Newsletter subscriber Stephen Pritchard reviews Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement edited by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty.
Community arts has always been ignored and derided by the art establishment. It was always a weed. Yet its influences on participatory arts, socially engaged art and a myriad of other cultural regeneration and development initiatives is undeniable, if sometimes un- or under-said.
Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art aims to redress this relative lack of accessible thinking and writing about the practice; a timely intervention that is particularly relevant to our precarious ways of living and practising art today. Its editors, Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty, have brought together a range of interesting authors who themselves invoke many voices from the heyday of Community Arts to the present.
The intention of Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art is to map the trajectory of community arts and its various progeny from the 1968 protests to identify how they have influenced contemporary social art practices and cultural policy. The editors argue that community arts was a ‘movement’ built upon loosely defined notions of art, politics and relationships which began in 1968 and ended in 1986.
But rather than adopting a strictly chronological approach, the book examines several connected themes collected in two parts. The first part looks at notions of experimentation and growth within the community arts movement; the second explores ideas and practices sometimes loosely, sometimes closely connected to cultural democracy.
All the chapter authors offer a unique perspective and the range of differing perspectives about the movement and its aftermath becomes apparent as one reads the book. Yet the book is also structured in such a way that readers can read chapters in any order and still be rewarded.
There is, however, an argument that develops as the book progresses. Quoting Raymond Williams, Alison Jeffers suggests that community arts, in reflecting working-class culture, democracy, trade unions, cooperatives, and politics, was a revolutionary attempt to liberate ‘the idea of culture’ from the grasp of fine art.
Gerri Moriarty isn’t sure that community arts was a movement with a shared philosophical position or goals but she is certain that community artists wanted ‘to change the established order’. She reveals that when she began her career, she didn’t realise how easily the arts establishment would appropriate community arts practice.
For Moriarty, many arts engagement projects today may derive in some way from community arts but in a diluted form that, whilst enjoyable, do not encourage collective making ‘through a sharing of professional and non-professional expertise’ and, rather than challenging the status quo, they may disempower and marginalise participants. The sense that community arts was appropriated by the institution of art a long time ago is one which permeates this text.
The chapters are diverse in scope and, whilst the obvious attraction to romanticise the movement is mostly avoided, there are exceptions. For example, it is interesting to read Andrew Crummy’s account of the work of the Craigmillar Festival Society. Yet it does not acknowledge how the organisation was destroyed by Edinburgh council as part of its demolition and subsequent gentrification of the area.
Other chapters adopt a positive position that will jar with many participatory and socially engaged artists practising today. For instance, Janet Hetherington and Mark Webster’s chapter about training and educating ‘community artists’ today attempts to advocate professionalisation of the field of practice. A position that is still fiercely resisted by many artists today. Indeed, its inclusion in the book seems at odds with the editors’ general argument.
Meanwhile, the chapter by Owen Kelly on his recent thinking about cultural democracy in the twenty-first century reveals a shift in tone from ‘storming the citadels’ via radical monopolies, technological advancements and the internet, to ‘dividuality’ – a term that suggests our humanity comes through interaction with others, and that is what is at the heart of community arts. This perspective deserves attention beyond that available in this review.
Nevertheless, many contributors to Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art rightly lament the shift from community arts as part of actions which, as Nick Clements argues, sought to dismantle ‘the establishment and their repressive society’. Although, for Clements, this shift to a position of serving people and communities and helping to build their self-confidence and communities is, in some senses, positive.
Reflecting on community arts ‘then and now’, Alison Jeffers tracks a more familiar and less positive path through periods of fragmentation, the ‘economic turn’, cultural industries, the creative city, lottery funding, social exclusion and inclusion, to arrive at the role for participation in the arts as part of today’s Creative Industries.
Sophie Hope drives this process of ever-increasing instrumentalisation home in her chapter in which she explains how today’s short-term socially engaged art commissions reflect a very different power dynamic now at play: one that is dominated by private and public funding. She reveals how this process has not only depoliticised socially engaged art, separating it from its community arts heritage in so doing, but that it has led to many projects becoming little more than spectacles of ‘positivity, celebration, and plenty of happy faces’.
The book concludes in a manner that is at once strong, yet simultaneously rather weak and limited in scope for radical potential development. The editors offer the interesting interpretation of the original community artists as being dissenters rather than revolutionaries. Indeed, they argue that dissent is essential to keeping ‘ideas of cultural democracy’ alive. Examples of interventions by community artists such as the showing of placards with ‘Never Mind the Roses’ on one side and ‘Fund the dandelions’ on the other outside the Arts Council headquarters in London, and, similarly, ‘God Save the Queen’ transformed into ‘God Save Telford’s 1 in 5 jobless’ reveal a spirit of dissent that was common within community arts and which has all but vanished in participatory art and socially engaged arts today.
Yet, having explained their research indicated that, for many practitioners, participatory arts seemed to be aligned with democratising culture whereas community arts had attempted to bring about cultural democracy, the editors identify a number of ‘new spaces for dissent’. Their list is, however, a little limited. It includes Battersea Arts Centre, Fun Palaces and Turner Prize winners Assemble.
Whilst the work of these three organisations is interesting and undoubtedly about engaging people in some form, to propose them as examples of new voices of ‘dissent’ seems to offer a sense of defeat rather than hope. These organisations surely reflect instrumentalisation and depoliticisation. They do not appear to offer, as the editors suggest, alternatives to our current neoliberal status quo, but instead they reinforce it. Their projects are very different from the two acts of dissent undertaken by community artists and discussed above.
Nonetheless, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art is an essential read for artists, arts professionals, academics and anyone else interested in better understanding the legacy of the community arts movements and its subsequent appropriation and instrumentalisation at the hands of the establishment.
The book is a satisfying read that not only sheds new light on community arts and its offspring, participatory arts and socially engaged art, but that also offers new insights that are at times deeply personal and at other times more academic and theoretical. It may even encourage some artists and organisations to self-organise in new forms of community arts practices that offer real dissent.
We dandelions will always regenerate. This book offers new seeds of inspiration. Now is the time to plant and nurture our seeds of dissent.
Stephen Pritchard is a post-PhD researcher, art historian, writer, activist and community artist. His practice and research is interdisciplinary and is founded on the belief that art is socially produced. His work spans community art, social practice, placemaking, activist art, regeneration, gentrification, social capital and artwashing. www.colouringinculture.org