Can you teach community art?

TL;DR? No.

In the 1980s, when the first generation of community artists had been around for long enough to feel they understood the territory they’d discovered, and were beginning to cast their eye over other lands, with different attractions and rewards, there was a lot of talk about how to pass on to others what they had learned. Documenting the practice became a concern, though it rarely went beyond accumulating boxes of papers and photos that would, decades later, be thrown out or, in a few cases, find their way into a university archive. Training was another priority. Mostly, that meant away days organised by community artists themselves, but in included the experimental ethos of Dartington College of Art courses, and the apprenticeship scheme financed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (which was my own way in).  

As a young person discovering and committed to this work, I remember feeling a responsibility to help others come up the same ladder that I’d been offered, and I don’t think I was alone in that. Many of my friends in the Association for Community Artists shared this preoccupation with opening up the field to everyone. We knew the territory because we lived and worked in it, but we had no maps for visitors or hopeful residents. There was a lot of reflection and debate about how those maps might be drawn, and by whom. Mapping, after all, is an interpretation of reality. It has the power to impose a narrative on the ground. Who can be trusted with that? 

Conceptualising and codifying everyday practice was one problem. Another, which I found more tricky, was how to pass on the knowledge. What matters in community art is not what you to but how you do it. It was easy to offer courses in art techniques—I was taught to screen-print, build puppets, paint faces, print photographs and breathe fire—but that was the surface, the form. What I was learning in using those skills was how to be with people, how to involve them in creative work, how to help without taking over, how to win trust, and how to use properly the trust that people invested in me. I was also learning how to manage expectations, mine and other people’s, what I could ask of people and what was too much, when and why. I was learning what I was willing to give, and what I needed or wanted to keep for myself, how to be honest and truthful in difficult conversations, how to resolve conflict, accept disappointment and live with what is, not what you wish it would be.

These and all the other human lessons that come from doing work that matters with others were the heart of community art to me, and still are. It’s always been about how you do it, which is why there are as many ways of doing community art well as there are of painting, or writing or singing well. Art lies in the coming together of craft and character. 

And I didn’t know how to teach that, especially not how to train people in any of that. (I’ve always disliked the idea of training, which is something we do to puppies and has nothing to do with how we learn to be with one another.) I still don’t know how to teach community art, which is why I don’t try. The best I can do is to accompany people, to be with, to be together. Then we learn from each other, by observation, by imitation, almost by osmosis. It’s how artists have always learnt from one another. It’s exciting when a guitarist shows you open tuning, but it’s the person who draws you in, not the technique.  

That was a long time ago, and everything has changed. Community art has evolved with the society in which it exists. It lacked the resources—temporal, financial and perhaps theoretical too—to define a praxis that could be protected from appropriation by those who did have the time and money (if not the theory) to take what territory they wanted: cultural institutions and the academy. Now participatory art is taught, and practitioners (another word I disklike) are trained. 

Other artists taught me what I know about the craft of making art, and I’m very grateful to them. But it’s from the people with whom I’ve worked that I learned about community art. From them and with them, I learned everything that matters.

Above: ‘The Cabbage Field Opera’, performed by Lower Šančiai Community Association (Kaunas, Lithuania) in Differdange, Luxembourg, June 2022 (photo by François Matarasso)

1 Comment

  1. As always you challenge the language that I use in a way that make me want to change it! I have spent many days and hours passing on my learning in community music practice and in creative musicmaking. I certainly don’t think of it as training but it is often branded as such. It is always a voyage of discovery for me and the people in the room with certain techniques at the centre. And as you say the learning that I pass on has been informed and guided by the people I have worked with year on year.

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