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To start at the beginning of this extended book review of Between Grace and Fear by W. Cleveland and P Shifferd follow this link. To see previous post, scroll down page.

The last posts dealt with devaluing of the arts and marginalising of artists; what artists need to change in order to do something about the situation; and what it is that artists contribute to positive societal change.

In this concluding post I’ll talk about community arts – this topic was actually the strongest binding factor throughout the interviews in the book. It is here that the socially engaged arts are most visible, and acknowledged as being of great value. And perhaps it is also where the arts are most needed.

Repeatedly as a theme in the interviews, it was stressed that the artist can no longer be seen as an isolated individual with no relationship to- and no responsibility to the surrounding community. In community projects across the globe, artists are working with conflicting cultures, underprivileged groups, and war torn villages. Creating a safe and inspiring space for individuals to express themselves through dance, painting, theatre, song, story-  the artists are helping a community bring forth its creative impulse so it can make its needs and dreams more tangible.

This is different from artists going in to ‘educate’ a community about art. In Holland I often see an attitude toward participatory arts which is oriented first around the artist- a sense of the artist going in to show people what culture is. An exception to this is the HEIM2012 community performance project done by some friends of mine at Moving Arts (Dutch language site).

Whereas in the UK and USA the emphasis is on discovering with the community what the need is, and bringing in one’s creative skills to help those people heal, vitalise and enable themselves. By giving people means to tell their stories and to give them form through the arts,  the arts are helping people move from being passive to being empowered.

Listening and responsiveness need to be at the core of connected art. For an artist to really make a difference over the long term, strategies need to be created with and by people deeply involved in the situation.

‘Committed art activism provides a context for others to take action’.

Between Grace and Fear is a courageous and ambitious book. It is one of several pioneering efforts happening now which will help put art back in the middle of life. The people interviewed  are from diverse backgrounds and disciplines and are each inspiring. I found it at times more of a study book than a relaxing read, but that is because it is so densely packed with ideas and information. It is a wonderful resource for new directions in art and new perspectives about what art is and what artists are here for.

Cleveland ends the book with a bang! Chapter 31 is called ‘Bridges, translations and Change: The arts as infrastructure in a changing world’. It is an amazing and inspiring list of recommendations, actions, and ideas for integrating the arts into all our systems and daily life where they can do their much needed healing and transformative work. I’ll excerpt that some other time.

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photo Hannah Hess

SZ  Milenko, I’ve done a lot of work in the community as a healthcare artist and workshop leader. I find that after these excursions out to the community I need to draw back into the private world of my studio and create art to refresh my inspiration so I can go out again.
Do you feel a similar need? If so what do you do to recharge your batteries?
Or is the work itself energizing enough for you?

MM  I could do better with refueling. Having a small nonprofit means hustling for grants, giving talks, doing business development, participating in the larger network of volunteers and non-profits, and, of course, doing projects.

In the last year alone we built six gathering places and, in addition, led community engagement processes in several more neighborhoods. Last year’s work created copious stress; now we are taking steps to slow down and pace ourselves a little better.

For me personally, that means spending time with family and friends. I also bicycle and walk, and I disengage my brain by playing and watching soccer. I also do watercolors and ink drawings—quick art making that can be squeezed into my tiny periods of free time.

SZ How do you see the relationship (if any) between ‘art as calling’- passionately devoted mature artists working to high standards, vs the democratization of art where everyone is an artist?

MM Both modalities are important; in my work I practice both. The goal of my community work is to create shared ownership and for that to happen I do not present myself as an artist. I do not want people to feel they are my assistants. Rather I treat them as colleagues whose artistry may be different from mine, but is equally important and valuable. I invite their input at every stage of the process and together we figure out things faster.

I define success by how much we can accomplish with the limitations of each project: budget, site, available time, volunteers, contributions, and talents. Within that larger process, my artistic skills are called forth and I engage with that process deeply and passionately just as any artist would. So I don’t see that ‘art as calling’ and ‘everybody getting to be creative’ are in conflict.
Although many artists work in solitude, I work with many people in situations that are often chaotic and require constant adjustments and flexibility. But in the end, we are all artists.

I strive for conditions where the best of each of us can coexist, where people are talented together. When I can, I gladly draw on the talents and expertise of others.

photo Hannah Hess

SZ The art academies I‘m familiar with are oriented to producing star artists, and the students have that goal too. They are learning about competing and entrepreneurship. What should art education look like in our changing times?

MM In the Seattle area, where I live and work, this isn’t the case. The design schools at which I give occasional talks are all about community and sustainability.

I think the age of egomaniac artists, just like the age of political tyrants, is winding to a close. Collaborative practices will gradually become the norm, and schools will teach collaboration.

Collaboration’s purpose is to relate to each other in such a way that typically irritating differences can be transformed into valuable gifts.

To turn differences into gifts requires strength and flexibility. It involves the confidence to express ideas and the humility to adjust them to those of others’. This requires us to stand in one’s center while falling into the unknown-a demanding circus act.

I feel the hands and bodies are getting neglected in art training. Kids in the United States spend eight or nine hours a day staring at screens – computer, phones, TV – that ultimately function as a buffer through which life is perceived. This creates a more virtual brain circuitry, and the delusion of the familiar, meaning that if I read about something I’ve done my part about the issue.

Art is not about information, it is about meaning, about taking intuitions and information and making internal sense of them.

This is hard and courageous work, and demands that our whole beings are involved. Artistic work should produce three results: a new artwork honoring a new insight, a new artist who uses the process of creation to ‘incarnate’ this new insight into her enriched being, and a community renewed by the artwork. This, in essence, is the purpose of any creative act and hands must be an integral part of the work – something different happens in the brain when the hands, heart, and brain work together.

I feel myself to be less the artist leading a project and more the chef at a community feast: the ingredients are brought to the table by many participants and someone needs to figure out the recipe, one that won’t poison people, one that will be tasty and nutritious. It comes down to synthesizing the gifts of a lot of people.

Continued in Interview part 2