‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
L.P. Hartley, The Go Between (1953)
Part of what interested me, in the years I’ve been thinking about this project, was the history of community arts. I felt that the story of community arts in Britain – particularly the first 25 years – was neglected when people talked about socially engaged art and the pioneers, with all their knowledge, are ageing now. I evoked some of that in a long essay, All in This Together, that compared community arts as it was when I’d become involved with today’s much larger (but also much looser) field of participatory art.
But two things have changed my perspective on that. First, others have begun to document, archive and write about that first generation of community arts in the UK. Academics, artist-researchers and community artists have begun using the Internet as place to organise and make available their knowledge of the past. People were already talking about the need to tell their own history at community arts conferences in the late 1970s. It’s finally happening.
And people are meeting and debating this legacy, as in the recent conference Community Arts? Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives. I’ve just read the interesting report on it by Emma Sumner and now I’m wondering about the influence of a historical perspective. The recent past is a strange place, simultaneously close and remote. It’s hard to see it clearly or assess it fairly. For those involved, it is natural to tell their stories, particularly when they involve life-defining struggles. But what the next generation needs is an understanding of the contexts, ideologies, forces and values involved in those struggles – because that might help today’s artists make choices about today’s opportunities.
And that is the other reason why the historical aspect of community arts, while still relevant to this project, has become less important to me. What seems really urgent is how artists can do valid work with people that makes a difference at a time of danger, upheaval and fragility History matters if we can learn from it and do our work better. Otherwise, I prefer to leave it to the historians. Let’s talk about the next project.