Can culture heal fractured communities?
Artistic initiatives from visual artists, actors and musicians seem to be increasingly central to conversations on the future of communities. The idea of using art to ‘heal’ post-conflict cities such as Belfast or Beirut is well-established, but in the face of gang culture and rising knife crime this ethos has become more mainstream, for example through theatre companies and musicians working in cities such as London. The University of London’s Sally Mackey says arts activities that ‘engage people physically and emotionally can build strong communities’ and Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan says cultural activities ‘will draw on Londoners’ creativity to build stronger more resilient communities’. One notable response to the fire at Grenfell Tower has been community art projects like the Grenfell Memorial Mosaic. More broadly ‘art psychotherapy’ is used at Grenfell and elsewhere to engage with ‘difficult emotions’, a reflection of a wider interest in achieving community well-being through art therapy. Nevertheless, sceptics are busy debunking many claims by policymakers about capacity of art to regenerate economies or improve health. Some even allege developers are using art as part of the process of gentrification or ‘social cleansing’. Meanwhile, the Spectator’s ‘What’s That Thing?’ Award for bad public art points to increasing cynicism over the quality of art commissioned in the name of the public. Should we be wary, as cultural critic Munira Mirza warns, of diminishing the autonomy of artists who become ‘merely tools of government policy agendas?’
How do we account for the seeming agreement now amongst politicians, policymakers, funders and artists that ‘culture’ can be used to build stronger communities? And can art deliver on its therapeutic and community building ambitions? Are those demanding ‘Art for Art’s Sake!’ being overly purist? After all, no lesser an artist than Pablo Picasso has said that ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’. While policymakers might have jumped on the arts bandwagon, according to Tate, experiments in what became known as community art date to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and were revitalised after World War Two.
At the unveiling of his piece ‘Really Good’, atop Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, Turner Prize winning artist David Shrigley said his art purports to ‘make the world a better place, which obviously is a ridiculous proposition but I think it’s a good proposition’. Karen Taylor of Be Creative Be Well says, ‘I have no problem with what people call ‘instrumentalism’. So what if artists want to change the world through their practice? What’s so terrible about that?’ So are critics of community art in danger of squeezing out worthwhile aspirations? Or are they rightly worried that art is over-claiming on the political front while lacking artistic ambition?