‘All in this together’

Floyd Road Mural, Steve Lobb and Carol Kenna, 1976
Floyd Road Mural (Charlton, London UK) by Steve Lobb and Carol Kenna, 1976

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.



  1. A fascinating and provocative essay. However, I must challenge your appropriation of companies such as Red Ladder and 7:84 into the community arts fold. They didn’t perceive themselves nor were they perceived as CA companies. Yes they had the politics, and were often very close to their local and regional communities and audiences…but they didn’t have the participatory element that defines CA.

  2. You’re right to make a distinction that I should have made in the essay. The radical theatre companies of the late sixties and 1970s weren’t mostly in the community arts fold, though they were, in the words of the Shelton Trust’s 1983 conference, ‘Friends and Allies’. It’s also true that in the earlier part of the period, both terms and practices were in formation. Thus Albert Hunt’s theatre work at Bradford led to the establishment of the UK’s first diploma course in ‘communi-ty arts’. There’s much more work to be done on all this and it needs to be done while the pioneer generation is (mostly) still alive to tell their stories.

  3. Hi Francois

    I m not sure I agree with the overall suggestion that the shift from Community Arts to Particpatory Arts as being a symptom of wider societal shift from the collective to the individual.

    I personally think there are very concrete reasons for the depoliticisation:

    1. Much of community art activity was centred in areas of economic deprivation. In many cases, activists sought to secure the means of cultural production to enable a broader range of people to make and create work. This lead to a range of resources being available from small theatre spaces, to print workshops, to darkrooms &
    2. These resources were funded through local authorities, who were often Labour led. Whilst the Conservatives were in power throughout the 80 2s, much of what was produced was oppositional and sought to represent people s experiences from within.
    3. Far from being starved with money, community arts was killed with money and misguided kindness. The launch of National Lottery in 1994 meant that by the time of New Labour s election in 1997, a whole stream of new monies was available to communities.
    4. New Labour came to power on a rush of optimism, and indeed aligned itself strongly with the popular culture of a new establishment, Cool Britainnia. Through its PAT10 team, sought to define the social impact of participation in the arts. Much belief was invested in the claims of your 1997 essay Use or Ornamment? and the era of social inclusion was borne.
    5. Social inclusion was based on the belief that poverty was down to a number of factors, and that if only we could include them, to change their behaviour, then injustice would disappear. This was New Labour at its most missionary and patronising. Rather than get culture out of these places, it sought to get culture into them.
    6. Community arts organisations rushed to apply to the Lottery for the facility they always dreamed of, often successfully. But in doing so, the nature of the organisations changed as professionals got the jobs at the expense of the community members. Programmes changed with the buildings from being resources producing work, often these organisations became receiving houses for imported culture.
    7. Meanwhile, the larger city centre based organisations started to get interested in outreach due to the availability of lottery funds, dropping into areas to undertake short projects.
    8. This marked a shift from work being made in communities over a long time (and hence having more of the community in them) to being short projects designed to increase confidence, wellbeing, employability prospects etc.. etc. The shift was from a belief that people from all communities were able to create work of meaning and substance, to arts organisations disingenuously seeking to develop an audience for their existing work.

    You talk about the word community falling out of favour. I agree with this, but only because the term is used imprecisely. Community is not fixed, a thing, it is just a network. Just because I live across the street from someone, it doesn t mean they are part of my community. Instead I am involved in many communities from the other parents in the school playground to the people who share my place of work, etc

    Instead, because community is a network, it is fluid and can be built we need to put our emphasis on creating new communities, and being actively involved, rather than is often the case trying to reflect it, which is a depoliticising reflex.

  4. Hello Johnny

    Thanks for taking the time to comment in such depth. You raise many issues, and I agree with a good deal of what you say. Even so, I think the thesis set out in ‘All in this together’ still holds because it is concerned with deep shifts in societal values, conscious and unconscious. The factors you identify were important steps on a journey but in my view they were themselves made possible by and symptoms of that deeper change.

    Here are a few thoughts on the specific points you make:

    1. That’s true, but much was also associated with new towns and development areas such as Northampton, Corby and Telford. The roots of community arts were planted before the economic and industrial crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    2. It’s true that local government was very involved, but the Arts Council and the Regional Arts Associations also played important roles. I think only some of community arts practice was ever directly oppositional; that work peaked during the first half of the 1980s.

    3. I agree that the increase in spending on arts and culture since 1994 has had both unintended and perverse effects, but I’m not sure I entirely share this analysis.

    4. Again, you’re right about much of this, though I’m not best placed to comment on the influence of Use or Ornament?, which has often been misread.
    5. I think the theory of social exclusion, which was well established in European policy was widely misunderstood when it was introduced to the UK in 1997. That was evident in the frequent preference for talking about social ‘inclusion’, which cannot be defined or identified, rather than social ‘exclusion’, which can and against which it is possible to take action. That confusion led to all sorts of problematic policy and programmes.

    I broadly agree with points 6, 7 and 8, though my emphasis would naturally be slightly different. The wider sense of community you mention is also something I’d agree with, but community artists in the 1970s already considered community as relating not only to place but also to interest, politics or demographics.

    Thanks again for taking the discussion forward.

Comments are closed.