How Comes Community

Park McArthur, A '12

Community is a major concept with which visual art now contends. Like the ready-made, like the document, like audience, like market, community is, among other things, a locus of creative activity as well as a subject of art history. The rise in art’s attention to community since the 1970s occurs alongside two related developments in the social field: one, a streamlining of the non-profit entity as a container for imagination and social change. And, two, the acceleration of critical theory’s attention to philosophies of communal organization (an acceleration which grew, concomitantly, with contemporary art’s increased attention to theorists such as Edouard Glissant, Giorgio Agamben, and Jean Luc Nancy).

As recipients of this Journal—as staff, alumni, funders, and board members of Skowhegan—we can, and perhaps do, think of ourselves as a community. As people committed to, thankful for, and surprised by the proposition of providing artists the ability to live nine weeks on a former farm in New England, we represent an array of interests, beliefs, and experiences whose relations to Skowhegan are variable, contradictory, even antagonistic. Skowhegan is not one thing or a thing, but a heteroglossia. And it is by understanding Skowhegan-as-composite that we can establish the idea of Skowhegan community not as fact or entity, but as possibility.

The possibility of community is not carefree. Kellie Jones, Martha Rosler, Dave Beech, Mike Davis, and Claire Bishop have all, using their own terms, thought long and hard about visual art’s renewed interest in community. The phenomena that these writers, artists, and historians track mandate that we think about the idea of community in relation to the closing of community hospitals, the privitization of community services, and the yet-unknown and myriad effects of community development corporations. Community, as a discourse, as an idea, functions to take up the hopeful remains of the public and publicness. It, at the same time, oversimplifies the causes and effects of the lack of public services, and, most offensively, the historical and economic events that first brought these services into being. Community, as a series of relations born out of group-protection, group-struggle, group-identity, and group-pleasure, has become something to preserve, to create, and to fight on behalf of. These fights are both intra- and extra-communal. Today, these fights often come under the purview of a professionalized entity such as a nonprofit. Nonprofits and hybrid government bodies with diverse and often antithetical goals all use community as a term to rally around. Similarly, museums and the artist-run spaces have taken up the concept of community as a space to exercise the mandate of engaging audiences, providing knowledge, and manifesting cultural credibility. Following the lead of progressive nonprofits, art institutions of all sizes have designated community as the place for imagining what is to be done. From community days, to community involvement, to an “art world” that insists on the presence of “art communities,” we experience ourselves in relation to the idea of community, virtual and otherwise: as part of, as partial to, or, simply as apart. Community, has, as such, become the only viable reason to do anything socially, economically, and increasingly, artistically.

Why, then, discuss community in relation to the opening of Skowhegan’s new space on 22nd street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan? Partly, because the question of how community might manifest in our day-to-day lives today and tomorrow, rather than as a summer memory, is of great importance. Partly, in order to recognize that we need the idea of community much more than it needs us. Partly, to emphasize that the aspirations and needs that constitute Skowhegan form its possibilities, and that these possibilities, prefigured and exceeded by the nine weeks (or more) of actual Maine time, make Skowhegan what it is and, perhaps more importantly, what it can be. And, partly, to propose that, if we choose to depend on such a term to describe the relations we seek, then we do so with a great humbleness for what that term means and how it is employed. If we are to propose community as an expansive horizon of action and possibility—as a place to find the alternatives we seek within a world of increasingly few—then we need to proceed with a real belief in something else, even if that something demands a name other than what we first imagined.