The de-politicisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011
The term ‘community art’ came into use in Britain at the beginning of the 1970s, at a time when the cultural experimentation of the 1960s was confronted both by harsh economic conditions and by more concerted resistance from a cultural establishment beginning to recognise the nature of the challenge to its authority it was facing. Community art was used to describe a complex, unstable and contested practice developed by young artists and theatre makers seeking to reinvigorate an art world they saw as bourgeois at best and repressive at worst.
The phrase ‘community art’ fell out of favour at the beginning of the 1990s, to be replaced by the seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’, though the original term is still used by some people and may even be in the process of rehabilitation. It is also used outside the UK, notably in the Netherlands and Australia, where it has acquired locally-specific meanings with diverse connection to the original theories and methods.
Does this change of terminology have any importance?
This is the opening of a long essay tracing one theoretical history of community arts in Britain from the late 1960s and today. It originated in a talk at ICAF Rotterdam in December 2011 when I was asked to reflect on the recent riots in London. I was reluctant to discuss events that took place when I wasn’t even in the country, but it did set me thinking about 1981, when I was in London, working as a community arts apprentice, and there were also riots.
As research about 2011 events began to be published, I was struck by what had changed since 1981—and what had not. The result is a personal reflection on how community arts has changed, in theory and in practice, over the 30 years in which I have been involved in the field. It is published today in a book of essays edited by Eugene van Erven under the title Community, Art, Power.