This week, as part of the BBC 2 series Civilisations, Simon Schama examined the work of the 20th and 21st century and its fate in a commercial, profit-driven world. The series began with this premise - that it is in art - the play of the creative imagination - that humanity expresses its most essential self: the power to break the tyranny of the humdrum, the grind of everyday. His conclusion is hopeful – that art still has a vital role to offer insight into the modern world, the creativity of the human spirit continuing to endure.
To conclude our series of blogs inspired by the series, we asked the National Galleries Outreach team to reflect on these questions, in relation to their recent ‘mail art’ project Art of the Future – which also concludes this weekend on 29 April – considering the role that community art plays in the story of creativity, and civilisation.
‘Make it about YOU. Make it about HERE. Make it about NOW.’
It could be said that community art represents the end of ‘Civilisation’ as we know it. If, traditionally, the work of the ‘old masters’ has been seen as the peak of artistic achievement, then the art made by teenagers, amateurs, hobbyists and local communities was regarded as its trough. Community art projects have been acknowledged as well-meaning … but associated with shoddy production. They have been praised for taking place … but not taken seriously as ‘real’ art. They have been given exposure … but have rarely received serious critical appraisal.
‘I feel that the ‘art’ or ‘projects’ we made were very low quality and should not have been accepted in the museum ... I would have expected higher standards.’
‘We don’t do art as a job, so we don’t know how to make things so detailed or professional.’
These quotes, which come from two of the contributing artists in the Art of the Future exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery can be seen to reveal the arguments for and against community art, in terms of its quality.
This exhibition is the outcome of a learning project which challenged young people to make art from scratch. From August to December 2017, twenty youth groups across Scotland received a mail order art tool-kit of disparate materials and equipment, which encouraged them to come up with an artistic response that revealed their lives today, and how they see the future.
Inspired by the NOW series of contemporary art exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, it tested whether or not conceptual art tactics could be successfully adopted by young people to address the world they live in.
Community art has sometimes been the neglected child of the cultural sector, but it is also a powerful indicator of how art galleries and their audiences have changed in the last twenty years. Feedback from our project participants and frank assessments from the exhibition’s Comments Book, can help reveal how this art form is regarded today.
A Democratic Art
‘We thought about how the modern day society works and thought we should express what we feel.’
‘Art for lost souls.’
‘Excellent portrayal of how life can be for young people, speaking through the use of creativity. I saw, heard and understood.’
Q: ‘Why does an art gallery work with communities to make original works of art?’
A: ‘We want to share the power of creativity’.
Yes, the National Galleries’ acquire, research and preserve the ‘best’ art from Scotland and the world, but we also believe in inspiring our audiences to make art which can be a part of their lives, particularly those who may not have this option on tap at present. We try to show how art can ask, and answer, questions which affect us all, as this visitor’s comment identifies:
‘Even if you don’t agree with the views of these students – and I know many don’t – regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, this project of teaching students to formulate educated opinions (of any political leaning) is so essential – a remarkable yet under-appreciated skill in our politically charged, highly divided Western environment.’
But of course, not everybody agrees:
‘(I) Actually find it depressing that this is the standard and subject-matter of 16yr olds, etc. … misspelling, jaded, ‘trendy’ topics. Not up to much.’
The quote below was a teacher’s view of the project:
‘There was a feeling of democracy about the project – it was created for young people by young people, raising issues pertinent to them – not many art projects or exhibitions have really done that before, they may say they do, but they are still élitist - this one actually delivered on its promise.’
These comments demonstrate that community art projects can be controversial, but that they also provide a platform for non-professional artists to make the kind of art, and statements, that they want to make. In this light, one of the most moving responses to this challenge - to create an artwork from random materials - was a street performance about metal health support for young people.
This artwork from Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, saw one participant don a cardboard bear mask and pick up a loudhailer, inviting passers-by to add a coloured ribbon - identifying a particular aspect of mental health, e.g. depression, anxiety, etc - to the group’s ‘The Bear Cares’ banner. The benefits of this project were acknowledged by the members of the public who took part, and movingly, by one of the participants:
‘It was great talking to the strangers who agreed to pin their ribbons up. Some were quite open about the personal issues they deal with and, as far as I know, no-one had anything bad to say about what we were doing. Taking part in the project has helped me with talking to strangers and working in a team. Also, it’s made it easier for me to talk about my own mental health issues. It was really fun to do too.’
This comment is a powerful example of what we are trying to achieve. We hope that the inspiration of our collection can empower individuals and groups to explore issues by creating artworks which speak to their communities. If they can achieve this, then that is good enough for us.
The Art of the Future: The Public Feedback
Young people from Drummond Community High School, involved in creating some of the artworks exhibited in The Art of the Future, respond to comments left by members of the public.