The Arts Benefit from Engagement

VietVetMemorialThis blog is all about the arts and community engagement. Last time (More on Artists and Engagement) I began a discussion about the role of the artist in this mix. Here, I want to consider yet again the fact that community-focused or community-aware art does not in any way imply inferior art.

Contrary to assumptions some make, community engagement does not even remotely mean churning out Lion King sequels. The assumption that it does suggests (though it doesn’t prove) something about the “assumer’s” attitude toward the public. I have written about this on numerous occasions here, notably in R E S P E C T:

By that I mean I don’t think it’s necessary to “give them what they want.” . . . The key is to respect people. Giving people what they need rather than what they want is a form of deep respect, if that is indeed what we are doing. If we are simply giving them what we want to give, that is profound disrespect. In order to distinguish the difference, we need to reframe our own perspective and get to know “them.”

Great art has always found inspiration in concerns of the public. Picasso’s Guernica and Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series responded to outrage and sorrow over the Spanish Civil War. Of course neither artist was a community-focused artist in the sense of which I speak, and these works were difficult for the general public to appreciate when they were created. However, the point of connection established by addressing something of importance to the public is a critical element in community engagement.

Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time is a reflection on Kristallnacht. Its use of African-American spirituals as a means of highlighting issues of racism and oppression was a good artistic choice in addition to one that made the piece more widely accessible.

Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a brilliant example of an artist understanding what an entire nation needed in order to heal from a devastating experience. It is today one of the most successful monuments in Washington, DC.

Each of these works sprang from awareness of community issues. The artists responded to concerns shared by the public at large. The Spanish Civil War, Kristallnacht, and the Vietnam War were all major events about which no one could have been unaware. Great art was the result.

The more artists are aware of community concerns large and small the more starting points they have both for their art and for connecting with the community. Community engagement is about mutually beneficial relationships–art is advanced and the well-being of individuals and communities is enhanced. For the artist that chooses to do so, relationship-building with segments of “the public” can be a valuable means of enriching their work.


On another topic, you may be interested in EmcArts’ contest to pick participants in their next round of “innovation support”: Business Unusual National Challenge.



Photo:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by wallygrom

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  1. says

    Doug, I think you might have it exactly backwards.

    A good case could be made that the respect which you speak of needs to be encouraged more from the viewer to the artist. Artists need more respect.; read about what you are looking at, learn more about the artist and what they do, realize the difference between personal taste and knowledge about a subject. Learn about the history of art, when and why things happened. Knowledge of process and history make experience richer and more alive. Art isn’t just entertainment.

    Most great art has been initially rejected by the public. Where’s the respect?

    FYI, Picasso said this about his masterpiece Guernica “…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”
    The public reacted with overwhelmingly negativity to the painting when it was first exhibited as was Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. These two artist reacted to what was happening in the world. That is different that your vague suggestion that they were somehow connecting to the public concerns.

    I don’t think most good artists assume anything about audiences as you suggest. They are involved with the work, their art, their craft. Of course artists want their work to connect to something, someone, maybe idealistically even with everyone. But I doubt it is the reason why most artists make work. Some work is rejected by the public, some becomes an instant hit, and some only years later is realized as having had a profound effect on the history of art. This is what those who are currently obsessed with the neo-liberal language of engagement and inclusion fail to realize. Art just doesn’t work the way you say it does or should.

    Here is my bottom line, after which I promise to give your blog a rest. I’m not saying that artists who work with communities in some type of interrelated capacity and participatory manner isn’t a rewarding and nice thing. Does that make the product of that relationship art? Maybe. Maybe not. It just depends. But I think your field needs to take a closer and more historical look at the changes you propose, what gets lost, and what is actually meant by all this chatter about engagement.