Mapping the Community Arts

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Mapping the Community Arts
Pascal Gielen, Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen
The impotency of art
An illegal immigrant hesitantly expresses his criticism of an artist in front of a television camera. The man had promised to co-operate in a public intervention of the Belgian artist Benjamin Verdonck. The project focussed the attention on the problems of refugees, illegal immigrants and other stateless people. The socially engaged artist had put up a cardboard house in the middle of the street on which he had written familiar advertising slogans, such as ‘Nokia, connecting people’ and ‘My home is where my Stella is’ (Stella Artois is a Belgian brand of beer). In the framework of Verdonck’s artistic action these slogans suddenly acquired a rather ambivalent, even bitter undertone. Nobody missed the point. Apart from this fragile abode, the artist had also drawn up a pamphlet, in which he was asking for understanding for the precarious condition in which these people who – often not of their own choice – have turned nomads find themselves. During the artistic manifestation illegal immigrants distributed this pamphlet. However, the man in front of the camera was slightly displeased with the form in which the artist had formulated his message. The childish handwriting, in which the leaflet was written, was not very convincing, according to him. The illegal immigrant thought that his cause and that of his companions was not taken seriously. Verdonck defended himself in front of the same camera with the argument that this childlike form simply is part of his own particular artistic style …
The short-circuit which took place between the illegal immigrant and the artist, could well be considered symptomatic of all art venturing beyond the boundaries of its own world. Whenever art leaves the familiar surroundings of a theatre or a museum, it falls prey to different opinions, appreciations and comments. It does not even have to flatter social engagement or political activism for that matter. Even an aesthetically sound and ‘nice’ image in a public space can provoke a storm of protest, if only because of the simple fact that it stands in the way. In the abovementioned account, however, something more is going on. With his artistic intervention Verdonck not only chooses to break free from his destined place, but he also ventures to make a statement on society addressed to a specific part of that society.
All art – shown or performed inside or outside the confines of a concert hall, a theatre or a museum– makes a statement about society to a particular part of society. In other words, all art is relational. Even the artistic work of the most idiosyncratic hermit needs to be seen or heard in order to pass for art as such. Even the most abstract art which is shown in a highly exclusive environment to which only a select group of insiders has access makes a statement about society, in society and to society. French curator and art theoretician Nicolas Bourriaud (1998) made a rather poor choice when he used the word ‘relational’ to shed light on a specific segment and tendency in the art world, for art is de facto relational or it is not art. Nevertheless, Bourriaud uses the concept esthétique relationnelle for a particular form of art, though his examples in fact seem to rather indicate a specific attitude of certain artists. The relational artist’s attitude can be described as consciously seeking communication with his public. Moreover, he actively includes this aspect in his work. The kind of art he applies for this purpose, does not stand entirely apart from this endeavour, but may be considered as secondary to it. In fact it does not matter that much what his art has to say about society and the context in which takes place – inside or outside of a museum. As long as the artist actively seeks a relationship with the public and attempts to engage it in a dialogue, a relational aesthetic is at work, according to the French curator. This does not imply that the relational artist makes critical, let alone subversive work. The only criticism which one might detectin his artistic work is rather indirect, for his explicit hunger for communication and dialogue could be expressive of the lack of sociability in current society.
The example of Verdonck and the illegal immigrant given in the introduction, goes beyond that, however, for Verdonck explicitly denounces a social problem. With his action the artist not only seeks a relationship with a public, he also serves this public a critical message. The playful packaging of the artistic statement barely covers its clear, political, perhaps slightly subversive character. It goes without saying: This particular artist clearly chooses the side of illegal immigrants. His action is explicitly aimed at denouncing their situation. Yet why is this one particular illegal immigrant not completely satisfied? The answer has already been given: He takes offence at a particular aesthetical form. So Verdonck’s authentic artistic signature does not really seem to serve the good cause. The credibility of his action with its real political claims gets lost in an impotent world of fiction. For in the first place the artist still aims at realizing an artistic project. No matter how well-intended his engagement may be, his civil action only comes second. While, on the other hand, what matters for the illegal immigrant is his anxiety that his social appèl might not be taken seriously, for the artist the thought of a possible loss of his artistic prerogative seems scary. First and foremost his childish touch needs to keep him within the art world. It is this wayward label which distinguishes the artist from the activist, the artistic world from the political and artistic work from social work. The question as to whether the illegal immigrant is helped better or becomes happier from it, is an entirely different matter.
