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What is a true community of artists?

A question, I think, less likely to be asked by an artist than by a social planner. For a social planner a "thriving artistic scene" is a worthy goal, because he believes there's a connection between the density of artists on the ground and the quality of that art. Of that community. Maybe there is. But I don't believe you come to either what an artist is or what a community is or what a community of artists is by thinking about numbers. Think about numbers and you're already thinking like a social planner. Or like a consumer.

Unless the numbers are One and Two.

The number One:

I like very much Chekhov's vision of human worth as found in the single individual of honesty and integrity, who is sceptical of all ideology, all received ideas, and of such individuals being like points of light widely scattered across the face of the earth. Some may recognizably be artists, most are not. This, for me, is the one true global artistic community. Practical implication: Open up the artistic community to all creative thinkers, as we're doing in this symposium this week. Look outward. Support programs for visiting artists from abroad. Use the Internet to enable worldwide connections between artists.

Another sense in which I think One is the number is that art is always going to be what happens when the entire sensibility of the individual artist comes to bear upon the received truths of a society. Here at the end of the 20th Century, when we're doing everything we can to convince ourselves that all truth is relative, because that way nobody has to be serious about what they believe, artists are continuing to work away to realize personal visions, the truths of the individual, that do have profound powers of communication, that speak across cultures, that belie the currently fashionable denigration of personal knowledge & the refusal of its centrality to human life and understanding.

Practical implication: Tolerance imperative. Don't expect the artist (or a community of them) to come up with things everybody wants to hear. And don't expect them to stop doing everything they can to make them listen. Support artist retreats.

Finally, a third sense in which art is about the number One is the fact that it's always about the particular. Story: [Anecdote suggesting art deals with particulars, the media with stereotypes, cliches, generalities. The artist is dedicated to discover the universally communicable in the particular].

Practical implication: for the first and second senses above.

The number Two takes us directly to the heart of the idea of community. Forget the artist as an artist for a moment. The point is simple. Community, whether it's so called artistic or not, is me talking to you. Such community as there is here in this theatre at this moment involves only two people: you and me. All community, all society, is only ever really about this one relationship. Greater numbers are only a distraction. If I talk and you don't listen, we have no community here. If you respond & I treat you as anything other than an individual saying a particular thing, and if I don't listen and don't do my best to respond honestly, then we have no community here.

Practical implication: All work on behalf of artistic communities must be grounded in this personal understanding that community is not something out there but in the daily personal and professional interactions of each one of us. We are what we are to each other and it is what we are.

But for the artist as an artist, Number Two is most crucial as it applies to the question of who he's going to learn his craft from. I'm talking about tradition now, and how it is that the most potent form of tradition resides in the mentor/student relationship. Artistic skill is acquired by practice designed to engage, eventually, the entire sensibility of the student. Nothing engages that sensibility like a direct, committed connection to one who is master, or at least a superior practioner, of that art. This relationship, between the living mentor and the living student, is the essential artistic community. This is the relationship at the heart of tradition, and of culture itself.

Practical implications: Support artist-in-residence programs in libraries, art galleries, universities, community colleges, wherever. Support student-artist-in-residence programs. Support the Banff Centre.

The third aspect to this number Two comes back again to the larger community. Because the artist works--within practical limits--to engage the artistic sensibility of every individual who comes into contact with his work. It is not just the so-called artist who has an artistic sensibility, of course, it is, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone in the society. So the third Number Two is the artist communicating with another individual through the work of art. Again, the size of the audience is irrelevant. Most people, most of the time, would rather be surfing.

The practical implication for this one, and indeed for all the others, involves another kind of number.

Art having nothing to do with popularity as such, there is no necessary relationship between the number of individuals reached by a work of art and its quality, by which I mean its contribution to human understanding in a society in which non-human truths have for hundreds of years been given the highest priority. There is sometimes a relationship between quality and large numbers, but normally it's an inverse one: the more reachable, the fewer profoundly affected. And so if a community wants a community of artists within it, it always has needed, and always will need, to provide a level of government support and/or private patronage. Not much, because people dedicated to using formal means to express the truth as they find it tend not to require a lot of money for their pains. 95% of artists who live by their art live very poor. The pains of making art are necessary pains, necessary not only to the society but to the individual. They are not assumed ones you expect extra compensation in dollars for. The reward is in the doing. And so it is that, in this province, for example, the government, by giving, or withholding, very small amounts of money indeed, has single-handedly created a writing community at the same time as it has single-handedly all but destroyed a film-making community. All it took was little things. Like diverting some gambling proceeds into the arts. Like handing over most of the assets and licences of Alberta Access to Moses Znaimer for two, Canadian dollars.

So. If you want a community of artists, you vote for a government willing to give them some money. You check out their work, you let them know what you think. If they aren't getting through to you, you tell them. You don't take their funding away en bloc. A few will be frauds, but most will be the genuine article, only, like most of us, still learning.

 

------ "What is community, and what is a true community of artists?" Address delivered at Global Culture and Arts Symposium, Timms Centre, Edmonton, October 1999.