Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

(Post) community arts

Rachel Fensham


Review essay of Gay Hawkins, From Nimbin To Mardi Gras: Constructing Community Arts. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993. 189pp + xxv. ISBN 0 86373 466 X. $19.95.


Ambiguous - having more than one possible interpretation or meaning - difficult to understand or classify, obscure - going here and there (Collins Dictionary)

"Ultimately, this history of the Community Arts Program is deeply ambiguous." (Hawkins 167)

From the outset Gay Hawkins is teleological and textual, when she proposes that community arts is an official invention of government policy. From that position, in this model of cultural policy as history, she investigates the network of relations between three objects: ideas which shape the government patronage of art; the structural and discursive activity of the Australia Council's Community Arts Program; and selected projects which exemplify the constituted (funded) field of community arts practice. This official community arts began in the 1970s when a changed political climate of reformist ideals was ushered in with the Whitlam government. The Program drew its ideas from new arts programs provided by welfare organisations in England and its establishment, as a "socially-concerned" funding committee inside the Australia Council, provided the new government with "a horse to call its own" in an otherwise select band of national arts organisations. Therefore, the 'community' did not refer to a self-appointing/self-defining/self-supporting group but was instead a negative series of sites available for intervention from government: 'not-national'; 'not-high art', 'not-federal/state'. With these inauspicious and uncertain beginnings, Gay sets out to foreground the complex mix of social and aesthetic values which have shaped this contested area of arts policy.

Gay, correctly, identifies the most persistent and troubling issue for the Community Arts Board (henceforth the CAB) - who or what is 'community'? - and she devotes considerable time to the politics of 'community'. She asserts that the first phase, roughly approximating the 1970s, defined groups by 'cultural disadvantage'. This involved a denial of aesthetic values and affected the CAB's standing in relation to the other artform-based Boards. Later attempts in the 1980s to negotiate community through concepts of 'diversity' enabled a wider range of projects to be encouraged but continued to lack an aesthetic language. This, she argues, has left the CAB unable to effectively critique the theoretical boundaries of how and why certain art is given value by government and equally unself-critical about its own aesthetics.

Perhaps the greater problem is that modes of understanding cultural difference may have little to do with the structural and totalising functions of a 'community' policy. As Iris Young explains: 'community proponents conceive the social subject as a relation of unity composed by identification and symmetry among individuals within a totality' (7). As a political agenda, community can assist the potential for sharing and acknowledging differences between subjects but, on the other hand, it refuses to address the misunderstandings, conflicts and incomplete resolutions of social subjects which are the likely conditions of that difference. Once again Young's insights are pertinent: 'an impossible ideal of shared subjectivity can tend to deflect attention from more concrete analysis of the conditions of their [referring to social relations of domination and exploitation] elimination' (12).

Yet, in spite of the linguistic and philosophical dilemmas of the term community, its use was never abandoned even when opportunities arose to propose new terminologies. By the time the CAB became a Community Cultural Development Unit (CCDU) in 1987, many artists and cultural practitioners no longer identified with the sentiments and ideology of 'community' and, perhaps more surprisingly, it no longer served the needs of vocal and influential applicant organisations, such as the Trade Union movement and Local Government. 'Community', however, functioned as a collective, universal noun which could be emptied of any specific organisational meaning, that is, it did not prescribe the recipients of funding nor the means of production. As an article of purpose, it became increasingly benign and its use was legitimated within Council and by other governmental policy-makers, whether in the areas of industry, housing or broadcasting.

I agree therefore, with Gay's assessment of the historical and discursive limits of 'community'. Its idealisation prevented other available models of patronage being explored even though organisational alliances with non-arts organisations and with other artform agencies had suggested that debates about access could move away from cultural production towards audiences and distribution. This shift would have required, however, the construction of another set of terms, possibly emphasising reception and media diversity, and a departure from the historical imperatives of 'collectivity through cultural production' towards a policy discourse which asserted the right to intervene differently in different domains. As Meaghan Morris has argued about the overemphasis in progressive politics on bureaucratic skills and the politics of access, there also needs to be 'a politics of the distribution and dissemination of the products of such "access"' which might involve such less quantifiable things as 'speculation', 'thinking' and 'imaginative effort' (183). Any paradigm shift such as this would have required a further disruption of the institutional privilege of art over culture peculiar to the Australia Council (and all arts funding agencies). Today, I suspect the extensive and financially dependent community arts infrastructure would be anxious about such a move as some of them still act as advocates for the culturally disadvantaged and continue to view arts practice as cultural affirmation. In this way, 'community' can be both conservative and nostalgic with its emphasis on harmony and social integration.

