When I talk about community art practice with younger or less experienced artists, I often warn against offering friendship to the people you are working with. I say that because, in co-creation’s rewarding intensity, boundaries blur easily, especially where empathy allies with common purpose. But a community artist is there for a time and a reason. They do not, mostly, share the life situation of the people involved in the project. They have other obligations and opportunities.
The power differentials between professional and non-professional artists cannot be wished away with good intentions. On the contrary, the best way to reduce their potential for harm is to recognise them openly, and keep watch over their boundaries. The parallel is not exact, but there are similar ethical responsibilities of a teacher towards a student, arising from the former’s greater experience of and control over the relationship. Friendship in such circumstances can be perilous.
But. But, but but…
The truth is that I have made friends throughout my years in community art, whether I’ve been working as an artist, a producer, a researcher or a consultant. I’ve kept in touch with people all over the world, and been nourished by those friendships over decades. Some have become close, others live in a less intimate space of mutual interest and sympathy, but all of them matter to me. Each thread thickens the fabric of my life in community art, which is to say my life in the world. Alongside friends unconnected with my work, they have been especially important in these days of loss and searching. The many messages of kindness have meant more than I can say, each a hand holding me afloat. Just this week, I received a note from someone with whom I worked decades ago saying, among other things, how that time had been transformative and was not forgotten.
So is my advice about friendship hollow, words I do not practice?
I hope not. When this issue comes up in conversation, I always add a rider: don’t offer friendship—unless you mean it. The problems come, like so many of the pitfalls in community art practice, from differences of interpretation, when someone you’re working with believes your sympathy and support is a bigger promise than you intended. There are many ways of letting people down, but few are more destructive than not keeping a promise. Even a good project will collapse like a house of cards if people see that they have misplaced their trust. It’s humiliating to think you were a fool to hope for something better, to believe that change was possible. That’s how some projects can leave people worse off than if they had never happened, although those who delivered them might have left feeling good about what they’ve achieved.
In the end, as with so many of the ethical, political and even artistic dilemmas of community arts, it matters less where you stand than that you are honest with others, and with yourself, about where it is. On friendship, I have tried to avoid false promises, and to live up to the commitments I do make. My work is always time limited: my presence likewise. My responsibility is to create opportunities that empower, so that the people involved are stronger and more able to do the things that matter to them, after and without my input.
Even so, working relationships have blossomed into lasting friendships, where there has been a mutual interest after the project’s end. And today, I find myself wondering whether those friendships aren’t actually the most important part of my work, or perhaps, better, the aspect in which I take most satisfaction. Human flourishing, not art, is the purpose of my work, and friendship seems a good indicator of whether that intention is being achieved in our lives.
The photo is from a community arts workshop I helped lead in Kaunas (Lithuania) 4 years ago. Next month, I will be in Differdange (Luxembourg) for the first performance of the community opera that is one result of that.