– Today, art's greatest value may be in creating a space in which we can meet each other
François Matarasso is a community artist, writer and researcher. At Nordic Dialogues 2 December, he talkes about cultural democracy.
Matarasso started his career working with theatre and visual art in local communities in England in the late 70s. He soon began to explore how people participate in art. Today, he continues to combine community arts practice with research and consultancy. He has worked in about 40 countries, from Colombia to Kyrgyzstan. Earlier this year, he published the book A Restless Art, How participation won and why it matters.
We asked him a few questions about what role art has to play in our communities.
Why is universal access to art and culture so important?
Art and culture – which are connected but different things – are central to how human beings make sense of their experience in and of the world.
– Through creative work, sometimes consciously, often not, we explore our beliefs, values, feelings, ideas and identities. We should no more be denied access to these material, intellectual and cultural resources than we should be denied access to education or health care. That is the meaning of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it does not lose its force because we are not yet willing or able to ensure that everyone can have access to their rights.
Can art be a force for change?
– I do not like the idea of art as a force to create change in society, partly because it suggests that someone who believes that they know what is good for the rest of us has the right to force their ideas through, and partly because it misunderstands how art influences us. It is one of art's great strengths that it resists – though not completely – being used as a way to make us think or feel in set ways. That mostly doesn't work because we, as spectators, readers and listeners, are not passive recipients of arts force, but active interpreters of what an artist has created. An artist proposes: the audience disposes.
Art does influence, but not in ways that anyone can control.
– Today, its greatest value may be in creating a space in which we can meet each other, discover the rich complexity of the human family and learn to listen, to share, and to care.
How can we define good art?
– We owe to the Enlightenment, and especially to figures such as Immanuel Kant, many of our ideas of artistic quality and aesthetics. Important as they are, those ideas are partial and incomplete. They reflect the tastes and beliefs of an 18th century European elite, not the diverse societies that make up the contemporary world.
– Nothing in art is fixed or permanent. A work's value – monetary as well as a cultural – fluctuates with the passage of time, with social changes, with the person who encounters it. Crucially, art can have no value independent of people. There is no discernible justification for setting one person's opinion of the value of a work of art above another. That is not to say that there are no standards. Some art is worth much more than most, but the only way we have of deciding that is through discussion that helps us understand how and why we each find (or don't find) value in it. What matters is not the ranking of artists or individual works, but the quality of the debate about important questions that sharing our ideas of worth can enable.
Meet Matarasso at Nordic Dialogues, 2-3 December
Matarasso will hold the backdrop speech, titled "Cultural Democracy", on the first day of the conference.
Policymakers, leaders, artists and cultural workers will meeting in Oslo to exchange knowledge and ideas. How can we realise the potential of a diverse Nordic region?
This conference is the result of the project "An Inclusive Cultural Sector in the Nordics" (2017-2019), led by Arts Council Norway. The Nordic Council of Ministers and the Norwegian Ministry of Culture has funded the project.