Safari park lions

BBC Radio has just broadcast a programme entitled ‘Everyone is an Artist’. It’s part of Archive on 4, a series that uses the BBC’s unparalleled historic recordings to reflect on the past and how we see it today. This episode, presented by Cambridge University art historian James Fox and inspired by a Turner Prize shortlist that includes five groups of artists, focused on ‘some of the manifestations of public and community art that have captured the attention of the British public over the last 50 years’.

Fox considered a rich spectrum of projects from the Living Archive in Milton Keynes to Turner Prize nominees Project Art Works, and heard from many professional and non-professional artists, as well as experts such as Su Braden, Roger Kitchen and Sophie Hope; there’s even a cameo by Tony Benn. The mix of archive voices, current perspectives and Fox’s informed and generous commentary made for an enjoyable hour, and an indispensable listen for anyone who cares about community art.

Why then was I left with mixed feelings? Mostly, I think, because this was another insider’s look at ‘outsider’ art. When I read this text on the programme website, it struck me that it might be more accurate to replace ‘the public’ by ‘the art world’:

This ‘movement’, for want of a better term, continues to intrigue, puzzle, delight, and exasperate the public to whom it is offered. But what is it? Does it change society? Is it good? How do we assess it? Or are we hampered by an outdated and hard-to-shake-off idea of what an artist is, and how and where they present their work to us?

It’s the grandees, critics, stars and administrators of the art establishment, that have been sometimes intrigued, frequently puzzled, rarely delighted, and absolutely exasperated by community art for half a century. But successive strategies of resisting, ignoring and disparaging it have all proved ineffective: people have continued making and enjoying community art regardless. So, in the past couple of decades, the art world has begun cautiously to appropriate it, on its own terms, and using its standards to assess it. The result is like a safari park lion—a safe thrill that brings the punters in. And rather sad to anyone who knows its natural habitat.

The presenter approached community art as would an ethnographer interpreting an unfamiliar society through the standards of his own tribe. The closer the work was to the familiar ideas of the art world, the easier it was to appreciate. The programme was made with care and sensitivity, and as I say, it’s a very good listen, but, like much about the art world, it left me with mixed feelings.

The photo is a detail of ‘Lionheart‘ (2012) by Shauna Richardson, photograph by FM