Meanwhile it is quite certain that Verdonck can count himself lucky, because a year after his intervention, for sure, the material traces of his reported action could be admired in a museum for contemporary art. The work on display stimulated the imagination, was by all means poetic and at times even critical of society. It may come as no surprise that the unanimous public nodded approvingly when it was able to ascertain that the political message it had deciphered was the correct one. The very same project which in the street could still enjoy a certain degree of subversion, in the museum dissolved into common sense. Indeed, the significance and especially the effect of art depend very much on its context. Inside the museum, Verdonk’s work by all means met the strict criteria of contemporary art. One thing seems certain: with or without Stella, the artist has come home. The question as to whether the illegal immigrant in the meanwhile is able to enjoy a home rather than drowning himself in Stella, is a question which is somewhat more difficult to answer. From an artistic point of view it is even completely irrelevant. Aesthetics and ethics are two different things.
Aesthetics without art
The ‘case’ Verdonck teaches us that an engaged artist who sincerely wishes to make a political statement, forces himself in a particularly complex role. This is especially the case when he tries to substantiate this social claim from an artistic position. Building on the insights of Bourriaud Verdonck’s position – or at least the artistic project described here – could be described as auto-relational. In the long run, the relational bond with a public, including the political evocation, serves the artistic identity of the artist. The illegal immigrants involved are made complicit to a project which in the end will disembark safely in the art world.
The notion of auto-relational aesthetics, however, presupposes the existence of something called allo-relational art. Is it possible to detect projects or manifestations in the history of modern art which finally do no serve the identity of the artist or an artistic collective, but rather that of another person or the other? Do expressions exist which finally emphasize the relational more than the artistic? A modest quest throughout modern history leads us to the case of the Situationists. Their artistic happenings and social provocations at the end of the 1960s completely dissolved into society. Their art simply became politics. In the words of the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno:
‘The Situationists were very important when they became a political movement, but from that moment on they were no longer avant-garde art: it’s about two modesof existence. They clearly illustrate this double take. Before 1960 they were an artistic movement rooted in Dadaismand Surrealism, afterwards they participated in social resistance, making the same mistakes or gaining the same merits as other political activists’ (Virno, 2009).
Allo-relational art can indeed lead to artistic suicide. However, it does not preclude that the happenings of the Situationists inspired many activists following their traces. In the feminist movement, as the gay movement, among environmental activists and anti-globalists, you will come across costume plays, theatrical expressions and other aesthetical forms which seek to highlight (at times literally) a certain social subversion. Especially within the so-called ‘identity politics’, artistic forms of expression seem to be a favourite way of reinforcing one’s social claims.
People literarily colour their own cultural subjectivity. Moreover, in the artistic act of a costume play for example, new subjectivities are generated. The pleasure of the play and the aesthetics are in other words a substantial, constituent part of subversive movements. In imitation of Baruch Spinoza, philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt claim that:
‘The path of joy is constantly to open new possibilities, to expand our field of imagination, our abilities to feel and be affected, our capacities for action and passion. In Spinoza’s thought, in fact, there is a correspondence between our power to affect and our power to be affected. The greater our mind’s ability to think, the greater its capacity to be affected by the ideas of others; the greater our body’s ability to act, the greater its capacity to be affected by other bodies.’ (Negri and Hardt, 2009)
The relational power of the aesthetical expression, unlike Negri and Hardt’s allusion, however, has absolutely no subversive intention. In his article on community art Jan Cohen-Cruz (2002) points out that not all forms have a progressive, political character (which of course does not coincide with subversive). He reinforces his argument by suggesting that the Nuremberg Party Rallies of Adolf Hitler were an aesthetical, communal ritual. During those rallies not only blond, athletic workers paraded, but there were also women in traditional Teutonic attire performing folk dances. Cohen-Cruz’ example leads us to a next point. Without necessarily subscribing to a nazi ideology, popular art often is intended at bringing people together. This very aspect binds the late Situationists to clog dancers and farce. Both make allo-relational art, for in both cases the artistic aspect is snowed under the political respectively communal goal. Making a public complicit therefore serves other goals than artistic goals. Precisely in this very aspect lies the difference between the political actions of the late Situationists and those of Benjamin Verdonck.
