Community art

Blowing on the embers of community art 

A text for ‘Signal Fires’, Fuel Theatre, 2022

Signal Fires

Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story.

John Berger, 2011, Bento’s Sketchbook, London, p. 87

No one intended to start a movement, not at first. It was only a matter of gathering what was to hand, materials, then people. The ancient ritual. Make a fire, make a circle. The heart, and the embrace. 

Look through the flames and the sparks; catch another’s eye. Start talking, tell a story, tell another. Make art. Make connection. Become a community. Become a movement.

The first community artists were survivors of a shipwreck. A stiff, stuffy monochrome decade was sinking, with its jobsworth rules and paternalism, its austerity and gratitude—Hurrah! Strike out for the Sixties, bright, fresh and above all young, a new generation coming of age in peace, health and prosperity, with unheard-of possibilities for education and creativity. Yes, to be young then could be very heaven.

Only later did those who came up on this beach miss some of what had gone in the flood. Childhood. Place. Community. Taken for granted and irreplaceable.

But they had eyes on other prizes. Some wanted the simple wealth and celebrity now accessible to ambitious, creative young people with (or despite) working class roots. Some wanted social change, transformation, a new Jerusalem: revolutions, even cultural ones, do go to the head. Some just wanted everyone to have the chances they’d had, and tried to connect art school (post-)modernism with working class culture in a spirit of empowerment. It was they who invented community arts in the 1960s and 1970s, doing their best to undermine the authority of some ancient but shabby institutions. 

They worked with what was at hand—unwanted buildings on peppercorn rents, scrap materials, money from the dole or government training schemes, all the flotsam and jetsam of a consumer society in flux. On these margins, it was always make do and mend, a version of wartime necessity, though a few who’d read French theory called it ‘bricolage’. And they made bonfires to attract kids and their parents—real ones, yes, with fireworks, giant puppets and the burning of parliament in papier-maché, but metaphorical ones too: inflatables and environments, playgrounds, murals, parades and festivals, anything to gather a crowd and so open a door for art to happen. 

Community art was art in public—but never the condescension of public art—because nothing, not least audiences, could be taken for granted. Make a splash, make a fire: when you have people’s attention, who knows what’s possible? 

Community artists set up camp in the poor parts of London, Leeds and Liverpool, Bath and Birmingham—what ministers and sociologists used to call the ‘inner city’. Without rules or models, without much help or encouragement, a generation of young people revealed a new territory of art-making, in the everyday, with everyone. 

They believed, and declared, that everyone is an artist, or at least that everyone can be an artist, if they have the resources and desire. Kingsley Amis snorted ‘only if making mud pies counts as art’, but who was listening to the club bore? The one thing community artists never lacked was people who wanted to make art, especially those who’d been told that they weren’t clever, educated, white, male, straight or able enough to do it, the ones who’d been instructed to know their place because they’d never amount to much, the ones who’d been sorted, to their lasting disadvantage, by the 11-Plus exam. They were legion and they were pushing at the door from the other side. Those with access and those without wanted the same thing: equal rights, for all—and a fair chance to tell their own stories.

No one intended to start a movement, but those first fires grew and spread; they glittered at each other across cities, new towns, estates and fields. Community artists saw what others were doing: they met, they talked, they found common ground, despite their differences. They built ideas and principles as well as bonfires. They scaffolded dreams with manifestos and campaigns. They heard about cultural democracy and made it their own. They became a movement.

That was fifty years ago—more. It’s history, nostalgia, irrelevant.

There are plenty who’ll tell you that community art failed, that working class artists lost their chance: behind populist greasepaint and vulgar tweets, the elite is back in charge. The rhetoric of social change was just that, they say, vanity and illusion. Community art was rolled up, like so much else, by the neoliberal hegemony. Who needs art when the state supplies bread and circuses, Universal Credit and Netflix? 

Perhaps they’re right, if you believe the movement was about replacing the existing order. That didn’t happen. On the contrary, it was post-war social democracy that was overthrown, by technology, financial greed and political hubris. The challenge of the inner city was solved by inflaming property values, and shunting the people who lived there into ever more constrained spaces. A zero-hours contract takes all the time in the world: life then is nothing but make do and mend.

Since the 1980s, community art has kept its head down, always moving on forged papers. It goes by other names, at the risk of forgetting its own identity. It is contraband, passed discreetly from hand to hand, with stories. Yet its influence keeps growing. The idea that everyone can an artist is no longer controversial: it is a given, or more accurately, a taken.

The fires lit in the 1960s went out, or seemed to, stamped on, neglected, doused in cold political water. But fire, like ideas, like stories, like hope, is tenacious. It can live quiet and long, waiting for new fuel, for air.  Nothing lasts for ever; not much lasts very long. The Washington Consensus is sapped by its own inconsistencies, and by the external forces of pandemic and climate change. Another ship is going down.

With it will go an art world become once again complacent, financialised, consumed. The sponsorship and retail on which it has thrived since the 1980s have ended with a virus that makes people wary of crowds. Pack ‘em in and sell it high no longer holds. The institutions will regroup, they always do. It’s much harder for the freelancers and self-employed artists, especially those different voices, other stories, already struggling for credit at the margins. It is in one another that they must find solidarity, as the weak have always done.  There is always strength in community.

On the beach, the embers of community art are glowing. A new generation will gather what it can, what it needs and wants. It will find a heart and an embrace, make do and mend. Dream. Rediscover and invent. Blow on the coals, make friends and allies. Make a community. A movement.

Signal Fires – A book in Six Parts, edited by Maddy Costa, Fuel Theatre 2022

A collection of texts written and shared from Signal Fires 2020: short plays, monologues, prose and poems, intimate and fierce. With them comes a new invitation: to gather around a fire of your own – be it a bonfire, a candle, or even a torch – with friends or strangers, to collaborate and connect. Share these texts again or write new ones to perform alongside them; speak up, sing out, and light new ways forward, out of the dark.