Does community engagement kill art?


Longbridge Light Festival

The Longbridge Light Festival aimed to make the area a destination, somewhere things happen, including arty things. Another example of funding, can it really be called art?

I’ve taken part in community art projects in the past, been to some events because they’re usually free and even helped children make trainers from bin bags and gaffa tape for one project (a weird morning). Community art is nice for the community, obviously, but it always seems diluted. It’s usually a watered down version of original practice, with artists including elements they wouldn’t bother with usually to fit in with stringent criteria on a form, filed neatly in a drawer somewhere.

Funding can knock the wind out of artistic vision and intention and it hits young and emerging artists the most. They’re at the mercy of the organisations providing the cash for art, especially if their dream isn’t to employ their fine art degree in the field of administrative work. Unless you have a steady income from somewhere, it’s pretty much impossible to make the art you want to make, working on it, improving and honing your skills, until finally someone spots it, likes it, and starts offering you ridiculous amounts of money for it. And even if you can do that, there’s no guarantee anyone will spot it and like it anyway.

The Arts Council is a great thing, it’s great that there’s any public funding for art at all. When judged on any of the generic scales of worth, art comes out as pretty much useless. You can’t eat it, wear it or live in it. You can only make money from it if the artist becomes famous or, even better, dead. But art shouldn’t, and generally isn’t, judged for its worth in that way.

The worth of art is a concept that’s hard to define, maybe even impossible. Expressing something in an original or thought provoking way that others can find truth in is how I think of its worth. Even if it’s just a tiny part of it, a small thing you notice that makes you nod your head, gives you an idea or lines up with something you were already thinking about. The art I like is the stuff that makes me think of lots of other things and makes me want to do something, to make something or write something. As far as I’m concerned that’s what it’s for, and that’s all it needs to be for.

However, while the Arts Council and other organisations that fund arts are the reason we still have any at all, they all seem to ask for it to be more, to do more. Somewhere in the process it gets turned into a transaction and the old idea of worth and value is back. For every project that gets funded, there’s a form with all the right boxes ticked, the worth has been judged and proved. Read any of the mission statements of any of the regional branches of the Arts Council and they all list community engagement high on their list of criteria when they’re awarding funding.

The Wellcome Trust is another charity that gives money to creative people; but only if they can prove that what they do has a scientific angle to it. If you can include some kind of chemical reaction into your work, you’re on to a winner. All of the organisations funding the arts want something for their money; they all need to see measurable outcomes. But that’s exactly what art isn’t about, or at least I don’t think it should be. The best books, films, albums, painting and sculptures don’t provide any tangible outcome other than making you think and feel and giving you ideas.

Engaging the community is a noble idea, but why is it down to the artists to do it? Why aren’t councils and governments running schemes to help kids discover the importance and beauty of art? Why do artists, musicians and writers have to constantly prove that they’re doing the job for the council? Who decided that art is for anyone who doesn’t already care? If they’re not bothered why buy a lot of crayons and try and make them be bothered? And finally, how do you even measure community engagement anyway? People definitely got involved with the Longbridge Light Festival. It was pretty busy, but how many of those people will go home and decide they want more, or that they can do better?

The festival, it has to be said, kept it’s edge. In between the centro tent and the art made by children in craft workshops, were spooky and thoughtful pieces from the artists involved. The lit-up alien looking pods hanging in the trees on the Rea Valley route, the sci-fi noises that made the square a surreal place to hang out and the installations all stood on their own but also enhanced the atmosphere, recalling the faintly ironic theme of back to the future. The diversity of the works, made by artists and by the community, wasn’t as jarring as it might have been. This time it worked, just about.

Perhaps through funding like this artists can continue their training, they can learn new techniques, collaborate with other artists and try things they might not have otherwise attempted. Maybe this is the real value of funding, slipping under the radar labelled as community engagement, because sadly we don’t live in a culture that values art enough to take a chance on it.

When you look at it like that, funding is a beautiful thing, and we can’t do without it.

You can see images from the festival here. If you like this, why not read my blog about the City of Colours Festival, plus you can follow me on Twitter @SallyWJones.

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