Today, I turn sixty. Such anniversaries are foreseeable, and this one’s long presence on my personal horizon was a reason for writing A Restless Art. It is also why I made so many mistakes in the process, and it has shaped the final book. So here’s a little explanation of how my age, at once so irrelevant and yet so integral to my understanding of community art, has influenced my book.
The imminence of this birthday was one motivation. At a human, physical level, I am aware of my diminishing resources and I wanted to explain my ideas while I still could. At this time of life, it’s natural to look back and try to interpret the journey. We want to pass on what we care for—in my case, community art—and believe it will be in good hands. Those of us with an excess of self-importance want to give the next generation the ‘benefit’ of our knowledge. That was my starting point, and it is partly why the project ran so quickly into the sand. I found my decades of experience unconvincing and, what was worse, boring. The work being made now by young activists, especially outside Britain, was often far more interesting to me. I had to dump long-held assumptions and rethink my ideas much more rigorously. I had to start again.
I also had to find a new voice—one that was true to a 60 year old, but avoided the pitfalls of nostalgia, pomposity or condescension. It took me most of my twenties to find my own voice as a writer, and I’d thought then the task was achieved. But our creative work changes through life, taking new shapes as we do. One reason why artists stop making work is because they cannot find how to speak as the person they have become. That search explains why I have twice abandoned complete drafts of A Restless Art and started again with a blank sheet. I didn’t believe my own voice. I have probably still not got there yet, or avoided all the traps, but I can live with where I am.
My age has also shaped the book’s preoccupation with history and especially with generations. I see community art as a young person’s form. Not exclusively, of course: there are many (myself included) who find ways to make it a lifelong practice. But it is the young who reinvent it in their impatience with how things are, their energy and their readiness to do without many material comforts. Its opposition to the structures of cultural power make community art financially unrewarding, so people with dependents often have to find more secure work. That has contributed, I think, to the emergence of three successive generations of community artists. In the late 1960s, the pioneers invented the practice; it was renewed in the late 1980s, and again about a decade ago. Each generation brings its own ideas, formed by growing up in a different world. I was trained by pioneers, had some influence on how the second generation developed, and am now observing, sometimes advising, the third. But my ideas are of their time, and that time is passing.
Now the book is finished, or nearly so. I am adding a few project descriptions and making corrections. I need to re-write the ending because it’s lame at the moment: I simply had no energy to do better at the end of August. It occurs to me that, intending to create something like a Mondrian—straight lines and orderly compartments of clean, bright colour—I have made something more like a Pollock—messy, repetitive, and hard to grasp. I hope, though, that like Pollock’s painting which I have come to appreciate better with age, it may still have its rewards.
For me, the main thing is that the book is done. A responsibility I have felt for many years has been fulfilled and the past month has brought a wonderful sense of liberation. I was haunted by the possibility of leaving the project unfinished: in January 2019, that anxiety will end. More importantly, community art is in good shape, stronger than at any time in my life. Participatory art, its younger, more popular sibling, is thriving too. People are talking about cultural democracy again…
Being sixty doesn’t mean that I intend to stop doing, thinking and writing about community art. But I do feel relieved of duty. That has fallen to a new generation who will make of it what they will. Having met many of them, I am hopeful. And I am deeply thankful for what community art has given me over so many years. Now I am going to stop thinking about it.
I don’t remember who took the photograph of me at the top of this post: it was one of the teenagers involved in the community art work I was doing in Newark-on-Trent in 1983. It was taken with the project’s only SLR camera, a Pentax K-1000, a workhorse of the community photography at the time. The picture at the end of the post was taken last year by Kevin Ryan of Charnwood Arts, when I was speaking at the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam.