I have been reading around a the topic of participatory arts, partially motivated by wondering what impact austerity politics has had. There has been a widespread wiping out of the professionals and institutions that mediate, or simply connect, culture and local people, whether it be professional librarians, local authority arts officers, or theatre company education and outreach teams. In some situations this lost infrastructure has seen the return of the artist as animateur. In others there has been criticism of unmediated, ‘top down’ parachuting in of artists resulting in a clumsier, less consistent, less meaningful practice as part of the cultural life of a place. It also places an increased burden on artists to be able to navigate this. Another concern is about the interface where artistic practice and social work meets. Even now social or youth work practice and arts practice are often seen as entirely separate and irreconcilable disciplines. This is plain wrong, and socially engaged art is poorer for not having interdisciplinary and cross sectoral practitioners.
There is also the question of whether artists must know the community in which they work, but this raises many questions. I have always found the idea that communities are homogenous and can have insiders and outsiders in any kind of simple way difficult. Is Brixton a community? Is the town of Hexham, Northumberland a community? Are Pakistani young men between the ages of 15 and 26 living in the West Midlands a community? The answer is ‘not intrinsically’. All of these can be a community if mobilised to be so. So artists have agency, and they make the community they are working with, they don’t just find it. There is also the massive point that art crosses boundaries and borders. That is the essence of art. If an artist can only be meaningful to someone like themselves, well, I don’t consider them an artist.
The Groundhog Day for the UK’s cultural commentators remains the high art / popular art polemic. The reason I find this tedious is so much creativity is part of a cultural heritage which is embedded in institutions out of necessity. You can’t have great ballet outside of the institutions that maintain it. You can’t have public access to C16th oil paintings without the institutions to care for and display them. You can’t have great cinema divorced from the practices and heritage that frame it. The creative process isn’t alchemy, even if it feels like it sometimes. This is living culture and without these institutions you only have an archive.
Almost all contemporary and popular art is connected to these institutions. It can be very direct like the choreography for a Beyonce music video lifted (arguably) from Rosas, or the classical music lifts in much popular music and jazz. But it is mostly more indirect and mediated by the artists making the work. They, and specialist critics, will usually be aware of the influences, and sometimes we are as well. We also sometimes grimace when this relationship is overly derivative. Re-use creativity rarely has the same value as originality and imagination. These are the qualities that make all art of every type important.
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