Coming together: midwinter thoughts about community

Eriskay Ceilidh 1996
Ceilidh in Eriskay Community Hall 1996

On 24 December 2015, the Beatles allowed their music to be streamed online for the first time. The most frequently played song since the launch is ‘Come Together’.

The European winter brings people together. Nights are long and cold and wet, even without snow. Gathering round the fire for a little cheery feasting and familiar tales to pass the time are ancient customs. Christian theology adapted to existing practices as it came North from its warmer heartland, finding common ground in an idea of community. In midwinter, when cold and hunger threaten each individually, the affirmation of community is literally vital. That might be what people mean when they evoke the spirit of Christmas.

Community is not just a powerful need: it is a complicated idea. Every group, in defining itself, excludes others. Our need for belonging can also be manipulated.  Because, as Raymond Williams observed, it ‘never seems to be used unfavourably’, the word has been exploited for power and wealth. Its use to mask ideology or self-interest has left it tarnished. And so some are now cynical not just of the word, but of the idea too. In Britain, what was once called community art is veiled with the much more ambiguous term, ’participatory’.

But this is not just a matter of words. In thinking about community, and working with groups who identify as communities – whether defined by place, experience or commitment – artists connect with key ideas about society, politics and art. Disregarding this rich territory has sometimes left participatory art seeming merely rhetorical by comparison with its older relation.

We start the new year at midwinter, looking to dawn, renewal, the chance of something better. In the deepest night, hope is humanity’s secret resource. When news bulletins speak of conflict and suffering, artists could do worse than renew their thinking about community in all its complicated senses. In the end, it is true that we are all in this together.