This is not a level playing field

Evaluation has become a dominant preoccupation in participatory art in the past generation. It’s a fascinating field, and I’ve played a part in its development, though my ideas have not always been understood as I intended. Indeed, I worry that current approaches to evaluation in the arts are misguided and even damaging. I’m working on a short talk about this and that has prompted me to have another go at explaining why.

Let’s go back to first principles. Evaluation is undertaken in relation to a goal. So before we can consider how to evaluate its ‘impact’, we need to be clear about the purpose of community art. Contrary to what is often implied in grant applications, I do not believe that community art projects exist to change people, communities or the world.  That is often a consequence of their existence, but it is not their purpose, which is a matter of human rights and social justice. Article 27.i of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Community art exists to make that promise—ratified decades ago by most democratic states—a reality for the millions who cannot participate in the cultural life of the community because they are poor, oppressed, marginalised or subject to other forms of social exclusion. It matters because, without the right to cultural participation, people are denied the capabilities to flourish as human beings and to choose what they want to be and do with their lives. People who are denied the right of cultural participation risk losing their other human and democratic rights because they have no legitimate voice or visibility.

The fact that public bodies responsible for cultural policy and spending do not recognise this—which is demonstrated in their policies and spending decisions—is the best argument for why the work of community artists is needed. The idea that the way to redress this inequity in cultural life is to accept additional goals is understandable, given community art’s political weakness, but it is also wrong. It is wrong because:

  • It places additional requirements on those who have fewest resources;
  • It distorts the value of artistic experiences by giving them utilitarian goals;
  • It legitimises the idea that some people are entitled to try to change others without their knowledge or consent;
  • It turns evaluation from a discipline of creative learning to one of accountability and enforcement;
  • It traps community art practice and the already marginalised people it aims to empower into institutional subsidiarity.

The theory and practice of evaluation, and how it applies to the value of participation in the arts is an important field, but it is not neutral territory. It is defined by existing and inequitable power relations between different sections of society. It is dangerous to engage in these debates when that means accepting rules designed to favour the status quo.

This is not a level playing field. Nor is the referee independent. 

Rather than play an unfair game, community artists need to engage in a political argument to defend the universal human right of cultural participation. This is not to undervalue the positive value that can flow from that participation. It is just that, unless we start from a claim of equality, we simply embed inequality into arts practice, even as we believe we are reducing it.

The photo above shows part of the filming for A Dead Good Life with the Lawnmowers