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WI(L)DER COLLABORATIONS : reflections on community engaged arts practices

©Beth Carruthers 2005

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I recall initiating discussions in the early 1980’s to consider how to bring the relationship of artist and arts with community back to the centre of focus. In those days there was much talk of “visual literacy” and the critiquing of practices increasingly steeped in theories incomprehensible to the community at large. We arrived often at the questions: What and who was/is art for? Why make art at all?

It seems to me that the late 20th and early 21st century focus on community engaged arts practices is trying another road in the territory of rebellion against art-as-commodity, or even artist-as-commodity. An important difference this time round is the recognition of the artist within community and the primacy of community in the process. These practices are re-turning to something (dare I say it?) essential to us as beings in the world – these practices return us to the re-membering of relationship and community in its most radical sense. They also return us, quite simply, to the role of artist as community member – a member as specialised as an electrician, a doctor, a mechanic, or a shaman.

Similar to what has happened in architecture, where the primary professional goal had become (and for some, remains) competition for the best design awards, rather than to design and build within a sensitivity to place and community, formal art practices have lost touch with the world, with community. This is not so much a problem of specialization, as one of fragmentation, where the artist, designer, architect, or whomever, is apparently isolated, removed from the reciprocity of the relational, of community.