The Politics of Creativity
Following the publication of Jude Bowles’ Developing Community Arts (Dublin: CAFE, 1992) Tom Duddy plays devil’s advocate and points out the serious obstacles that lie in the way of realising community-arts aspirations. How do his conclusions – that only an openly radical politics of creativity, which seeks in the long-term to democratise society through and through, or failing that a more pragmatic, reformist approach grounded in a critical social history of art and in a critical sociology of culture, will make a difference – fare 26 years on?
Tom Duddy analyses the community arts idea and the Politics of Creativity
Behind the community arts movement there lies the romantic and liberating idea that all human beings have the right and the power not only to respond to the creative efforts of others but also to express themselves creatively, even if this expression takes place outside the pale of the official art world. No matter how broadly or narrowly we understand the term ‘community arts’ it suggests something praiseworthy. Understood broadly, the term conjures up images of young people painting murals on the gable-ends of local authority terraces, of ballet classes in community centres, of poets reading in libraries and schools, of arts festivals which entice people to beat tracks across the no-man’s-land between ‘popular’ events like parades and carnivals and ‘high culture’ events like exhibitions and concerts. In its more narrowly political sense – in the sense suggested by the CAFE (Creative Activity for Everyone) group – it connotes something even more heroic, namely, the development of non-elitist, non-professional modes of expression through which communities may bring about social change at the same time as they discover themselves through improvisation with whatever materials are at hand. When Jude Bowles writes that the community arts have challenged “the conventional exclusive relationship between the arts and the social elite and the conventional definition of what constitutes the arts”  one can only agree and approve.
Why then do certain aspects of Bowles’ Developing Community Arts produce a sceptical response in someone who is happy to place himself in the company of those who look forward to an arts policy “in which cultural democratic ideas are reconciled with contemporary artistic and aesthetic ones”? . Why is a vague feeling of dismay produced by the black-and-white photographs of trainee arts workers engaged in such activities as ‘site specific exercises’ and rhythm and movement workshops which involve such things as balancing paper cups on the palms of the hands? Why does the dismay deepen when one turns to the picture of two arts workers on a muddy beach ‘preparing their creative evaluation of the course during Module 6’? . What kind of creativity is being developed here? What does it have to do with community, with art, with the idea of community art? I intend to address these questions in the spirit of a devil’s advocate, i.e., in the spirit of someone who takes for granted the worthiness of the community arts aspiration but who is at the same time prepared to highlight the serious obstacles that may lie in the may of its realisation.
The advocate’s first diabolical thought is that community arts activists are naive about the art world. That is, they are not sufficiently aware of the enormity of the task which they have set themselves when they take on the official art world; they have not adequately analysed and understood the power of the aesthetic ideologies which that official art world has generated; they have not taken seriously enough the possibility that art (or creativity in its artistic sense) does not and cannot exist outside the official art world – that, in sum, the contemporary art world defines what is to count as an artistic or creative activity, what is to count as an artistic or creative object, and, of course, who is to count as a creative artist. The advocate’s first task is to inquire into the deep-rooted ‘institutionality’ of the art world, in case there is something about the nature of that world which renders the community arts movement utopian or quixotic.
By ‘art world’ is meant the totality of all those individuals, agencies, and institutions which are engaged in producing, presenting, and appreciating works of art, from the RHA landscape painter and his admirers to the most avant garde experimenter and her defenders. It is that world which has, over a period of centuries, developed a complex set of materials, techniques, practices, procedures, concepts, beliefs and values which enables and empowers its members to determine the sorts of objects that will count as art objects and the sorts of individuals who will count as artists . The power of the art world to define boundaries is illustrated nicely and starkly in Howard Becker’s observation that works in fabric by specialists in soft sculpture are awarded prizes by art museums “but country women who make quilts get their prizes at country fairs” .
The modern on world, despite the anti-art gestures of the early modernist era and despite all its attempts to radicalise and democratise art, has in fact inherited a whole panoply of procedures for conferring artistic status on objects and their makers. It is especially significant that the most radical anti-art gestures of the modernist period – the gestures of the Dadaists – depended for their impact on the very institutions which they purported to subvert. Duchamp’s ready-mades exploited as much as they exposed the institutionality and conventionality of the art world, challenging that world to adopt and internalise new concepts of art, of creativity, and of the avant garde itself. Community arts activists will say, understandably, that the very thing they seek to transcend or subvert is that official or institutionalised art world which has failed to connect with society’s marginalised communities. They will say, understandably, that they are bringing these communities the good news that imagination and creativity do not depend for their expression on the recognised media, techniques, procedures, agencies, and spaces of the official art world. They will say that the mastering of these materials, techniques and procedures is part of the very exclusionary process that runs through the official art world, producing a small elite of artists and a larger but still very select group of patrons and appreciators. They will say that it is possible to be creative and self-expressive outside the art world’s traditions and institutions, that traditions and institutions have always been the enemy of creativity anyway, that the best artists are those who push against the limits of tradition and institutionality. Community artists likewise (it will be said) should push against and challenge the conventional definition of what constitutes the arts.
