The Importance of Community, Part 1

It’s been almost two months since the last post on this site, a silence that may be accounted for by the cumulative pressures of this changed world, its many and diverse obligations, exhaustion of body and mind, uncertainty, fear, grief; a measure of guilt too, knowing how much harder other lives are than mine, and the unreasonableness of any urge to complain. When you’re lost in fog, it’s best to stand still. I needed time to think, to find a thread of ideas that might take me forward. One thing that wouldn’t let me go was how hard this situation is for those on the threshold of adulthood – the school and college students whose learning has been so disrupted, and the young people finding their way into meaningful work. Whether in college or at work, the joy, anguish and discoveries of social relations are at the centre of young people’s preoccupations, as they work out how to be themselves among others and make decisions (or simply take steps) that will shape the rest of their lives. All that energy, curiosity and desire, that ocean of immortality, now under the disapproving eye of an older generation and its public health regulations.  

For many of that generation working from home is easy enough: compared to young people, their housing situation is often better, and their social networks more established. It makes sense to avoid a tiring and expensive commute, and minimise the risk of infection. But I remember my early years of work, and how important it was to be part of a community of colleagues I could observe, listen to and learn from, people who sometimes became role models (even if they didn’t know it). They were artists, development workers, teachers and managers: others were participating in the art projects I worked on, people of all backgrounds, ages and perspectives. It was in spending days, months, sometimes years with them that I learned most of what I know, especially what human and experiential understanding I have. They are always with me, popping unexpectedly into my mind, and I owe them an immense debt of gratitude, which I try to repay to the next generation. 

But how is that generation to learn, grow and eventually take over from its predecessors if it is left to its own devices – at best, working alone in a rented flat, instructed but not guided, and with no social contact but through video-calls, at worst, furloughed and then sacked, because neither they nor their work are valued and their managers believe they’ll easily find replacements when the time finally comes to re-open the doors? Last in the pecking order, with fewest resources to fall back on, they have often been betrayed by organisations to whom they were dedicated. And in this respect the cultural sector has proved neither more generous nor more imaginative than any other. 

Thinking about this has sent me back to the roots of the term I use to describe the work I have care about for so long: community art. It is community that was nurtured in the projects and organisations I have worked in, community that people sought and created when they came to take part, community that gave us strength when we pooled resources and ideas, community that defined the artistic and aesthetic character of the art we made, community that educated me and allowed me to grow, community that remains in my memory, community that defines and gives value to this life. 

What I’ve just written is not very fashionable. Indeed, my professional life has been lived in a political culture that has actively disparaged such ideas as sentimental, false or naïve, preferring to see relationship as transactional and altruism as disguised self-interest. My work and my writing is a form of resistance to those beliefs, and if it looks to have failed, I remember how many share these values and how much worse things would be without the daily acts of unselfish solidarity that make up so much of our lives. Now we face a common threat, even if our exposure to it varies greatly. It’s time to think again the nature of community and its importance in human culture.

A choir rehearsing with face coverings, a musical walk in the forest, informal music to replace a cancelled festival, performances in people’s gardens: some of the ways I’ve seen (and been part of) communities making art together in rural France during August 2020.

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