Mapping the community art
Gradually, gropingly, the vectors of the community art start to emerge in the abovementioned account. Yet, before going into greater detail, it seems sensible to launch a possible definition of these artistic acts. The relationship with people is at the centre of this cultural practice. All community art is therefore at least relational art. In order to consider a work community art, a bottom-line is actively involving people in an artistic process or in the production of a work of art. In that case, is a director who is engaging professional actors for a theatre production also making community art? The earlier quoted Cohen-Cruz, would probably answer to that the process of involving people in a work of art should at least be as important as the artistic process or project itself. In short, the community is at least as crucial as the art. The fact that the people participating are often not professionals, not even art connoisseurs per se, only goes to further delineate the territory concerned. For certain, a community art project has only ‘succeeded’ when it realizes an interaction between the participants it was aimed at. The purpose of such interaction can be political or subversive, social as well as identity forming or again therapeutic. In all these cases the aesthetical aspect serves as a mere medium. Only when symmetry between the community and the art is realized, the expressive form has a claim within the professional art world. In other words, a relational work may well be aesthetical, but it is not necessarily a successful work of art. By the same token, an artistic project involving a community, is not necessarily a successful community project. The story of Verdonck teaches us that serving both the community and art, presupposes a very precarious balancing act. In the jargon used earlier it calls for the right balance between auto- and allo-relational aesthetics. This distinction immediately exposes two directions in which community art may navigate. In the first case, community art serves mostly the rules of professional art. In the second, it merely serves social interaction. The possible purpose of that interaction adds two more directions to the map, as a distinction needs to be made between Situationists and farce. Whereas the first aim at radical subversion, the second group is only interested in the socially integrating effect. The latter dimension may therefore be called the digestive effect of the community art. In much the same way as a digestive potion helps to enhance one’s metabolism, this form of art helps to integrate social groups into society. This is done without questioning the dominant values, norms or habits. Digestive community art is, if you wish, a form of ‘naturalizing art’. It conforms with rules which are already in place within society. In some cases they are deliberately put in place and subsidized – by companies, governments, or other official agencies – to bring about integration. Conformity and non-obstruction are at the centre, which makes digestive art the opposite of the subversive artistic act. However the division between both poles is not insurmountable, as integration may lead to emancipation – for example becoming conscious of one’s own rights and of the possible injustice one is suffering – which subsequently elicits (more) effective subversive strategies.
When the outlined poles auto- versus allo-relational and digestive versus subversive art cross one another, a wind-flower with four directions comes into being, as should be the case in any cartography worthy of that name. In this configuration the North stands for what is reasoned and slightly hypothermic, and is opposed to the warm and sanguineous South. The clichés which they evoke indeed serve as ideal metaphors to contrast digestion with subversion. In the West,on the other hand, the cult of the individual dominates and his own identity is at its centre, whereas, on the other hand, Oriental philosophy – in particular Buddhism –regards the self or the ego (atman) as an illusion. The West and the East therefore form ideal regions to which respectively auto-relational and allo-relational art can come home.
