Is there a community arts movement once more?

ICAF (the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam) has just published a photo book of the 2017 edition, and an hour long documentary film. Last year’s festival was the first one I’d attended (though I did speak at a mini-ICAF a few years ago) and I loved the atmosphere, and learning something about community art in places as different as China, Nicaragua and the United States. I came away, as I have from other recent gatherings such as PARTIS, the Jornadas and MEXE, impressed by the diversity, creativity and courage of community artists now. ICAF is a festival where the artist is at the centre, and that raises some questions that I’ll come back to another time.

For now it’s the strength that comes from bringing these people together that matters, because it feels like a movement of shared values and political engagement. At ICAF, sense a common purpose inspiring people to want to work together, even though they are struggling to do their own work, even though they have disagreements, even though the powerful don’t make much space for them, even though – or do I mean because? I can’t say whether a community art movement exists or is emerging. Perhaps anyway, it’s better to think of movements – locally rooted, engaged in national struggles, and drawing strength from friends elsewhere. With that in mind, here’s the text I wrote on the subject for the ICAF 2017 photo book.

Birth, death and rebirth of a movement

Written for ICAF in early 2018

In Britain, community art existed for a couple of decades, between the late 1960s and the late 1980s. Of course, it had antecedents stretching back to the early 19thcentury. It had friends and allies, too, especially in adult education and radical politics. And it has had successors, many of them – indeed, there are now far more people involved in community art than in its heyday, although few of them use that term to describe what they do.

But in that 20 year period, a lot of people did call themselves community artists or, sometimes, community art workers. To do so was to separate them, their ideas and their work from the art world, which they saw as bound up with power and uninterested in the lives of most people. Because it set out to challenge the dominant ideologies of art, community art was also a political development. That is to say, it self-consciously set out to change some aspects of social organisation, in this case, art and culture. And so, like other political activists, community artists saw themselves as a movement.

They saw themselves as involved in a common project and they identified with colleagues. The Association of Community Artists (ACA) was established in 1973 to provide mutual support and a united voice that could speak to the institutions of power, especially the Arts Council of Great Britain, which was responsible for financing the arts. In the Western, post-Enlightenment tradition artists place a high value on individual freedom: they do not have a strong record of collective action. Even the creation of the ACA demonstrated that community artists saw themselves differently and recognised that their political ideas would not be advanced except through such organisation.

However, as is so often the case in radical politics, community artists were as concerned with the integrity of their vision as with its implementation. Their ideas may have been powerful and in tune with wider social change at the time, but trying to influence art world institutions required compromise. The most basic question was whether to accept grants from the Arts Council. Some community artists thought that doing so enabled them to work and affected that institution’s attitudes and behaviour. Others believed it prevented community art from challenging the oppressive social structures they wanted to overthrow.

The internal divisions were often pursued more bitterly than the arguments with power, which encouraged them, as usual, by assimilating the artists it found least threatening while marginalising others. Tensions within the community art movement came to a head at a national conference in 1986, following which the ACA collapsed in acrimony. The idea of community art as a movement was at an end. Some of those involved left the field, while others recast their work as participatory art – less political and collective, but more acceptable to the art world. That response can be criticised from one perspective and celebrated from another. Participatory art has, after all, proved to be something of a Trojan Horse that may yet bring down the art world citadel.

ICAF (2017) François Matarasso - 13

However people interpret the shift from community art to participatory art, they tend to see it within the narrow frame of art history. But the end of community art coincided with the triumph of neoliberalism, the ascendancy of right-wing politics and the collapse of communism. Community art, which was politically leftist, was a minor casualty of that struggle compared to nationalised industry, trade unionism, social housing and so much more. Community art ended for complex reasons, but above all because it was on the losing side of a global ideological war. And yet, its ideas and practice – which, as already said, were much more in keeping with the deeper social changes of the later 20thcentury than those of the art world – have thrived in the subsequent 30 years.

Those decades have also revealed neoliberalism’s fault-lines, most dramatically in the financial collapse of 2007-08 and its aftermath. The West has experienced years of economic depression, social upheaval, military insecurity and humanitarian misery. The massive rejection of political elites has produced chaotic administrations and seen the emergence of new movements from Occupy to UKIP from the Indignados to PEGIDA. These are frightening, anarchic days, as the meltwaters of the Cold War’s dangerous stability remake the landscape.

But in these unstable times, I see community artists – whatever they now call themselves – responding with new ideas, ambitious and political, driven once again by questions of social justice, morality and collective action. In Portugal and Spain, Greece and Turkey, in Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, in places across the world of which I know little, community art work is springing up, often without state support or sanction and sometimes consciously challenging the existing order. And in people’s growing awareness of past experience and present practice, in their discourse, exchanges and gatherings I also see the beginnings of something that might be a movement.

ICAF (2017) François Matarasso - 4

Whether it is the Jornadas sobre la Inclusión Social y la Educación en las Artes Escénicasor the Encontro Internacional de Arte e Comunidadein the Iberian peninsula, the Tandem Exchanges in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, or at ICAF, oldest and largest community art festival in Europe I seem to be witnessing the emergence of a community arts movement for our times. It is much larger and more diverse than its British predecessor, while its global reach and local roots make it both stronger and harder to understand. It needs the space created by ICAF and its peers not just to learn, grow and share practice but also to become conscious of itself and its potential.

We are living in troubled times and art is not a solution. But community art, of the kind showcased, celebrated and questioned at ICAF, allows people to work together and find their own solutions. And with its roots in human rights, democracy and social justice community art offers those with the fewest material resources a powerful method for using their human resources, individually and collectively. I hope for a new community art movement capable of empowering the  powerless and look to ICAF and others to support its development. It is important now, and it is needed.