- Responses (Visceral and Reflective) to Doug Borwick’s Building Communities, Not Audiences
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Building Communities, Not Audiences is a really good book. I wonder why I didn’t write it. One answer: because I’ve been too busy doing it. Still, I wonder when, if ever, it’s tactically appropriate to stop doing it in order to write about it. It’s good that Doug Borwick wrote about it. Canadians who feel miffed that it was an American who took the initiative to do so can look to Simon Brault’s No Culture, No Future (Le facteur C: L’avenir passe par la culture), a similar polemic and Canadian.
While reading the book, I leave an enthusiastic pencil trail in the margins. I’ve been going on for years about how community arts is not just about art that changes society, but also about art that changes art: if community-engaged arts is just a marketing ploy or a consolation prize for the disadvantaged, if it isn’t the main stuff or stream of art that concerns everyone, then it will wither; conversely, if it does claim its place, then it has the power to shift the way art is thought of and practiced, and this is of utmost importance.
I eagerly circle the criteria Borwick tenders for community-engaged arts: “participatory potential”; “handmade” products; conveyance of “real meaning in people’s lives”; and “excellence of engagement” (35). I make concurring squiggles where he states that “quality and inclusiveness” (34) and “product and process” (98) are not “either/or” propositions and that to assume otherwise is “damaging”; when he recommends “partnering between unlikely suspects” (100), taking the “time required” (104), being [End Page 68] “nimble and flexible” (273), “turning the idea of out-reach on its head” (224), and embracing “the messy as well as the sublime” (92); and warns that “existing models … do not transfer simply or easily” (264). I scribble emphatic stars beside “the quality of the art created and the overall experience is key” (275) and “the most successful programs have been developed by artists making art, not by artists doing something else” (304).
While I applaud the book’s overall gist and many of its details, there are a few places where my enthusiastic marginalia are interrupted by question marks and scrawls of concern.
The most insistent of these respond to Borwick’s proposed terminology of “visceral” (immediacy of impact) versus “reflective” (depth of content), as a replacement for high and popular art (19). While I understand what he intends to gain in avoiding the old terms, his “pair of new terms” (19) presents a new set of problems. Borwick does concede that these two attributes are “not mutually exclusive” and that “great works of art [attends] to both of them” (19). Nonetheless he goes on to adopt the terms as a means to categorize art forms. He describes reflective art as existing across all cultures, deeply meaningful to humans, and needy of subsidy. Reflective art, thus, becomes the focus of the book, and visceral art is abandoned as, if not more frivolous, more capable of fending for itself, through its equation with popularity, which is, in turn, equated with commercial viability.
Inasmuch as these notions refer to form and content, I would maintain that art is necessarily both reflective and visceral. Admittedly content can be more or less deep and impact can be more or less immediate. However, surely what distinguishes art from other forms of communication is the conveyance of the reflective via the visceral (emotional, instinctive, sensory). To imply otherwise is as potentially damaging as the other either/ors that Borwick eschews, and rather insulting: it opens the door for the assumption that art that is deeply meaningful is going to be boring and that art that has palpable impact is going to be shallow.
If the ideal (what makes great art) is the coming together of the two, then to advocate for the propagation and subsidy of just one (e.g., reflective...