However, as only a few people of this globe actually live in the far North or South, likewise the community art will mostly be located in ‘impure’ places. The distinction between auto- and allo-relational art should also be understood as the distinction between digestive and subversive, in other words as a gradation rather than exclusively. Moreover, there is also a North-West or a South-East, where interesting hybrids thrive. In this cartography it is furthermore only possible to locate oneself in relation to another point of reference. Interrelations are always relative: x lies more to the South of y and a more to the West but more to the South of x, and so on. Finally, throughout time, artistic trajectories may transmute or change directions. So the development of an artistic idea may at first be a mere auto-relational matter which finally debouches into a digestive allo-relational (repetitive) process, after which the final product is again summarized auto-relationally, though it may be very offensive for the artistic in-crowd who is confronted with it. The aforementioned shift of Verdonck from a public intervention with illegal immigrants on the street to an exhibition with the remaining artefacts in a museum, illustrates that on the map of community art different itineraries are possible. Whereas an intervention on the street fluctuates between slightly subversive auto- and allo-relational art, the exhibition in a museum has a far more digestive auto-relational character – which has nothing to do with the artistic quality and persuasive power of that particular exhibition. The context and the approachable public together will decide on the place where an artistic project may be located on the community map. To illustrate this, we will use our compass to navigate a number of concrete examples.
Digestive auto-relational art
Art in the public space which has to mark a district or the history of a region and confirm its identity, is often a form of digestive art. The artistic work at least has the goal to ‘liven up’ a public space, without questioning it and certainly not sabotaging it. When the artist who took on the assignment (for indeed often it is art on commission) actively involves the community of the place where the work will be realized in the development and possibly in the execution of his project, we are dealing with a community project. When finally the artist is able to channel all social powers – often a government who gives the assignment, companies involved or businesses and inhabitants – so he can seal them with his own particular artistic signature we are dealing with auto-relational work. Organizations such as the New Sponsors (Les Nouveaux Commonditaires) in France and Belgium or the Foundation for Art in Public Space (de Stichting Kunst in de Openbare Ruimte) in the Netherlands often act as intermediaries to realize such digestive auto-relational art. On the one hand, they explore the wishes of the sponsors and look for ‘a matching artist’, whereas on the other hand, they do guard the singular identity of the latter. Through consultations eventual frictions between artist and community are smoothed out on forehand. Art scientist Simone Kleinhout (2010), for example, describes a project of Les Nouveaux Commonditaires in the small French village of Blessey. In this village counting only 23 inhabitants, a laundry was being restored and the mayor and inhabitants wanted a work of art to be included in this project. The artist Rémy Zaugg was willing to take on the job. He was confronted with a population of mainly farmers who barely knew anything about contemporary art. However, they very well knew which requirements the work of art had to measure up to. It had to be in harmony with the sensitivity of the location and also had to have favourable economic consequences. They even had an idea as to which material should be used to realize the work. The material had to include the characteristics of the environment such as water, stone and plants. And, as the sponsors thought his work also had to have favourable social consequences, in the end Zaugg was forced to, reluctantly, realize his work in the framework of a social reintegration project. The realization of Zaugg’s work would take almost ten years, a period in which he had to go through the trial of many negotiations. He, for example, chose to work with concrete, a material which did not immediately fit in with the rustic image the inhabitants had in mind. The artist did finally manage to carry his decision through in this matter and in doing so leave his mark on the work of art. Anyone who goes to take a look at the work in the French Bourgogne region, has to admit: this is a real ‘Zaugg’. Meanwhile ‘Le lavoir de Blessey’ (2007), as the work which was posthumously realized is called, blends in almost perfectly with the natural slopes and the heritage of the village, not unhinging the history and the identity of the village, but rather confirming it. In other words, through the intervention of himself and Les Nouvaux Commonditaires, Zaugg succeeded in making a perfectly digestive auto-relational work of art, to which the inhabitants even relinquished part of their private premises. Let it therefore be clear once and for all that – in case anyone would have doubts on this matter – the word ‘digestive’ is certainly not synonymous to ‘bad’ art.