Much as I agree with Gay about the limits of community she slides over the ways in which it has served as a mobilising concept. I would argue that its value has been less at the level of the project which engenders small group face-to-face relations and more at the level of the creation of invisible networks, identifications and circulations between people. These have impacted individually and collectively upon institutional discourses such as the planning of cities, the management of health and social resources, the organising of major cultural events, national and international broadcasting and publishing. The simple and bounded notion of an ideal community has been stretched by these cultural activists to include commitments to equal social and political rights, the representation of diversity, the acknowledgement of different histories and the ability to facilitate competing forces within the workplace. This form of community is not organised from the top down or even from the bottom up but is dispersed horizontally through attention to the rules which make contestation possible. I would argue that the nuances and tensions which produce policy out of institutional practices are continuing dimensions of the arts, culture and community ideological nexus. Perhaps the problem has been to think of community as legislative and owned by the CAB rather than it representing the fluid identifications of social beings.

My three main criticisms of the text then, are the downplaying of the active role of the field in constituting its own discourses; the narrow view of discourse and power relations which does not allow for the flexibility of the discourse itself nor for the historical alignments between art and social change; and the inadequate consideration of how the Community Arts Program has impinged upon aesthetic discourses and more particularly, how it has influenced the contemporary construction of Australia as a nation of 'imagined communities'.

The field of practice had a much more dynamic and independent relationship to the official policy field produced by the Australia Council than Gay allows. The downplaying of these 'other voices' and processes is a methodological weakness within this book because its research materials are the minutes of meetings and official correspondence from the CAB and the Australia Council, supplemented by interviews with selected high profile players of the same bureaucracy. Perhaps it is no wonder that the perception of how discourses were produced cannot readily accomodate the competing influences of both instrumentality and practitioners. Let me give a concrete example. The Boards of the Australia Council have always been composed of "peer assessment" panels whose job it is to determine funding decisions and to produce policy. The CAB was most active in this second area and its rotating memberships were frequently individuals who had been vocal and strident commentators on cultural practice, frequently outside the parameters of the community arts constituency: for instance, the editor of the Women's Weekly was once invited to join. In this way the committee would reinvent its own terms of reference even though the patterns of funding changed more slowly. Equally the membership organisations of community arts were frequently composed of people who had little or no grant relationship to community arts and instead saw themselves as producers of discussion on local issues and arts-related cultural action rather than subjects of the Australia Council. Outside the Sydney glow, the hot air of the CAB was not taken too seriously and sometimes local representatives of 'the field' held the bureaucracy to ransom over ideological changes which they didn't agree with. Frequently, social and institutional exchanges reconstituted the field before the Council was able to incorporate them as a policy shift at the level of nation.

By the same token I am mindful that an equally false view would construct the field from the point of view of an autonomous cultural vanguard, 'the movement' as we were wont to call it. To be fair, Gay does acknowedge this interdependence but unfortunately she does not address the historical complexity of what constitutes radical art activity. There is no mention of the Worker's Art Program in the Roosevelt New Deal era, which had much in common with the rhetoric of community arts, nor of the ways in which the twentieth century avant garde has concerned itself with the social and the popular. These texts, not immediately local and contemporary, also underpinned the ideological positions of people within, and without, the bureaucracy.

In fact, the annual conferences and publications of the various arts networks were frequently the fora for controversial challenges to the hegemony of community arts. For example, at the 1986 national conference, British cultural activist, Owen Kelly presented his Manifesto for Cultural Democracy (1986) which included a critique of community arts approaches to practice and funding. He emphasised the struggle to produce meanings from technological and social changes through media production and consumption and was active in non-traditional media organisations. Figures like Kelly and events like the Creative City conference (Creative City) organised by the Victorian Ministry, the CCDU, UNESCO, the Melbourne City Council and the Commission for the Future, pushed aesthetic discourses into fields that were outside the domain of community workers, disdvantaged groups and artists which Gay describes as the constituency of community arts. Aesthetic discourse around art per se became a dead question, in fact artistic narrowness was only critical to survival when related to the CAB's anxiety about its place within the Australia Council. Many smart movers left the arts altogether whereas others have realigned themselves as individual artists in order to fit the current model of arts patronage.

