Another Standard: How to judge community art

How do you judge a work of art? Even asking the question implies a series of judgements and beliefs. The best answer might be why do you need to judge it? Art asks only that you experience it. Perhaps art’s most interesting questions are about us, not itself: how do we respond to a work of art, and what can that response tell us about ourselves? 

Still, we are competitive beings, with egos that prod our most tender places. We judge and we fear judgement. The art world is gripped by reviews, prizes and rankings, promotion and relegation: judgements. And a lot rides on those judgements: sales, admiration, fame, grants, opportunities. Like it or not, judgement drives the art machine, in a symbiotic relationship with creativity, like oil and petrol in a two-stroke engine. 

These thoughts are prompted partly by seeing Go Tell The Bees at Bubbleton Farm, near Tenby, on Friday evening, but even more by what someone said to me when I asked them what they thought of it: ‘I don’t know’. Since the speaker was a senior person in the art world, their response stayed floating in my mind on the long drive home through Wales, on smaller roads for the pleasure of experiencing—not judging—its life-enhancing landscape. 

Two things struck me about this reaction. First, that it was not shared by the local people, audiences, community participants and artists, whose views I’ve been gathering as part of the project evaluation. At the risk of oversimplifying a thoughtful range of responses, it’s fair to say that they have been enthusiastic and appreciative of the project. Most importantly, no one has expressed any difficulty in knowing what to think about it. The second reason why that ‘I don’t know’ has stayed with me is because it suggests to me that Go Tell The Bees is doing something right. It’s because this art stretches current norms of theatre and performance that it is hard for an experienced professional to assess it.

And that, for me, is exactly what community art should be doing.

What I saw last Friday was the culmination of four years’ work by National Theatre Wales TEAM with communities, schools and voluntary groups in Pembrokeshire. TEAM is one of NTW’s most original initiatives, at once a network of artists at different stages in their careers, a platform for community projects, an experimental creative method, and an exercise in cultural democracy. The Pembrokeshire project, with a parallel initiative in Wrexham, is TEAM’s most ambitious work to date. Both have been made possible by four-year funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, that has supported an evolving participatory process with local people. It’s been a bumpy ride, but that’s no criticism: it’s inevitable when you leave the highway and try to find a new path to a different destination. 

The biggest bump, of course, was the pandemic, which brought lockdown six months before the project was due to produce a big community theatre production in September 2020. The people working on the project regrouped. Like so many artists in the last year, they moved work online, made new plans, cancelled them, started again, changed direction and kept going. Finally, the community play became a community film, drawing together a huge range of ideas and activities developed over the previous three years. In early May, a strictly limited and socially distanced audience was able to see the film for the first time at Manorbier Castle, alongside some of the artwork produced in schools. It was, by any standard, an impressive achievement, as well as a huge effort. The advantage of turning the final work into a film is that it has been possible to show it again, and during September NTW are presenting three screenings in different parts of Pembrokeshire, so that everyone who has been involved has a chance to see the result. You can get a glimpse of the film in the trailer below.

The film was the centrepiece of an evening that also included folk music, a choir, art exhibitions, food (for humans and animals) and a documentary about the Sea Empress disaster. In addition to their intrinsic qualities, all those things served as a net gathering a community around its shared experiences and values, and it was this that made the evening special, even for an outsider like me. I was reminded of other intimate moments I’ve experienced in tight-knit communities, such as ceilidh on a small Hebridean island, but this occasion was different—new memories, perhaps new traditions were being created from the combined hopes and fears of people living at a time of threatening changes.

There are many things I like and admire about Go Tell The Bees, the film and the wider project. Not everything works equally well, at least for me, and there are things I’d have done differently. But that’s often true of the art I encounter, and it doesn’t matter at all: as I said at the beginning, it says more about me than the art. What does matter is that the whole—which is much greater than the sum of its disparate parts—speaks powerfully in its context and for its community. It is moving, memorable and often beautiful. 

And, most of all, it doesn’t look like anything else. That’s why the professional told me they didn’t know what to think of it. That’s why I think Go Tell The Bees is doing something right. Its aesthetic form and language reflects the mingled sensibilities of professional and non-professional artists. No one could mistake it for anything other than what it is. The work I mistrust asserts a community participation that is impossible to see in formal terms. Then, a community’s ideas and stories have been used as raw material for a professional creation. That isn’t always bad, but it’s at the end of the co-creation spectrum I have least interest in and most concerns about. 

In the early 1980s, the National Association of Community Artists (The Shelton Trust) used to publish a regular magazine called ‘Another Standard’. I always loved that title, which, to me at least, spoke about the challenge that community art was making to the art establishment’s ideas of excellence and the exercise of power that came with them. It was never true that community artists had no standards, as their opponents have often claimed, it was just that they were trying to define other standards, based in different ideas of what art is and why it matters.

It’s a joy to see that so beautifully expressed in Go Tell The Bees and NTW TEAM’s work in Pembrokeshire. 

There are far too many people involved in this project for me to credit them all but I can’t end this without saluting local artist and NTW staff member Naomi Chiffi, the beating heart of Go Tell The Bees, and Devinda De Silva, NTW Head of Collaborations and the spirit of TEAM. All photos in this post were taken by me at Bubbleton Farm on 10 September 2021