Digestive allo-relational art
In the United States, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and the National Endowment for the Arts joined forces in 1977 to realize a programme in which artists realized projects in prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons kindly organized ‘arts-in-corrections’ trainings to that purpose. The purpose of the artistic interventions was ‘criminal transformation into productive citizens’ (Hillman, 2001). Though with time this national programme disappeared into oblivion, several state governments, amongst which the government of California and Mississippi, continued further developed similar projects. In the case of California several millions of dollars were invested in such projects. The belief in the healing effects of the arts is obviously remarkably strong in certain regions of the world. Grady Hillman defends the project with the following argument:
‘The evolving arts-in-corrections model is more than the intervention model of an arts residency in a penitentiary or juvenile detention center. It is a prevention, intervention and after-care model. (…) The benefit of this criminal-justice community is that it brings coherency to a system that is largely incoherent… ’ (Hillman, 2001).
It goes without saying that these kind of community arts programmes aim at social integration, whereas the artistic signature of the artist only comes second. On the map, such programmes clearly navigate in North-Eastern direction, where digestion and allo-relatedness meet each other.
Subversive auto-relational art
Let us remain a while in the United States where in 1989 the republican senator Jesse Helms was appalled by the ‘distasteful’ catalogue ‘The Perfect Moment’, which showed, rather explicitly, the homo-erotic and sadomasochistic work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The affaire has in the meanwhile become world-famous, so it does not make much sense to further elaborate on it in detail. Even twenty years after the incident, nobody will doubt that the act of Mappelthorpe may be interpreted as subversive. However, if the exuberant artist’s work can simply be ranked as community art may well be contested. Certainly, his art is relational, for as was mentioned earlier, all art seeks a relationship with a public. Otherwise there is simply no question of art as such. Nobody will contradict the fact that the artist managed to capitalize on his own artistic signature – though perhaps quite a few people, such as Helms, would venture to question the status ‘art’ - which is a completely different matter and is under discussion here. However, whether the artist was actively seeking communication with a public, in the sense Bourriaud intends, is very much the question. Apart from a band of homosexual friends posing for the photographs, it is difficult to find any traces pointing at a community. Yet, one could defend the position that Mappelthorpe makes auto-relational art. His esthétique relationnelle is not so much to be found in the social attitude of the artist, but in his photographs as such. Whether it was consciously intended by the American photographer or not, his work fits in perfectly with a kind of ‘identity politics’ in which a community finds expression. In any case, the work of Mapplethorpe can not only be read as a manifestation for the right of artistic freedom, but also as an expression of the right to make the – often socially suppressed - culture of a specific community visible. Mapplethorpe proceeds as an anthropologist in his own country, confronting the American society with its own fantasies, self-indulgence or its ‘alterity’. By launching an extravagant lifestyle into the public space, the photographer makes for its legitimacy, which may well be understood to be a political act. In this respect, the work of this eccentric individual is perhaps far morecommunity -forming and–confirming than many intentional artistic fieldwork.
Conclusively,the thesis is defended that it is perfectly possible for an artist to make community art without lifting a finger to a particular community. Mapplethorpe, however, does explicitly embed that community in order to shape it in his oeuvre. Exactly this aspects makes him an extremely auto-relational artist.
Subversive allo-relational art
Let us linger on a bit longer in homosexual circles. The Gay Parade is a nice example of exuberant aesthetics shaping a community. The parades which are organized nowadays in an increasing number of cities often remind one of the ‘carnivalesque’, as the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin understood it already in the middle of the twentieth century. Bakhtin (1968) attributes a specific social function to the carnival: the temporary reversal of the existing hierarchy of power relations. It is by now well known that he called that mechanism ‘symbolic inversion’. This inversion is indeed only symbolical, for after the temporary costume play one returns to the social order of the day. Though a carnival may well offer space to ‘vent’ one’s criticism, it is the very existence of a ‘ventil’ (air valve) which prevents a certain atmosphere from turning into an actual revolution. Only when the Gay Parade transcends the temporality of the feast to point at political rights of homosexuals, the manifestation will find itself on the field of subversion. The aesthetics which are invested, however, only serve the community and barely an individual artistic identity. Therefore, on the map it navigates in the South-East as subversive allo-relational art. Nowadays many (municipal) governments compete with each other for their own Gay Parade. Politicians hope that the colourful parade will highlight the openness of their city and at the same time attract a new type of tourism. In the rush of the creative cities a solid population of homosexuals are also synonymous to aproportionately high creative potential – that is, according to the work of the American social geographer Richard Florida (2002). In this logic the Gay Parade simply serves to tap into a new economy, as ‘alter-sexuals’ constitute a substantial part of the creative class. Given the meanwhile generally established belief in the potency of this class and their industry, each homophobe policy shows an economically irresponsible short-sightedness. The tolerance of the administration, feigned or not, does in any case raise the question as to whether the Gay Parade and other alternative manifestations have not entirely lost their subversive feathers. In a wider context,it opens the discussion on the social position of any form of community art.
