I have a lot of conversations with, or about, young artists—people rather new to participatory work, even if they have substantial experience of arts practice—and I hear a lot of doubt, from the artists themselves, and from people supporting their professional development. I sense a certain idealisation about the work, and anxiety about doing the right thing. Some people are unclear about why they want to do it, and what to expect of themselves and others. This is new territory, and anyone would be forgiven for being cautious about entering.
Listening to these worries, I wonder about my own early steps in community art, and how I managed my own fears and ignorance. I was certainly very ignorant. I’d grown up in a privileged, middle-class world and knew nothing about working class communities, housing estates, deprivation or multicultural inner cities. I had everything to learn, and, honestly, very little to give. Luckily for me, I met with almost universal kindness from the people I was supposed to work with. The truth is that I’ve learned far more from them than they ever got from me, though as I’ve got older the balance has become more equal.
What saved me in those early years was that I understood the scale of my ignorance and had the sense to listen to people. I learned to be quiet, and not to rush to judgements. I learned that reality might lie between rather than in what I was told. I learned to trust and that my trust would be returned with interest, ninety-nine times in a hundred. I learned that the work was never about me, even when people paid attention to my ideas. I made mistakes, and I learned a lot from them. I learned to ask for help, but not to presume that people had time or interest for me. And I learned that when I didn’t make assumptions, people would try, do and achieve far more than I could have imagined. I learned, in short, to be a nicer person, and a half-way decent community artist, by not being afraid to admit when I didn’t know something (which was a lot of the time). I had many fears (I was young) but not about my work because I knew why it was important, and I wanted to do it as well as I could. And in all this, being hired as an apprentice community arts worker helped: learning was in my job title.
Is there a point to this story? Simply that I wonder if such an approach is any longer open to young artists. Forty years on, the world has become far more competitive and transactional. The art world is run like a market with opaque rules that keep most people out. There are far more artists, and they operate within a narcissistic, promote-yourself culture, where unpaid internships and commissions are seen as prizes. Young artists have an identity and practice to sell, a brand to market. In such a world, it must be all but impossible to admit that you’re young and inexperienced, even when, perfectly reasonably, you are.
At 22, I didn’t know much—but nor did anybody expect me to know much. They gave me the time and leeway to learn. We need to find ways of giving the same freedom to new artists starting their journeys today, whatever their age or background.