So, here in CAP we are intensely interested in the social dimension to not only arts but the creative relationships that can underpin community development. And within that, we have assumed that we all understand what we mean by community as well. In these times of deepening crises and social uncertainty, there are some things that it seems we still respond to as a community, as a people and a place, with a set of self-determined values against a backdrop of shifting variables like health, economy, environment etc.
Our substantive meaning of community as a group or network of persons who are connected to each other by a relatively stable set of social relations that extends beyond immediate family or genetic ties, and who mutually define that relationship as important to their social identity and practice. But of course, these social relations do not necessarily have to be framed in the physical world – increasingly we are members of on-line or virtual communities where we are united relationally by a set of ideas, or notions and affiliations that spring from them.
The ‘ties that bind’ concept of made-community demands that as the connections that we make to each other are strengthened, then the relative health and resilience of any given community is increased.
This weekend, we have seen a huge groundswell of support for inclusion in a sense of shared community flowing from Ireland’s remarkable referendum result for Equal Marriage. We also see the contrast elsewhere all the more starkly.
Protecting the vulnerable; including those at the margins to become part of a more resilient and self-aware whole; legislating for social harmony not divisive chaos; allowing voices to be heard, balanced and acknowledged; respecting identity; supporting choice. It could be the ambition of a far-sighted campaign, or the ideals of community development but it is also a theoretical space that community arts practitioners inhabit. For others again, it might represent what we have come to know as the equilibrium struck in the ‘social contract’ of post-enlightenment political practice. Whatever it may be, socially cooperative societies recognise that the destructive forces that besiege our lives, should be countered by the determination to minimise their impact. That instead we must try to enhance our collective ambition. We empower people to champion and influence decision-making in this pursuit. The test for their success is not how much better off ‘the better-off’ are, but how much safer and protected the most vulnerable and marginalised are. For many today, the only spaces that truly allow for such an ethos to be understood are the arts, where a concept so utterly wedded to the notions of civility and humanity as to embody the most noble aspiration for a community as possible can exist. And exist supported by notions of elegance, beauty, design, inspiration, imagination, artistry, colour…
Whilst the recognised rights to equal participation in democratic society are enshrined in a range of documents, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to, our own Good Friday Agreement, we constantly observe the undermining of such communitarian values by others.
For us in community arts, it is so affirming to see those at the margins included. It is what socially-inclusive creativity is all about. But, others create even greater challenges for our collective sense of society when passively they allow the most vulnerable to become even more marginalised and worse, when actively they advance the means to penalise the poor further for the precarious nature of their marginalised, less-favoured lives. This defies logic and indeed, our innate sense of social and human responsibility.
The tremendous power that the arts hold in general and community arts uphold in particular, is that democratic recognising of people and their individual place in a collective project– of little-heard voices being celebrated, of hidden talent and worth being unearthed and new opportunities and ideas created. Our society is made all the better for it. Great art makes you well. Great works of art and pieces of music and vistas of outstanding beauty heal. This is now scientifically proven http://positivenews.org.uk/2015/culture/art/17334/art-nature-spirituality-prevent-disease-study-finds/
Here and now, we need as many new opportunities as possible if we are going to move forward as a vibrant, sustaining place for real people, with real concerns, real families and true connections and human value. The health of ourselves and our fragile emerging sense of community must be nurtured at the same time as opportunity for development exploited.
It shouldn’t be the reverse.