All inclusive art making

By Professor Shaun McNiff

Impediments to inclusion permeate the arts, empowered by assumptions about quality expression, talent, the nature of art, and who can and cannot make it. These views are broadly internalised by the outliers many of us want to involve in creation, maximising their repressive powers. There is nothing more effective in discouraging participation than a deep-seated belief, reinforced by past experience, of not being good enough. When these inhibitions are combined with institutional restraints, the barriers are daunting.

... participants choose to attend and yet they still resist, especially when given the opportunity to become involved with unfamiliar areas or where they feel vulnerable. Artistic expression is by nature uncertain and revealing, thus risky and arguably working best when not completely subject to our controls.

Compare this situation to overflowing fitness centres suggesting physical, mental, social, and general health benefits at all levels of participation; where quality and development are determined by what a person can do. Similar potential exists in the arts but our attitudes are hardwired to exclude and resist. Why do we not realise that creative expression is the life force? It heals and transforms impossible afflictions into affirmation of life, sometimes even saves lives. And in the conceptual sphere, it explores and explicates complex problems and issues inaccessible to linear thought. What is it about our ruling paradigms that so completely exclude the integral intelligence of imagination?

For just about fifty years I have been working to establish egalitarian approaches to artistic expression. However, I have found that when invited to become involved, people in all parts of the world tend to resist and fear - rather than passive disinterest, the opposition is ardent. In the situations where I most often work, participants choose to attend and yet they still resist, especially when given the opportunity to become involved with unfamiliar areas or where they feel vulnerable. Artistic expression is by nature uncertain and revealing, thus risky and arguably working best when not completely subject to our controls. Add these things to the elitist assumptions of artistic cultures and it is natural people resist.

Group members motivate each other and rather than judge, they reflect on another’s expression, communicate what they perceive, sometimes with art, and expand the impact.

Some have tried to welcome broader participation by encouraging pure process with little concern for outcomes. In my work, process is always informed by the things we create, acting as partners in a reciprocal relationship. I see that quality matters. People everywhere strive to express themselves as well as possible and then perfect expression through practice if they are able to stay with a particular discipline. I try to support natural and confident expression, with more inclusive and reality-based perspectives on artistic quality appreciating how gestures and movements have an inherent tendency to manifest themselves as effectively as possible. Rather than judging expression by standards that marginalise whatever does not fit the prevailing value or trend, authenticity and uniqueness are established as criteria of excellence, beauty, and wonder.

When trying to help people relax the inevitable resistance, I encourage them to feel that creative expression is as accessible as breath and a fundamental force of nature. This approach is modelled by young children making art, before judgement replaces spontaneity. If we align with nature’s creation, there are no "outsider" artists. Everything depends upon the quality of attention that we give to the spectrum of art and an appreciation for its unlimited diversity emerging through each new creative act.

In practice I have found the most effective means to enhance creative expression is the establishment of supportive group environments, small cultures and communities unto themselves that have the back of every person willing to make and show art. Group members motivate each other and rather than judge, they reflect on another’s expression, communicate what they perceive, sometimes with art, and expand the impact. Creative acts multiply and the overall atmosphere becomes the primary outcome with each person’s work making its necessary contributions.

I have always felt that vital groups are the way to achieve deep inclusion, working from the assumption that the strongest communities affirm a shared humanity together with infinite differences. We shift the one-sided focus on individual creation to creating with others, even with solitary art forms like painting and writing where the creative energy of the group slipstream supports us all. Why not complement individual performance in education with collective and inclusive works? Imagine departments of art in every medium recognizing the genius of groups creating together with a common purpose while approaching individual work with appreciation for boundless variance as in nature. I think it will be good for art and the world.


In the early 1970’s Shaun McNiff created the first graduate programs to integrate all of the arts in therapy and education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he is now University Professor. In 1998 he wrote the initial book on Art-Based Research. Other books include, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Art as Medicine, Creating with Others, Art Heals, Art as Research, and Imagination in Action: Secrets for Unleashing Artistic Expression. He is currently furthering East Asian contributions to art and healing through the Beijing based journal Creative Arts Education and Therapy: Eastern and Western Perspectives. For additional information see https://www.shaunmcniff.com/