Playing and reality – potential space for creativity

This section considers other disciplines that are relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) and are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; and the carnivalesque. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the eighth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The third post in this section briefly discusses playing and reality.

Notes on Participatory Art (2010) by Almenberg is gives an interesting and primarily historical perspective on participatory art. The author is interesting, not just because he coined the phrase for an exhibition of his work in the early 1980s, but also because he was a psychodynamic psychotherapist for more than twenty-five years. The book is not primarily about art as therapy but does contain a very interesting allusion to D.W. Winnicott’s theories of play and creativity. In participatory art, as Almenberg explains, ‘neither the object nor the beholder is the focus of the situation. Rather, the focus is the very act of creating. Participatory art is “the beholder in action” using personal choice and intuition as primary tools’ (Almenberg, 2010, p. 5). He relates this psychodynamic perspective to D.W. Winnicott’s ‘“discovery” in the 1950s of a third kind of reality, that is neither the inner nor the outer reality… Winnicott called this play and included it within the wider context of culture and art’ (Almenberg, 2010, p. 5). This is an area of psychoanalytic, object-relations theory that offers a completely alternative route to potentially understanding socially engaged arts practice from the perspectives of both participants and artists than those (cognitive behavioural psychology, neuroscience, etc.).


Winnicott was a leading psychoanalyst who is well known in that field for theories including the true self and false self, the ‘good-enough’ mother, transitional objects, etc. But it is his works around playing, creativity and ‘potential spaces’ that are of particular interest to this research. Living Creatively, an essay in Home Is Where We Start From (1970), by Winnicott sets the basis for his seminal work, Playing and Reality (1971). In Living Creatively, Winnicott states his belief that:

‘To be creative a person must exist and have a feeling of existing, not in conscious awareness, but as a basic place to operate from… Creativity is then the doing that arises out of being’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 39).

Winnicott is clearly positioning creativity as distinct from cognition. He goes on to warn against the creatively stifling effects of excessive state controls on society when he explains that:

‘By creative living I mean not getting killed or annihilated all the time by compliance or by reacting to the world that impinges; I mean seeing everything afresh all the time. I refer to apperception as opposed to perception’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 41).

Winnicott more fully develops these concepts in Playing and Reality, in which he explains ‘creative apperception’ as being the primary process ‘that makes the individual feel that life is worth living’ whereas relating to external realities dominated by compliance constructs a world ‘only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation’, creating ‘a sense of futility for the individual’ that can result in ‘the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 65). To Winnicott then, his theory is based upon ‘a belief that living creatively is a healthy state, and that compliance is a sick basis for life’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 65). He locates this place of living creatively and cultural experience as situated ‘in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object)’; he links this concept to play and early childhood experience, explaining that ‘[c]ultural experience begins with creative living first manifested as play… life experiences that take place at the early stages of the individual’s existence’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 100).

The postulating of a ‘potential space’ is particularly relevant, not just to child development, but also to the types of experiences that may frequently occur in socially engaged arts projects (including radical interventions). The concept could perhaps be further developed and theorised by further exploring this. As Winnicott explains, ‘For me, playing leads on naturally to cultural experience and indeed forms its foundation’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 106). He describes the characteristics of this theory as follows:

‘The potential space between baby and mother, between child and family, between individual and society or the world, depends on experience [derived from play] which leads to trust. It can be looked upon as sacred to the individual in that it is here that the individual experiences creative living… By contrast, exploitation of this area leads to a pathological condition in which the individual is cluttered up with persecutory elements of which he has no means of ridding himself’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 103).

He explains the ‘third type of reality’ – potential space – as contrasting with external and internal realities by describing them as follows:

‘Looking first at external reality and the individual’s contact with external reality in terms of object-relating and object-usage, one sees that external reality itself is fixed… [Similarly] inner psychic reality… is to be seen as a fixity that belongs to inheritance, to the personality organization, and to environmental factors introjected and to personal factors projected.’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 106)

For Winnicott, the potential space an ‘area available for manoeuvre in terms of the third way of living (where there is cultural experience or creative playing) is extremely variable as between individuals’ because this space is ‘a product of the experiences of the individual person (baby, child, adolescent, adult) in the environmental that obtains’ (Winnicott, 1999 [1971], p. 107). The implications of this theory for future research in relation to socially engaged practice span the full spectrum, from collaborative working to understanding participant responses to interventions differently to perhaps developing democratic ways of living creatively, based as it is on the understanding that ‘… for creative living we need no special [artistic] talent’ (Winnicott, 1990 [1970], p. 44).  Perhaps, then, practitioners and researchers can learn much by thinking of how to create a supportive space where art can be experienced as ‘play’ by participants in the sense described by Winnicott?


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