creation by professional and non-professional artists are inevitable because they are embedded in the form:  “They create ethical, political, artistic and other dilemmas that can only be responded to in context, by the people involved.”  This is indeed “restless art”.  Where the form goes from here is the final consideration:  “Hope in uncertainty”, as Matarasso concludes. 

Knowledgeable, provocative, and ultimately creative discussion—instigating thought for all artists, working in every form, in every setting, at every level.

-Jane Alexandre