Last weekend (14 and 15 November) I was in Florence, Italy to present a paper on the Pitfalls of Participation at the International Artes Conference. I was there as a guest of Grodzki Theatre from Poland, another long-time partner of ICAF. Grodzki is one of the participants in an EU Lifelong learning project on art as a tool for education and social inclusion. Their network includes organizations from Hungary, France, Italy, England and Greece. It was my job to peel away some of the more romantic notions many people, including those representing the partners in this project, still have about participation. Participation is much more complex – and messy – than many community artists seem to think. Few of them are aware of the power relations that are operating in the participatory arts processes they facilitate. Too many all too easily assume that participation (which can assume many shapes and forms) in the arts automatically leads to political empowerment.
At the Artes conference I also ran into another old ICAF friend, François Matarasso. He argued convincingly that the arts are crucial to a child’s education because they can teach him or her to empathize with others, to cooperate, and to explore moral values. One of the problems, as he sees it, is that today’s politicians (most of whom grew up in a time when the world was very different) insist on literacy and maths whereas the most valuable skills for someone in the near future is more likely to be a flexible, adaptable creative team player. ‘This is where art has something to offer people,’ Matarasso argued, ‘but it is rarely understood by politicians. Their education had the odd music lesson and a rare school outing to a museum. It was not seen as something integral to how a child develops and how it might learn to relate to the world’.
Matarasso was quick to emphasize that art is not the solution to all the world’s problems, in the same vein that I argued that participation is not the answer to everything. But it can help equip the child with skills that can help him or her deal with the complexities in our globalised world. And how they acquire these skills – the creative process – is more important than what they learn, he insisted. These processes, he explained, may seem chaotic and messy to casual observers. They are full of trial, error and ambiguity. It requires risk-taking and openness to new experiences.
Matarasso was critical of art processes that are too instrumental. ‘When art is used to deliberately pass on skills or diminish offending behavior it becomes like math or science, ‘ he said. But when children can explore the benefits and risks with more autonomy, he continued, art generates growth. The irony is, according to Matarasso, that while standard formats for instruction and testing of children become more and more dominant in education, their future is likely to be more and more unpredictable. So it would make sense, he concluded, to increase rather than reduce art in our educational system. Walking through the streets of Florence that night and bouncing from one spectacular fresco to another, Matarasso’s words seemed to make all the sense in the world…
Speaking of frescoes, François Matarasso recently published the fourth book in his Regular Marvels series. This time he has collected – and poetically edited – the voices of people from the Lincolnshire Fens, as they express their relationship with the many churches in that coastal part of England. The book can be downloaded on the following site: http://thelightships.com/2014/11/18/download-the-book/