the artist as community builder
This blog is about how we need a new way to describe an artist who devotes themselves to a community
During the 1871 Paris commune painter Gustave Courbet was elected president of the Federation of Artists. He stayed in Paris during the commune/blockade and suffered the same horrors of lack of food and clean water as the rest of the city’s inhabitants. He was also held responsible for the destruction of a statue of Napoleon I even though the task was well under way prior to his commitments to the commune; he was sent to jail, fined and eventually exiled where he fell into debt, melancholy, alcoholism and died. He spent his last years consumed by the array of legal issues that surrounded his involvement in the commune.
I’ve written about Courbet and the artists involved in the commune before because I believe that an artist and their community are intrinsically linked, and there are few examples as dramatic as the commune that illustrate this relationship. While Courbet served his community with his career and ultimately his life, artists today are usually only asked to give a talk or a brief workshop on how they make their art works, not forced behind barricades defending galleries and opera houses with guns – not yet anyway. A community can count on their artists if it has nurtured and supported them.
An art community that eschews that kind of comradery is a cause for concern. I turn to the most significant evolution in the Canadian art scene in the last decade: the pursuit of the second and third academic degree. Academia is where its at and there are legions of artists who are now presently pursuing this tract. How has this affected ‘our community’? Galleries are filling up with post-MFA candidates and many of these exhibitions seem made for other candidates, graduates are using second & third tier public galleries as a stepping stone toward a spot on the international circuit and a lot of arts council money is going to people who have full time teaching jobs.
This evolution has created a schism in the arts no one wants to discuss. Those of us who are pursuing exhibitions, creating art works, building communities within actual communities (ones with shops, chambers of commerce, high schools,restaurants & businesses) are now looked upon as quaint. You make paintings, sell them and have people other than artists attend your exhibitions? Cute. Figuring out how to make a living so that you can spend two days a week in your studio is considered old fashioned. Your work, not born of a MFA thesis will never be taken seriously.
Communities have to be tactile; they are the galleries you are working with, the cafes you frequent, the other creative people you support and support you; all rarely found in the ivy halls of a masters program.
The community I now rely on and have become a great defender of is full of all sorts of artists who have to work, create their own opportunities and have given up waiting to be picked and accepted by the favoured few – those imperious academics. These are people who are leaving the major cities and setting up in towns that have affordable spaces because they want to work, make art and build real capacity for the arts.
Art communities are now being forged without the recognition of the bigger art community which brings me to my real point. Perhaps those of us who feel disconnected from the art world should stop calling ourselves artists. Perhaps being an artist now just means you have a degree. Being someone who is opening a gallery, working on their own art, helping with local initiatives and building a community is something more.
I do not know if Gustave Courbet regretted his involvement with the commune. I do believe however that his sacrifice as well as Picasso’s defiance of the Nazis, or Diego Riviera’s insistent on promoting Trotsky and communism illuminate how artists have a special tie to their communities, and how communities can count on their artists when disaster strikes.