It is a pity the precise chronicling of discursive changes in arts discourse cannot offer a more interactive model of policy production and avoid the sometimes patronising tone Gay employs to portray the 'non-policy makers'. The lobby group of community arts practitioners which argued 'to protect a bureaucracy that had constructed and sustained (them)' appears to have no autonomous existence, and is ascribed sycophantic and self-interested motives (53). At another point, she describes the constituency as children and the CAB as concerned parents (68) and then, with reference to a period long after many radical artists were working beyond the boundaries in mainstream areas of cultural production or theoretically critiquing representation, she claims 'there was a 'discovery' of community arts by a range of progressive artists' (72). I don't think there was any great moment of encounter between artists and the official doctrines of the Australia Council, instead I think there were artists who identified strategically with the ideological presumptions of community arts by aligning themselves with its increasing structural importance within Council. In this way, artists directly assisted the process of its legitimation.

The most interesting part of the book for me is Part III, in which the teleological unity of the text is challenged by the inherent contradictions of practice in projects. When weighing up the relative responses to different photographic exhibitions, one a worker's documentary project in Newcastle, and the other, a recording of front yards in Wollongong, she considers the works as diverse aesthetic and social productions. Who or what can be made of them must be filtered through the seeing eyes of artists, audiences and critics, whose negotiations of class, identity, professional practice cannot be taken for granted. In this departure from the analysis of textual relations as a social program there is a bit of heart (in the sense of pulse if not, affection) for what is, or has, constituted community arts, when viewed as diverse domains of social interrogation and invention. At the level of practice, no-one has denied the ambiguity and tensions of community arts and a recent compilation of writings by community arts practitioners is deliberately rife with contradiction and argument (Binns). What Gay summarises here, however, are some of the dilemmas represented by the emphasis on projects, at the same time, as she provides a lively reading of aesthetic outcomes. What a pity that these insights could not have been more subversively redirected at the policy discourse.

For all my criticisms, Gay's discussion of this problem child of the Australia Council is well described and in fact, the conversion of various prominent figures to the position of advocates for the approaches and policies of the CAB, is both mildly amusing and of importance. Gay suggests, although more could be said upon this point, that discourses from the community arts field have shaped Australia Council policy in general as well as state and local government discussions of culture, to which I would add their impact upon current federal cultural policy. It is also one of the few Boards to have been consistently informed by cultural studies, eg. early definitions were informed by Raymond Williams' writings on culture, and to have contributed to international developments in critical cultural exchange, eg. early investigations into community television were sponsored by the CCDC or support for fledgling black South Africa cultural organisations has been initiated by the CCDC.

At the conclusion of the book Hawkins cites the example of Warpole and Mulgan's 1986 From Saturday Night to Sunday Morning as a beacon for future arts policy even though they have long since been sidestepped after years of conservative rule in Britain. They argue for an industry-based model of competitive economic and cultural strategies which has lead to changing approaches and shifts in the work of Australian cultural practitioners. I am inclined to think, however, that the community arts program in Australia has represented a remarkably intimate and ongoing relationship between the state and progressive, sometimes radical, arts practice, which is not mappable onto models from either Britain or the United States. The strength of Gay's book is that it goes some way towards providing an historical understanding of that relationship and its failures, however I am pessimistic about the implications of turning to Morgan and Walpole's strategies today because they can provide excuses for conservative governments to undo state legislative and policy initatives by focusing exclusively on market forces in determining cultural support.

As someone committed to the political importance of cultural differences and the possibilities for their representation within diverse media, within social life as well as within policy, I am uncertain about the impact of this 'ambiguous' cultural policy history. Will it for instance be taken up by the Australia Council as a means to turn the spotlight on their own terms and constructions of aesthetic patronage or will it be used to dismiss the anachronisms of the past in order to replace them with a future of excellence in national endeavour? Given policy shifts which have already occurred federally, the necessity for a discourse of 'community' may have evaporated but whether socially progressive alternatives will be asserted which can retain the level of influence and mobilisation of community arts remains to be seen. Perhaps one lesson of this book is that ambiguity is not such a bad thing in policy, for if the text determined everything then the possibilities for contestation and reinvention in practice would cease to exist.

Notes

Binns, Vivienne. Community and the Arts: History, Theory, Practice. Sydney: Pluto Press, 1991.

Morris, Meaghan. "Politics Now (Anxieties of a Petty-bourgeois Intellectual)" The Pirate's Fiancee: Feminism, Readings, Postmodernism. London: Verso, 1988.

Mulgan, G. and Worpole, Ken. Saturday Night or Sunday Morning: From Arts to Industry - New Forms of Cultural Policy. London: Comedia, 1986.

The Creative City: Collected Papers. Meanjin 47:4 (1988).

Young, Iris Marion. "The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference". Social Theory and Practice. 12:1 (1986): 1-26.


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