“Community” has been on my mind for a long time. A text panel at the retrospective exhibition Do You Want the Cosmetic Version or the Real Deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014 presented at the Queens Museum of Art earlier this year reignited this concern.
Founder John Malpede of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a collective performance group composed of Los Angeles’ Skid Row residents, spotlights one of the main challenges confronting community-based projects: “Community art is a code word for bad art.”
The provocative statement reminded me that my graduate courses in art history rarely addressed “community art.” Through reading essays and books on public art for my research I quickly realized that many academics and art professionals don’t value collaborative projects.
Defining “community” is one of the chief issues plaguing this field of art. In Against the Romance of Community Miranda Joseph suggests that many people employ the term “community” to bolster their social or political agendas. In this situation, community becomes a static and exclusionary identity that reinforces conservative attitudes and social hierarchies. Joseph focuses on why people keep invoking the concept and aims to reclaim the radical potential of community. I like that Joseph doesn’t just dismiss the idea of collective practice. She challenges us to analyze how groups form and function as she asserts that community can be a powerful and inclusive political force.
Art historian Miwon Kwon also highlights the interpretative difficulties associated with the concept of community in her book One Place After Another: Site-Specific and Locational Identity. She notes that writers who discuss art grounded in community engagement practices often fail to study how “community” operates in these projects. Kwon finds that people employ “community” to exclude difference or produce reductive, token-like, identifications. Her assault against the ideas of art historian Grant Kester on the efficacy of collaborative work is a must-read for students and practitioners of this field. Instead of community-based art, she proposes “collective praxis,” a form of group-based art that stresses disunity and self-questioning of communal identity.
I find Kwon’s attention to the lack of critical discussion about the meaning of community valid. Yet, I agree with Kester who argues that identity is more complicated that Kwon proposes. People can and do work together while at the same time realizing their differences and the limited nature of group affiliation. (Kester, who finds Kwon’s analysis entrenched in a modernist avant-garde orientation, offers his thrashing response in chapter 5 of his book Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art. It’s another essential reference.)
Lucy Lippard’s apt remarks on community in her essay “Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be,” in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art help us get past the discord. “Community doesn’t mean understanding everything about everybody and resolving all the differences; it means knowing how to work within differences as they change and evolve.” Community is a form of critical consciousness; it’s a “process of recognizing both limitations and possibilities.”
The LAPD exhibition’s ironic panel presents the stereotype and the group’s attention to realistic representations and diverse perspectives. Although the text doesn’t directly oppose the bias, it suggests that art that isn’t based in collective practice is superficial. Because the Skid Row performers present multiple life stories, they produce a textured, varied conception of kinship. Additionally, the performers’ marginalized status as impoverished people forces viewers to recognize the borders associated with mainstream conceptions of community.
Encountering this narrative prompted me to reconsider how people think about community art. Many members of the rarefied art world undervalue these practices so it’s understandable that some artists disavow connection with the genre. Yet I don’t think dissociation is productive. Here are some of the key questions on my mind:
- Does rejection of the term “community art” broaden or narrow conceptualizations of art?
- How does “community art” empower individuals or groups? How does stripping the word “community” from collaborative work of diverse members who include formally and informally trained artists affect its value?
- Can we retrieve “community” and infuse it with that powerful and complex possibility that Miranda Joseph suggests?
- Finally, at the College Art Association’s 2014 conference Chicago artist Theaster Gates proposed another way to think about these community-engaged practices that may be useful here: “What happens when art stops needing to be called art and needs to be called something else?”
Siona Wilson, Review of Do You Want the Cosmetic Version or the Real Deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014, Queens Museum of Art, ArtReview, March 2014