An Introduction to Community Art and Activism

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An Introduction to Community Art and Activism

By Jan Cohen-Cruz

Activism: direct vigorous undertakings in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.

Random House Dictionary

This is an introduction to the Community Art and Activism section of the CAN Reading Room. My purpose is to provide an overview of the subject by tracing some historical markers, mapping out an array of forms that activist community art assumes, and considering some of the principles underlying such projects. While one could understand the whole field of community art as activist in its radical expansion of who can be an artist, I'm including only its most overt manifestations.

Community art is that which is rooted in a shared sense of place, tradition or spirit (deNobriga). Not all community art has an activist agenda; it is as likely to celebrate cultural traditions or provide a space for a community to reflect. But even such community art projects share activism's commitment to collective, not strictly individual, representation. Moreover, as concerns communities of place, artists with strong geographical bonds garner particular opportunities for building alliances when activism is a goal. Even when they have major ideological differences from the majority voice, they may nevertheless have kids in the local schools, or offer workshops there; living in the same environment, they are personally affected by the same nuclear power plants, epidemics and economic ups and downs. Thus can they build on a connection that is already there. Artists who work out of a communal identity grounded in tradition or spirit — ethnicity, ideology or class, for example — ostensibly already know a thing or two about working collectively. Thus they, too, begin their support or contestation of an issue at an advantage over artists used to an individualistic stance.

Community art can be distinguished from so-called political art, which usually refers to an aesthetic object whose subject matter either directly responds to a controversial public action or is intended to challenge public perception about the status quo. Think of great antiwar oeuvres by superb individual artists like Picasso's "Guernica" or Brecht's "Mother Courage," viewable in arts institutions (theaters, museums) and extolled for their universality and artistic virtuosity as much as for their message. In contrast, community-based art is as much about the process of involving people in the making of the work as the finished object itself. Context is also central; this art is situated in more public, accessible and resonant places, geared to a specific audience and a specific time.

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