Repressive tolerance and pastoral art
In 2007 the Belgian independent research group BAVO made an important contribution to this discussion. In their analysis concerning the comeback of politically engaged art, they denounce problematic art such as so-called ‘NGO-art’. BAVO puts forth the following proposition concerning this new type of political engagement:
‘It is noble and necessary that artists proceed to take direct action against the often harrowing abuses typical of these times. However, when it comes to judging the effectiveness of these politically engaged practices in tackling the current problems in a more fundamental way, they often leave much to be desired. (…) They tend to reason and operate in the same manner as humanitarian organizations or NGO’s: rather than tackling large-scale, political problems, they focus on what they can do immediately, here and now, within the confines of what is obtainable (…). In the same way as is the case with humanitarian organizations one may detect self-censorship in this so-called NGO-art. Humanitarian organizations consciously do not make statements about political questions, because this could interfere with their relief operations, (…). NGO-art is in fact characterized by a denial of politics: above all it has to do with the practicability of a given action. These artists deliberately avoid confrontation with governments or sponsors, because the concessions or funding which they need to execute their actions, may be compromised by such politics. The question as to what can be done, here and now, and how this can be realized in the most efficient manner, is more important than exposing and fighting deeper lying structures – which is in fact the quintessence of politics’ (Bavo, 2007).
In the Netherlands – where currently quite a few community art projects are being financed by municipal administrations – one can regularly literally feel the limits of this form of artistic engagement. For example, artists are often approached by policy makers to liven up the social life in one or other disadvantaged neighbourhood. When the politically engaged artist discovers halfway through the execution of such a project that the problem of the structural disadvantage does not rest on the individual shoulders of a few ‘anti-social’ residents, but rather that it is to blame on the negligent policy of a housing organization, the social servants who commissioned the project all of a sudden become slightly nervous, for the artist might well publicly expose the fact that the putative ‘win-win situation’ of a private-public cooperation between the housing organization and the administration leads to little gain for the inhabitants. With such a threat above their heads, they would rather stop this once much welcomed community project. Once social engagement turns into political engagement, administrations prefer to withdraw their financial engagement. Or, in the terms of the abovementioned cartography: be it auto-relational or allo-relational, once the border between digestion and subversion is crossed, one would rather rid oneself of such art. Therefore it is very much the question what a municipal administration would do with a Gay Parade which would expose an essentially embedded homophobic policy behind the facade of verbal tolerance.
The peculiar relationship between potentially subversive art and established power also emerges in the story of Verdonck. His earlier described public action fitted into a series of interventions by the artist in the Belgian city of Antwerp which lasted an entire year. These were included in a controversial documentary, in which the aforementioned story of the critical illegal immigrant was also given a place. In the beginning of the documentary you can see how Verdonck announces his not always uncritical actions enthusiastically during a meeting with cultural and political actors of the city of Antwerp. Even the mayor of Antwerp is present in person. At the end of the meeting the mayor gives Verdonck a verbal pat on the shoulder and wishes him success, after which he leaves the meeting with a benign smile on his face. In other words, the artist had received the green light from the incumbent power to show some subversive behaviour. Jewish philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse (1965) would probably qualify this incident as a nice example of repressive tolerance. In case the heritage of the 1960s is forgotten or repressed, repressive tolerance is a hegemonic strategy which neutralizes undesirable ideas by granting them a place. Incumbent power tolerates subversion to a certain degree, because it hopes to verily neutralize it in doing so. The possibility of such mechanism therefore raises the question if subsidized community art can acquire any sort of subversive power at all.
