Someone recently suggested to me that I should speak of ‘Art in the Community’ because community art seemed to be a genre, like Pop Art. It was an interesting observation and I’m always glad to be reminded how differently ideas can be interpreted. Still, there are clear reasons why I continue to describe my work as community art after 35 years. One of them is that community art is a theory, not a genre or even a practice. It is rooted in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins:
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community [and] to enjoy the arts
Community art sees that right as reaching beyond the idea of giving people access to art, which might be what art in the community offers. Desirable as that may be, it’s not enough, since it leaves us as largely passive spectators rather than agents ‘in the cultural life of the community’. Community art, as first imagined in the 1960s and 1970s, takes Article 27 to mean that everyone should have access to the means of cultural production as well as consumption. Recognising that is not the case, community artists work so that more people do have the resources, training, knowledge and means to create their own artistic work on their own terms.
Why does that matter? What’s so important about being able to create your own art? Because art is a way of making sense of existence, of defining, expressing and values. Art enables us to represent ourselves in the world, in all sorts of ways that go beyond speech. And if we cannot represent ourselves, we are at the mercy of other people’s representation of us. Imagine a world where women’s experience was represented mainly in the creative production of men. Actually, that’s most of Western art history…
You can download an essay setting out that theory more fully by clicking on this link.
Community art is a rights-based theory about art’s place in the world. You cannot recognise community art by looking at it because it is not expressed in form or aesthetics: that’s why it is not a genre. It is a way of working – the enacting of a framework of ideas and values. Even then, it’s easily confused with participatory art, socially-engaged practice relational aesthetics, dialogic practice, new genre public art, community cultural development and the many other practices that have emerged since the 1960s, mostly as more or less conscious offshoots from, or reactions, to community art.
But community art, the original spark, remains clear and meaningful to me. Its practice is fascinating, inspiring and creative, and the need for it is as great as ever.
So thanks for raising the question: I welcome the chance to think and talk about this restless art. If you too see things differently, please use the comments space below to share your perspective.