The British community arts movement was a loose grouping of artists who began their professional lives during the 1960s and 1970s. Their artistic and political ideas varied, as did their backgrounds, training and interests. Some had been educated at art schools and identified as artists. Others, trained in youth work, community development or political activism, saw themselves differently. They worked in public art (especially murals) theatre, adventure playgrounds, carnival, community printshops, video, writing, music and many other forms. London had the largest concentration of community arts projects in Britain, but they existed in every city, from Glasgow to Plymouth, in new towns like Telford and Milton Keynes, and in rural areas including the Peak District and Devon.
In all their diversity, community artists had one thing in common. They believed that everyone could create art if they had the resources and support to do so. They wanted to make art collaboratively, with and for communities, in places and ways that validated people’s own culture. They mostly had little interest in individual practice or careers, though the artists’ own vision and aesthetics often had a greater influence than they recognised. Their project grew from a rejection – particularly by those who had attended art school – of art world values, which they saw as detached from and careless of most people’s concerns. Some of community art’s early originality arose from the attempt to reconcile avant-garde ideas with everyday culture and traditions.
The idea of taking the arts to the people was not new. It had long shaped cultural philanthropy in Britain, from the civic galleries of Victorian cities to the Shakespeare productions touring industrial towns in the 1930s. The community arts movement was innovative – and radical – in rejecting the idea of educating the poor to appreciate the culture of the rich. Instead, the movement asserted the right of working people to create their own art, rooted in their own experience and values, and their capacity to do that as well as anyone else with fair access to the resources of creative production. Where others spoke of democratising culture, community artists argued for cultural democracy.
Community arts challenged the distribution of cultural resources and, more profoundly, the legitimacy of the institutions claiming to judge what was artistically worthwhile and what was not. It was a far-reaching idea that provoked a fiercely defensive response from the art establishment, which protected itself by asserting that community art was just bad art. The central argument over community art was always about artistic quality, but it was not really about the work itself. It was about who was entitled to determine its value(s). When the institutional art world sought to reject such work artistically, ex cathedra, it was not just defending certain ideas about art. It was also defending its authority as judge of the value of art.
The community arts movement was therefore an inherently political project and it attracted people with leftist sympathies. But there were at least two interpretations of its politics. For some, community art was a project to undermine the authoritarianism of an elitist art world. For others, that was an expression of and contribution to the struggle for socialism. Arguments about this weakened the community arts movement in the 1970s and led to its collapse in the 1980s. After that, few people talked about community arts as a movement. The political context had changed anyway, with the neoliberal ascendancy cemented by a third Conservative government in 1987. Some community artists left to do other things. The rest dug in and started talking about their work as participatory art.
- To read more about this history, you can download this essay: ‘All in this Together’: The depoliticisation of Community Art in Britain 1970-2011