Moreover, it is striking that – often digestive - community art frequently surfaces in countries with outspoken neoliberal regimes, such as in Great-Brittain, Australia, the United States and nowadays also the Netherlands. An attempt seems to be madeto compensate the absence or imminent breakdown of a strong social infrastructure, typical of the welfare state, through artistic operations. Perhaps that is the very reason why the community arts are currently experiencing a general comeback. It is generally accepted that with the fall of the Berlin wall neo-liberalism spread almost globally as a hegemonic political system. What is striking in the Netherlands, for example, is that the government stimulates community art in problem areas, precisely those areas from which it withdrew crucial social services ten years ago. Community art is indeed a cheaper form of social work, especially since the first is usually offered in the form of projects, whereas social services, including local schools and hospitals, call for a more serious, structural investment. It is very doubtful if one can indeed effectively tackle serious issues such as social deprivation and disintegration with temporary projects and with likewise temporary responsibilities. Who will take the responsibility in case the artist who within a couple of months to maximum a year has set up a nice piece of art, should subsequently leave the neighbourhood?
Now the connexion between government, social work and community art is made, a last point of discussion remains. The triumvirate suggests an ongoing specific form of power and disciplining practices. The aforementioned example of the ‘arts-in-corrections’ programmes in the United States confirm this intuition. It leads us, almost blindly, to the work of Michel Foucault, for the French philosopher was also particularly interested in prisons.
In his world-famous work dating from 1975 Discipline, 「Surveillance and Punishmen t」 Foucault describes the birth of the prison. He goes to show how punishments gradually acquire an increasingly ‘humane’ character. Public torture and executions disappear to the background and are traded in for confinement and the guidance of an increasingly expanding army of nurses, psychologists and social workers. The crux of Foucault’s work lies in the theorem that this model of discipline is disseminated throughout society through institutes such as hospitals and schools. Foucault continues his research into the execution of power in his lectures at the Collège de France in which he discloses the notion of ‘pastoral power’, during the academic year 1977-1978. The philosopher finds that the origin of this technique of power with the shepherd who ‘manages’ his herd in a particular manner. The shepherd pays lot of attention to the individual animal without losing the whole of his herd out of sight. Subsequently, the church has applied this method of herding to human beings and institutionalized it. The central point of it is that human life is taken by the hand from the cradle to the grave. The art of the shepherd or pastor consists of addressing the members of one’s parish as individually as possible, to penetrate their private lives, and to take note of their deepest secrets through confession. The pastor performs a sort of micro-politics, by which he is able to continuously evaluate and correct the members of his herd, in order to at last lead them to or keep them on the right path. The difference with the sovereign power of the nation state is that pastoral power does not deal with geographically delineated territory, but rather is aimed at people of flesh and blood. For this reason, pastoral power is also a form of ‘biopower’: administration directed at life itself. Based on in-depth interviews French sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato (2010) demonstrates how this pastoral power is part of an official ‘system of correction’. In doing so the inspecting civil servant constantly oversteps the division line between public and private territory, in order to get through to the deepest intimacy of the ‘client’. Under the threat of possible sanctions (the withdrawal of social benefits) he checks toothbrushes and if beds have been slept in or not. The inspector of the unemployment office hopes to help the person who is eligible to receive social benefits on the right – productive – path. Via elaborate registration and records in individual dossiers, the life of the person eligible for social benefits ‘doubles’ in a paper or digital register in which each personal step is carefully followed. Though the client is constantly reminded of his own freedom and individual responsibility, he is in fact put in an asymmetrical power game in which he is constantly shown ‘the right path’. Within the welfare state, not only inspection services, but also a large group of psychologists and social workers thus form an extension of the ‘police power’. In a subtle way they infiltrate the daily private sphere of people to register, correct and make the most intimate life economically productive (again). The point is now that quite a few community art projects – especially when orchestrated by the government – are at the service of this pastoral power. In the aforementioned ‘arts-in-corrections’ programme in the United States this is all too obvious. There community art projects are explicitly launched to turn detained people into ‘productive citizens’. Yet even the artists who enter disadvantaged neighbourhoods with the best intentions, are often not conscious of the fact that they are stepping into this ‘correctional’ logic. They sometimes even enter deep into people’s private world. For example,quite a few would-be artists consider themselves exceedingly original, by distributing photo or video camera’s to socially disadvantaged families, asking them to record their lives and that of their neighbours. While the social worker on a house-visit records their intimacy on paper and in files, the community artist in this case goes even a step further, as the confidential document is traded in for a registration which may become public at any given moment. In other words, the artist enthusiastically encourages the residents to participate in a ‘public confession’ of their own misery and life circumstances. Like confession, it is one of the pastoral power techniques to keep the herd under control. In case of the priest, the psychologist and the social worker such confession still takes place in relative confidentiality, for the artist, however, the precarious social misery hasan expressive character. While the socially engaged artist with all his good intentions thought he was fighting against injustice in this world, he in fact finds himself at the service of the power which maintains the injustice.