The problem with this view is that revolutions in technique, practice, and ‘ideology’ tend to come from within the art world itself, brought about by innovative ‘insiders’ who already have a recognisable identity as artists. The innovators may be influenced by ideas and events outside the art world itself, but these external influences have to be mediated or interpreted by artists and others who belong to and constitute the membership of an art world. The odds are stacked against anyone outside the art world making a lasting impact on its structures, practices, values – or on its conventional definitions of what constitutes art.
But this is not the only problem that ‘outsiders’ have to face. Acknowledging that art is an institution means acknowledging not only the relations of power that exist within the art world itself but also the relations of power that obtain in the larger society. Even if whole communities became creative according to their own maverick criteria they would have to contend with the historical collusion that continues to exist between the art world and ‘the social elite’ to which Bowles refers. While many artists, individually and subjectively, rightly refuse to see themselves as middle class or bourgeois, the objective fact is that the history of the fine arts has been so interwoven with the history of social differentiation, with the history of what Marxists used to call ‘class struggle’, that it is extremely difficult to imagine what the art world would look like in a society without an elitist ethos. The elitist ethos has been so powerful that it cannot begin to tolerate the idea that creativity is for everyone, anymore than the historical aristocracies could tolerate the idea of republican democracy. Cultural activists need to dwell on the implication which the collusion between the art world and the social elite has for their movement. They need to consider in particular the sorts of claims that have been made in recent years by the French sociologist of culture, Pierre Bourdieu.
According to Bourdieu, the exercise of ‘cultured’ taste in the arts and in cultural activities generally is motivated by the need of the upper and middle classes to ‘mark their distinction’ from the lower classes. Aesthetic stances, adopted in everything from music and painting to wine and home decoration, are opportunities to assert and celebrate one’s position in social space “as a rank to be upheld or a distance to be kept” . It is no accident, according to Bourdieu, that tastes are often asserted negatively, as a denial or refusal of other tastes. Tastes are first and foremost distastes – that is, expressions of disgust at the taste of others. Aversion to different tastes, lifestyles or value-systems is “perhaps one of the strongest barriers between classes” . There is no expression of taste or ‘culture’ that is not motivated by the urge to mark the difference between one class and another, or between one fraction of a class and another.
The love of ‘high art’ or ‘high culture’ is motivated, in Bourdieu’s view, by a sustained antipathy towards popular tastes and lifestyles. The main function of the tastes of the lower classes is to serve as a foil against which all superior tastes may define and refine themselves. The modern aesthetic attitude itself has its origins not, as the traditional humanist would have it, in some universal need for beauty and truth, but in the historically particular need of the cultured bourgeois to mark his or her distance from the ‘vulgarity’ of the popular response. There is a structural dynamic at work here in the sense that the ‘cultured’ need the ‘uncultured’ and the aesthete needs the philistine, in the way that the saint needs the sinner or the hero the villain, as a foil against which their own superiority can be established. Bourdieu appositely cites Ortega y Gasset’s stark reflection that the music of Stravinsky or the plays of Pirandello enable the best to know one another against “the greyness of the multitude”, and at the same time oblige the multitude to see themselves as they are, as the common people who do not understand such fine, difficult objects and whose lives are therefore coarse, vulgar, inferior. The cultured person belongs to an ‘aristocracy of sensibility’. He does not really believe that culture or creativity is for everyone, and is indeed committed to a cultural ethos which is structurally and systematically opposed to the notion of cultural democracy.
The defenders of ‘creativity for everyone’ may insist that they are trying to break free from just that world of systematic elitism and distinction-marking. They may say, for example, that they are not interested in the question of mere access, of taking people on tours to exhibitions and ‘enlightening’ them of the merits of the fine arts . This sort of thing, they will say, merely induces in people a new-found respect for the official art world, drawing them into the web of distinction-marking gestures and rituals, making them passive in the presence of Great Art and inhibiting their own creative impulses. The point of the community arts, it will be argued, is not to win more converts to the fine arts gospel but to reject that gospel in favour of new improvisational forms of creativity which will bring about social change. The idea is to stimulate people’s own creativity, drawing on the resources of the community itself, making the fullest use of what is ready to hand. The idea is not to bring art to the people but to make the people themselves creative.
