What is a ‘selfless’ art?

To be honest, I don’t yet know. For now, it’s a signpost, pointing in the direction that seems most promising. Whether it becomes a book, something else or perhaps a dead end will become clear only with time, but a title is important because it defines the possibilities and constraints of what I’m doing. Past titles include Wise Monkeys, The Terrible Dreams of Hercules Clay, The Ghost of Harvey Avenue, One Small Candle, Looking Back, Looking Forward, Regular Marvels, Use or Ornament?, Only Connect, Where We Dream, Wish You Were Here, A Restless Art—old banners fluttering over the landscape, each one marking a place of creative and human exchange. The projects without names—or whose names, like ‘Appletongate Mural’, lacking poetry don’t need italics—are hard to recall now. 

This one came to me as I waited in the cold March sun for a delayed train to Paris. I’d been thinking about the distance between what community artists—including me—believe and say about our work and the lived realities of the people we invite to create it with us. The work’s expressed ideals increasingly seemed at odds with the exploitative economic and social system within which it is being made. And I’d been thinking too about the political, ethical, theoretical and artistic misperceptions that have crowded around community art since I wrote Use or Ornament? 25 years ago. That gap between vision and life keeps widening as more people and institutions take ‘the social turn’

In the 1970s and 1980s, institutions like the Tate Gallery saw community art an existential threat—correctly, in my view. But the art establishment uses the old trick of divide and rule when face with such artistic challenges. After a period of resistance, it decrees that some of the innovative work can be considered art but the majority is too poor to meet the threshold. In their turn photography, jazz, film and comics have all received this treatment. Now it’s the turn of participatory art. Ideas and methods developed in the context of an emancipatory struggle are being adapted to protect the very centres of power they once challenged. The language of cultural democracy is applied to the practice of cultural democratisation, like a modern façade on an old building. 

So why A Selfless Art? As I’ve said, I’m not sure yet, but concepts of the self are at the heart of this difference of values. The art world, like the monotheistic religions with which it shares so much anthropological DNA, builds its value system on the individual—the visionary, inspired, erratic genius. That gold standard has excused almost every crime and transgression. 

Community art, at least for me, values the group, together and in its diverse members, recognising the essential interdependency of human life. It is selfless not only in the sense of valuing generosity, mutuality, trust and altruism, but because its energy does not come from the self but from the interaction of many selves. 

And that matters because the problems of a planet that is home to eight billion people will only be solved through co-operation. No superhero is waiting for the last moment to save us from our own mistakes. Our future depends on co-creating solutions that work for all because they involve all and a renewed vision of community art has a contribution to that process—perhaps as a signpost.