Beyond Community Art
Many a community artist might grow weary when reading about the above discussion. Another might receive the arguments with disbelief and attempt to neutralize them with as many counter examples. A mapping of community art, however, teaches us that this world is full of good intentions, sometimes even revolutionary thoughts, but also that great naivety exists and even incompetence. The cited discussion is therefore not intended to discourage community art, but to make for some self-reflexion. This is the reason why intentionally the most extreme boundaries of this artistic practice were scanned, as in the Mapplethorpe case. Hopefully it will help to better estimate and clarify the future position of the socially engaged artist, allowing her or him to also develop effective strategies. Whoever may think that with the above analysis community art is best carried to its grave, has missed the point. Firstly, let it be clear that the digestive, integrating power of some artistic projects is particularly useful in a globalized world counting a growing number of diaspora’s and homeless people. Apart from that, it should also be noted that the notion ‘community art’ nowadays carries with it a remarkably subversive potency, which is hidden in the very word ‘community’. Within a neoliberal world in which individuality, personal gain, competition, and risky speculations have become the leading morale of the day and govern the social fabric, the community probably gives rise to associations which may sound naive but which are no less revolutionary within the current hegemony. When the community does not retreat onto itself, but consequently uses its principles to the defence of an unknown other and the other, she might well offer an unexpected ideological counterforce. In short, nowadays the community still stands for an alternative way of life. According to the American philosopher Richard Sennett, she even provides the most important architecture against the current, hostile economic order (Sennett, 1998).
In the current network society the community can no longer be understood as a closed social form with mere face-to-face relations, as was the case in the 1960s, and most certainly not as the romantic Gemeinschaft Ferdinand Tönnies (1887) once pinpointed. The new or alter-community does however evoke associations with ‘the common’, and the possibility of shared property which belongs by unalienable right to everybody. It does point in the direction of lasting solidarity across generations, inside and between neighbourhoods or (world) regions. Finally, it indicates a form of love which reaches beyond the walls of private family life. These new communities operate as neo-tribal groups in an alter-modern network world. The latter implies, amongst others, that they do not stick to their own identity, but are continuously transforming it and having it transformed by new meetings. These worlds of stateless communities develop their own economies of leisure, pleasure, love and knowledge, as islands within the neoliberal hegemony.
‘Keep on dreaming, baby’, sounds a sober yet ironical voice, very near from afar. Dreams do probably contain a sense of reality. Perhaps it is up to art to transform them into concrete forms. It will certainly take a lot of imaginative power to shape the new communities. In other words, beyond community art presupposes first of all an art of communities, in which artistic reflexion is not at the service of the evident questions vented in the media nowadays with a neoliberal logic, and in which the aesthetic does not serve to slavishly patch-up the holes a blind capitalism leaves behind. Arts of communities know how to occupy these holes in an adequate way and manage them tactically by constantly generating ways of escape. In short, community arts only make sense when they refuse to be used as instruments of a uniform, homogenizing, calculating logic, but when they produce the most divergent communities, through the confrontation of many singular and dissonant forms of imaginative power.