The devil’s advocate will want to say that this view is based not only, as we have seen, on a questionable conception of art but also on a questionable conception of community. People who live in regional or inner city communities are not as isolated, ideologically or structurally, as the community arts policy-makers seem to think. The term ‘community’ is sometimes used as if it referred to a kind of semi-autonomous tribal group which has the power to reclaim a lost autonomy or forge a new identity for itself. In reality, however, the sorts of ‘marginalised’ communities which lend themselves to community arts projects belong to – are indeed trapped within – a complex social structure in which they happen to occupy structurally subordinate or ‘subaltern’ positions. To say that they have been marginalised is not to say that they are virtually outside society but that they are a long way from the centres of powerful or profitable decision-making. The people who live in these communities ‘know’ that art and culture exist and that these things, like wealth and power, are not for them. They know how to identify a cultured person, just as they know how to identify a wealthy, powerful or privileged person. They know how the cultured, the wealthy and the powerful speak, behave, and live, and that it is not how they themselves speak, behave, live. They know that certain kinds of art, literature, music, even film, are for those who live in certain kinds of houses in certain parts of the city and live certain kinds of lives – and that therefore such things are not for them. The collective ‘knowing’ of such self-deprecatory things is part of what it means to be disadvantaged, underprivileged, poor, unemployed, even working-class. The problem faced by the community arts activist is that ‘local’ communities belong structurally to this larger society and are inundated with ideologies which serve to reconcile them to their place at the bottom of it. The idea of art that is dominant among the underprivileged and ‘uncultured’ is just the underside of the same idea which is dominant among the overprivileged and ‘cultured’. Throughout the whole society, from top to bottom, an equation is perceived to exist between privilege and culture, between status and sensibility, between power and ability. If the community arts project is to succeed it must tackle this ideology and try to break the links between the arts and the distinction-marking uses that are made of them by those who reside on the right side of a divided society. This is an enormous task, involving nothing less than the revolutionising of society as a whole. But it would be wiser to consider such a daunting task than to imagine that a new cultural democracy can be achieved, for example, by movement and rhythm workshops in which the creative activities involved may bear little relation to what is generally understood to produce recognisable works of art. At the very least, people need to be informed about the role that art plays in the larger society, about the ideologies that surround it, about the relationship that exists between culture and class, art and property, taste and status. Ciarán Benson is quite right when he says: “Arts policy must not allow the image of Art to obscure the workings of art” . It should also be said, however, that arts policy must not allow the image of community to obscure the workings of society.
The devil’s advocate’s work is nearly done, except to raise the spectre of paternalism. One reason that Jude Bowles’ book produces a certain dismay may be that it reflects a new kind of paternalism. Its language and imagery suggest a new type of missionary or ideologue moving in on working-class communities in order to save their creative souls, to convert them to a sense of their own creativity. We are familiar enough with other kinds of paternalism, including fascist, socialist, and liberal-humanist paternalism. All forms of cultural paternalism have in common the belief that art is a social good that should be made available to the community at large. Fascist and socialist paternalists would make art both materially and formally available. That is, they would want art to be available in public places and also to have an accessible form and content – hence the ‘edifying’ monumentalism of fascist art and the ‘edifying’ realism of socialist art. Liberal-humanist paternalism, on the other hand, refuses to prescribe an accessible form or content. In keeping with the laissez faire principle which underlies all liberal ideology, it aims only to make art materially available through state-funded museums, galleries, theatres, orchestras, art centres, artist-in-residencies, and a grants-system which can be drawn on by individuals or groups taking local initiatives. Liberal-humanist paternalism is not as easy to improve on as some community activists would like to think. In the measure that community arts activists reject all talk of conventional techniques, materials, procedures and institutions, they are in danger of stumbling into a new form of paternalism, the paternalism of the energiser, the animateur, the course-leader who occupies the place once occupied by an impersonal set of conventions and institutions. The trouble is that people who already feel alienated from the official art world, who already feel intimidated by the prospect of mastering the techniques and materials and concepts of that world, may feel equally intimidated by the cultural activist who wants them to do local, collective, expressive things with, say, newsprint and sellotape. Given the aesthetic ideologies that flourish in the minds of the officially uncultured as much as in the minds of the officially cultured, this sort of local, communal, improvisational approach may itself prove frustrating and disappointing rather than enabling and liberating. What surely must be avoided are the sorts of projects which may turn out to be a source of grief to all those ‘ordinary’ people who have great expectations of becoming artists, only to discover that they have become artists in some wholly unofficial, unconventional, and barely recognisable sense of the term. What seems to be called for, in sum, is either an openly radical politics of creativity which seeks in the long term to democratise society through and through, or a more pragmatic, reformist, piecemeal approach which is grounded in a critical social history of art and in a critical sociology of culture.
The devil’s advocate rests his case.
Tom Duddy teaches at University College, Galway.
Circa welcomes readers’ responses to this article. As many as possible will be published in a forthcoming issue. Please contact the Editor before April 15th for further details.
This article first appeared in Circa Art Magazine, Issue 67, Spring 1994, pp. 28 – 32.