Thank you to Jane Woddis from some further thoughts on ideas about dissent. It’s great to see these debates continuing.
In an earlier post on this website (April 5, 2017), Alison Jeffers wrote about the idea of community artists as dissenters. Starting from Clare Higney’s view of community artists as people who strive to ensure that ‘the door’ stays ‘open’, she refers to ideas from several writers and activists on some key aspects of dissent. These include the centrality of dissent to ‘democratic governance’ and to politics itself (Ivie 2005), and the role of dissent in keeping ‘an alternative vision alive’ (Williams 1961). Alison suggests that this is a productive lens through which we can regard community artists, both past and present.
In a response to that blog (April 23, 2017), Francois Matarasso warned of the danger of romanticising dissent. I think some romanticising may be going on, but I wonder whether it might be not so much about a rosy view of dissent, but more in relation to our view of community artists. Perhaps there is a tendency – understandable given the frequent marginalisation of this area of practice – to give a romantic inflection to our defence of community arts work and its practitioners. While much valuable and inspiring work was undertaken and achieved, we have not been immune to mistakes, flaws and mistaken directions. (It is one of the positive features of Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art, that it does not iron out those shortcomings nor underplay the difficulties and complications of the circumstances in which community arts was operating.)
However, Francois’s main point – that the value of dissent is not an ‘unqualified good’ – does not, I feel, take us very far. His reasoning is that the content of dissent can embrace a very wide range of viewpoints, including those he has strong disagreement with. However, there are also other aspects of democratic life – debate, participation, protest, negotiation – about which one could make a similar point; but we should not downplay their importance because of their use by people we disagree with. They are all, including dissent, necessary for an active and engaging democracy.
As I have written elsewhere (Woddis 2014), the work that arts practitioners do, and the networks, debates and policy development they are engaged in, are part of civil society – that area of involvement in society that ‘operates beyond or between the spheres of state and the market’ and which is crucial to a fully-functioning democracy. Participation and dialogue – in which the possibility of dissent is always present – are central to the existence and meaning of civil society, and need to be actively nurtured and kept alive. Moreover, the arts has a special role to play: it is a means for both imagining a deeply democratic society and through its practices embodying and nurturing the values of democratic life.
And so I question Francois’s view that the value and legitimacy of dissent is predicated on its content. We can ‘find [the] arguments wrong on every level’, as he suggests, but that should not detract from the need to protect the principle of dissent itself. Indeed, the protection of dissent helps to open up discussion because it recognises the importance of a wide range of views being put forward and given the opportunity to be closely examined. Of course this brings us into the realm of what is ‘allowable’ and the politics and debates surrounding ‘free expression’. In an earlier article, on religious protests against arts productions and their effect on cultural policy (Woddis, 2011), I noted that the discourse around these events was often framed in terms of the ‘right’ of artists to ‘give offence’. But this inevitably leads to the ‘right to take offence’ by those opposing the works of art; and once that happens, those who say they are personally offended do not have to enter into any further conversation – the fact that they have been offended is presented as being enough. The idea of dissent is therefore an important antidote to the notion of ‘taking offence’, because it recognises the need for dialogue rather than the shutting down of opinions. The playwright Arnold Wesker speaks of art as a place ‘where one can courageously pose dangerous questions’ (Wesker 2004); but he also distinguishes between on the one hand what he describes as ‘gratuitous’ and ‘calculated’ offence (the former arising from ignorance and the latter aiming to hurt and show contempt) and on the other hand ‘unavoidable’ offence which is part and parcel of social interaction and should be responded to by argument and discussion rather than the closing down of debate.
Thus I agree more with Francois’s comments made some years previously, that public policy should act as a ‘referee’ to create ‘a level playing field for other actors’, where the rules must ‘ensure that the voices of all the members of a society can be heard’ (Many Voices: The importance of cultural diversity in democratic society. http//homepage.mac.com/matarasso/FileSharing20.html). We might consider this to be a key framework within which community arts work is carried out, and that ensuring there is a space for all voices to be heard is an aim, and hopefully an outcome, of community arts.
It is not necessarily that community artists have more of a role in defending, encouraging and articulating dissent than other arts practitioners. But perhaps there is something different about community artists’ dissenting voice and practice (in distinction, for example, from the politically-engaged playwright or visual artist creating work for a mainstream theatre or gallery). Rather than looking only at the content of dissenting arts, we should especially be considering what or who the dissent is in relation to: is it an expression directed at the powerful or at those with limited or no power? As Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art clearly conveys, community artists work mostly with those who have the least power and therefore play a part in enabling the disenfranchised to express their views and find a platform for them. Thus, (without wishing to paint an overly-rosy picture of the position!) it is by virtue of this role that community artists can be said to be dissenters from the prevailing ethos and structures which deny expression to those not in power.
Dr Jane Woddis is an independent cultural researcher who has worked professionally for many years in community arts, theatre-in-education, and community and workplace research and education. She is an Associate Fellow in the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies at the University of Warwick.
 Woddis, Jane (2014) ‘Arts practitioners in the cultural policy process: spear-carriers or speaking parts?’ International Journal of Cultural Policy, 20:4, pp 496-512.
 Woddis, Jane (2011) ‘Religious protest and its impact on cultural policy’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 17:2, pp 209-224.
 Wesker, Arnold ‘Can offence be avoided in this life?’, The Independent, 22nd December 2004, p.27.