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NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 27th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 17 March 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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There’s a question that keeps coming up on the podcast, in just about every conversation with our guests: what can community-based art do? Every third episode, François Matarasso and I have a conversation with each other. In Episode 27, we explore the question from several angles. I began by setting the stage:
“We’ve been thinking quite a bit about the scale of the challenges that are presented to us as artists working in community in these times and places. On the last podcast (Episode 26 with Beverly Naidus), we talked about how big the challenge of environmental healing is, and how it’s easy to feel daunted about the scale of what’s possible to accomplish with art.”
“It’s certainly a question I’ve asked myself all my working life,” François said. “What effect does community artists’ work have? The way that’s often framed nowadays—as what good are we doing to the people we work with—I find that question problematic because it glides over some complicated power relations and ethical questions. What I’m more interested in is the whole idea of community arts, community-based arts, socially engaged practice. It’s often dealing with big issues, particularly today, environmental issues, social justice, black lives matter, and so on. The scale of the projects themselves often seems out of balance.
“In thinking about this, I was recently reminded of a 1972 essay by John Berger that I read when I was a student. It’s called ‘Photographs of Agony.’ It’s a short essay about the work of Don McCullen, a really outstanding British photographer who made his name with war photographs from Biafra and the Vietnam War. Very, very dramatic, powerful black and white photographs of intense suffering. In his essay, John Berger asks, how is the viewer supposed to react to that image? There’s a particular sentence I want to read that spoke to me. He says, ‘the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.’ So, what he saying is that by presenting these photographs in a mass media newspaper, they get decontextualized, which is actually what allows the newspaper to print an image which is probably at odds with its own implicit politics. When I started working in community arts, I tried to ask how do you do more than create emotion that just leads to despair or anger? How does it become a a focus for action as opposed to simply a feeling?
“It’s remained a kind of touchstone. It’s not that I’m looking for simple political answers to anything, but it’s whether the work stays at the level of simply an emotional outrage or whether it it finds a way to channel that outrage into a purpose. In the interview we just did with Beverly Naidus, I felt that that was exactly the kind of work where the outrage that she and other people she was working with felt about environmental despoliation of her city was channeled into into quite concrete and realistic action.”
François saying that reminded me of something I learned way back in the 60s. “These people came up with a formula for constructive criticism. It was created to be between two individuals: ‘When you do ____, it makes me feel ____ and I would like you to do _____ instead.’ It’s a good formula because it forces you to think exactly in the terms that you’re describing. The point that the people who invented it were making was that very often people don’t have anything to fill in that third blank. You know, ‘It pisses me off when you do this to me, and I really don’t like it and get out of here.’ You don’t always know what the prescription is, but without one, it’s venting, not constructive.”
I shared a talk I gave last spring to the Community Built Association conference in Omaha: “Possibility, Power, and Purpose: Sensing The Demand.” It was inspired by a 1978 essay by Vaclav Havel, who was the former president of Czechoslovakia and also an artist and a playwright. One point really grabbed me and has been very meaningful to me ever since. He said that especially in the post-totalitarian, highly bureaucratized authoritarian state, you were asked to perform a lot of rituals of obedience. An example he gave was every grocer having to put a sign in their windows saying ‘Workers of the world unite!’ What it was really saying was, ‘Let me bend over and kiss your shoes by by putting the sign up.’
“He talked about the way that people in that society had become inured to living within the lie. Within the lie, the country has free elections, and you get a voice in everything, and can be free to associate with each other. It’s a whole fantasy world that exists behind a scrim of the real world that people are actually living. He talked about many of the protests that happened at that time, some of which were triggered by things like the arrest of a band, the Plastic People of the Universe, for music that was considered against the state. And he talked about the small gestures that people can make that are not explicitly in the political realm. They’re not about electing candidates, passing legislation or that kind of thing. They’re just about living as if you were in a free society. He called that living within the truth.
“While I understand that the United States is not then or there, it really resonated with me about our situation. I feel two things need to be true. One, to make the work as effective as it can be— and only years from now will we know how effective any particular thing was—is having an understanding of the context in which we’re living, especially the political context. What are the constraints? What are the lies that we’ve so internalized that we we don’t even bother to call them out anymore? Where’s the space for freedom? And the other is to have an idea of what it is like to live within the truth, what that freedom would be for our actions as artists and otherwise, to not be constrained by those lies.”
We went on to practice what we were preaching, talking about the current context within the US and Europe for community-based arts work, drawing on some of the prior “A Culture of Possibility” podcasts (which you’ll find here). François pointed to one of our first interviews, with muralists Amber Hansen and Reyna Hernandez, and how their work introduces new imagery into public space, “changing the feel of a place. It’s normalizing a set of values, a set of ideas, through the imagery in that mural.”
We also talked about what the work intends, noting that quite a bit of community-based arts work seeks to alert and engage people in responding to what’s around them. Without detracting from the importance of that, I said that “the longer I live, the more I think that the real thing that we’re messing with is under that. It’s the wiring of the human mind, our cognitive process, our way of being present in the world. Learning to live within the truth instead of living within the lie.
“When I wake up in the morning, I read the headlines from the New York Times on my phone—bad bad bad habit, but I do it. Very often I come away having read story after story about people who are literally not thinking. It’s not just the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, but people in positions of power upholding bureaucratic programs that have a negative impact, and who are quite contented to go on doing it forever. If I think back on our conversations—for example, Jade Campbell and Erin Walcon from Doorstep Arts, Gary Stewart on the work he was doing in the favelas in Brazil, and so many others—it’s not really a political program. The underlying intention is to invite people to be co-creators, to understand themselves in the world as co-creators, not only of objects, performances, but co-creators of their own lives, their own community, of the larger political landscape. This is classic Paulo Freire: to go from being an object of history in which decisions are being made, you don’t really have a voice in anything, to being a subject in history, to understanding that whatever I’m doing here, I may not be able to move mountains with my own hands, but I’m co-creating the world that we want to inhabit. I think that’s the true purpose of the work.”
We went on to talk about the structures of equity and reciprocity that underpin the strongest work. Also the essential importance of keeping questions alive in a time when so many seem willing to accept settled answers, ideology instead of inquiry. And also a core truth of community-based arts work:
“It entails embodied awareness,” I said, “as well as cognitive awareness, as well as spiritual awareness, as well as emotional awareness. One of the things that’s true in almost every story that people told us over these two years of podcasts is that it’s okay to feel and to be aware of your body and the information it’s receiving, and what it’s doing, as well as to use everything from the neck up to think about stuff. And it’s okay even to have an experience of connection and relationship that I would call spiritual, that goes beyond the purely material. This full way of being, the people who are doing the work, with full heart and, and full integrity; that is a picture of the world we want to help bring bring about. It exists in contrast to this constricted way of being in which only certain ways of thinking, only certain ways of existing—taboos about where emotions are, where embodied reality can enter the social context—that shrunken personhood that we’re being asked to inhabit.”
Tune in and see what you think for yourself. We’d love to hear your ideas about what community-based art can do.
“What is This?” Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens.