The importance of community, Part 2

It’s a rare thing, but I have been in a cinema when the audience has applauded as the credits roll. The last time, I think, was a screening of Schindler’s List, in a multiplex. It sounds absurd – there’s no-one there to hear the applause, except the audience. The same thing has sometimes happened to me when a plane touches the ground after a long flight, notably in parts of the world where the passengers don’t fly often. Again, the pilots are out of sight and earshot, as the patter of hands ripples through the cabin. In both situations, apparently so different, I sense something hidden behind the ritual appreciation that marks the end of an artistic performance—the need of a community to recognise itself.

Applauding actors or musicians is a natural way of expressing gratitude at the experience they have created and honouring their craft. It can be quite artificial, as different performers step forward in pre-planned order, bouquets of flowers are distributed to the leading women, and arms extended to include technicians, directors and others behind the scenes. How many curtain calls? Will it be a standing ovation? It is (and I don’t mean this disparagingly) quite transactional, a way of rewarding the artists – and in some cases of withholding that reward. 

But in a cinema or an airbus, there can be no transaction, no reward. Instead, it seems to me, people have felt the need to acknowledge that in sharing an uncommon and powerful experience they have something in common, something precious and worth remembering. 

In public discourse, community is often a large and heavy thing. The community: a fixed and knowable thing. In arts policy, the community can be a lazy synonym for place, even though nowadays few people know more than a handful of their neighbours. I’ve always disliked this use of the definite article: the disabled, the unemployed, the immigrants… It denies particularity, seeing difference, which is endless, merely in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. This use of community can be hypocritical. It exploits the positive associations of a word that Raymond Williams wrote (in Keywords) ‘never seems to be used unfavourably’ while at the same time denying its autonomy, diversity or even reality. As I’ve written before, that thinking leads to job titles such as ‘Community Enforcement Officer’ or strategies with ‘target communities’.

But the definition of community does not belong only to politicians, adept as some of them are at manipulating its terms and associations. Community is created by people, and is rooted in shared experience: that is what cinema audiences and fellow travellers mark when they applaud for themselves. It is what happens in good community art projects—the coming together of people by choice and their creation of a sense of shared experience, common purpose and solidarity. Such communities are often temporary and porous. They overlap with other communities, including those of blood, affection, place or interest. They can be empowering and liberating. And only those who form them can recognise them or give them legitimacy.

The pandemic’s greatest harm – after the illness and death it is causing – is in making it hard for us to come together in community. We need theatres, clubs and football grounds, lecture halls and temples, festivals, marathons and demonstrations because we are social beings, interdependent and hungry for common ties. Social media creates connections and markets, sometimes crowds, but rarely genuine communities. Community emerges when people go through the same things at the same time in the same place. It emerges from their differences in common. It’s precious, and community artists need to imagine new ways of nurturing it in the frightening times we now inhabit. After all, we are going through difficult things at the same time.