We take other community based professions seriously, so why is there still a stigma attached to community based art?
Jennifer Barry recently wrote eloquently in response
to critic Chloe Medhurst’s implication that community art was ‘unprofessional’. Unfortunately, this is a notion that has never really gone away, despite the significant professionalisation of the community arts field (particularly through the community cultural development sector) in Australia.
Indeed, for quite some time, Australia has been recognised as the world leader in this area. For example, approximately ten years ago the Rockefeller Foundation (albeit briefly) picked up and championed the adoption of community cultural development as its preferred terminology in its publications. Adams and Goldbard’s Community, Culture and Globalisation
was the prime example. This position might be fading; however, as led by government structural, policy and funding decisions we are backing away from not only the terminology but the key focuses of CCD on community development outcomes.
Funding for one-off CCD projects is disappearing, along with the training programs designed to give artists the skills to undertake effective community engagement that were around a decade ago. The last investigation of the Arts workforce by David Throsby Do You Really Expect to Get Paid
indicates that most employment in the sector is now behind a computer in a local government setting, rather than as a freelance artist. Even the general visibility of the sector is decreasing. It is no longer championed by the key organisations that have been de-funded, no longer has a national journal or a central web-presence.
This might create an impression that ‘community artist’ is less a profession than it was ten years ago. It has certainly never been a valid occupation code that you can choose to be listed under according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, despite several attempts by peak community arts organisations to lobby for it.
Nevertheless, the opposite of ‘professional’ is in fact ‘amateur’ not community. While the much vaunted democratisation of the means of production may be blurring the lines between amateur and professional in filmmaking, photography and even contemporary music, the distinction generally remains, and in the arts it carries strongly negative connotations.
If you are a trained specialist in the creative arts then you are ‘entitled’ to create work. Better still, through the mythical ‘transformative hand of the artist’ then whatever you do (even if it is just assembling a pile of bricks in a geometric shape) is therefore art. If you are not a professional artist then no matter the level of talent, skill, or quality of the concept you bring to bear, there remains the idea that you should be a consumer not a creator of art. As a result, your best efforts, even if facilitated by a professional artist, will somehow not quite be the real deal.
This distinction between the role of the creator and the consumer is not quite so evident in other parts of our society. While there is a clear and obvious distinction in the level of performance between professional and amateur sports people, for example, there is no stigma attached to the efforts of the non-professional, yet that seems never far away in the arts. You would never hear the phrase ‘it is not real sport’, but it is not unusual to hear ‘it is not real art’ because the person making the undertaking is not a professional. Similarly those skilled enough to make clothing for themselves are not decried as inferior to the fashion industry.
The amateur is encouraged for their efforts, or even admired as equal to the professional, in the areas of life that are now reflected in reality and lifestyle television programming. In this realm we are actively encouraged to improve our skills and achieve an outcome indistinguishable from the professional. No one thinks a dish has a worse taste because it was made by a non-professional cook. No one knocks back a beautiful home renovation because the owner did it him or herself without the benefit of a trade, architects or interior designer qualification. Yet when it comes to the arts, the curriculum vitae alongside the work significantly colours how a cultural artefact is seen.
These attitudes are perhaps intrinsic to our Anglophone (English-speaking) culture in that we share them with other English speaking countries, but they are quite different to that you find elsewhere. In English speaking countries we don’t sing, unless we consider ourselves a singer. Compare that to the Karaoke culture in Japan or better still the way in which nearly everybody sings in Italy. In many Indigenous cultures music, dance and visual arts are part of the lives of all members of the society, not just those deemed to be, or trained to be, the best at them.
Donald Horne wrote extensively about ‘Cultural Rights’ and I believe it is vitally important that we all not only have, but also assert the right to create cultural artefacts and to express ourselves through the arts. If those outcomes are presented to an audience then they are just as valid as any other cultural product.
We should be sufficiently well evolved in our culture to be able to talk about quality, excellence and other value laden assessments and evaluations of artworks without having to classify them according to the occupation of the people creating them. Certainly we should be well beyond regarding artists who chose to create work through community engaged processes as anything less than professional.