Digital technology is changing our lives in such profound ways that it’s not easy to understand what kind of society or culture will emerge. Past experience suggests that its new powers will have mixed consequences. Already it enables people both to share knowledge through Wikipedia and to threaten strangers on Twitter, and those are only its most obvious results. In art, the creative tools of digital technology have democratised the means of cultural production, publication and distribution to a degree that the first community artists might have worked for, but could not have foreseen. In the community printshop where I began learning about community art, people spent whole days discussing, designing and producing a single image to communicate an idea or event. Forty years later, it takes a few minutes to reach millions with a creative post on Instagram.
I’m not nostalgic (well I am, but I guard against it). I regard digital technology as empowering and emancipatory: the success of participatory art in recent years might not have happened without it. But this very ease of creative production can lure us into being satisfied with splashing about in the shallow end of art. That’s what I see too often in well-intentioned participatory art projects — attractive, easy art that everyone can feel good about because it has no real substance. It’s what often strikes me when I see a certain kind of exhibition presented in shopping centres and library foyers. Typically composed of photographic portraits of local people accompanied by a short text about their lives or views, the aim of ‘giving people a voice’ is not difficult to guess. These exhibitions can be interesting, and even moving, depending on the subjects involved. They can also be banal: the line between corporate marketing and participatory art is easily blurred, especially where the aim is ‘placemaking’.
It’s not that art must always be challenging or controversial. Public space is rarely the best place for confrontation. Rather my concern is that participatory art now relies too much on quick, easily made and good-looking work that offers merely an illusion of inclusion. Pressing an electronic shutter may be all that is needed to make a work of art, but that work may have no depth unless time has also been invested in developing ideas and material, experimenting with form, rejecting alternatives, talking, testing, and listening to responses. Good art matters, it needs to be made, not because someone is paying for it but because the artist wants to express something that cannot be said in any other way. Good art is rich, complex, multilayered: it eludes, even resists, simple interpretations. It is in no one’s service but its maker’s. Opening those ideas and practices to non-professional artists has always been the foundation of community art, which is why we have talked so much about process. It’s not easy, and it often fails to produce great art, but done well it always produces rewarding experiences that enable people to build on what they have gained.
Community art without a product is education, but community art without a process slides easily into manipulation. It is in the interaction of process and product, perhaps repeated many times, that people gain understanding, skill and confidence. Empowerment is not easily achieved, and it does not result from easy art.
These thoughts were inspired by some projects I’ve recently seen, but it’s not necessary (or fair) to single out any specific work. This photo of some attractive, but over-sweet, marzipan fruit serves as a stand in.