Efforts to create awareness about art in our everyday life are always around us. In Kenya, for instance, Goethe-Institut in Nairobi hosted an event dubbed ‘It’s A Pity That We Only Exist In The Future’ February 16-March 4, 2009 with the aim of reminding the public about the many pieces of art that exists within the public sphere. The event many unanswered questions: Do people understand the relationship between art and the environment? Do they know the benefits of art generally?
Art, Community and Environment, a 332-page book published by Intellect Books of the UK and USA in 2008, may appear to respond to the questions above. The seventh in a series of anthologies dealing with a range of issues in art and design education, Art, Community and Environment surveys the complex relationship between art practice, community participation and the environment.
The volume explores the educational potential of environmental and community art from personal perspectives of authors from the UK, Finland and Australia.
Editors Timo Jokela and Glen Coutts have divided the book into three segments ‘Environment, Communities and Education’ to make it simpler to the reader.
In the environment section authors focus on art and its implication for education. Angus McWilliam uses students’ reflections on how they are challenged to consider the relationship between art, environment and aesthetics in an ongoing project.
The communities’ section deals with themes of participation, ownership and empowerment, where Mark Dawes, an artist, writer and educator based in Glasgow, considers the changing role of the artist. Maria Huhmarniemi describes how virtual learning might lead to creation of effective communities of learning. While describing the inclusive approach of some remarkable projects, Mirja Hiltunen, a Finnish author and lecturer at the University of Lapland, argues that community art enlivens and energises.
Eileen Adams, in the final segment, examines the educational benefits of study in and through a built environment. This is greatly contrasted by the undergraduate programme which is briefly outlined by Julie K.Austin. The relationship between community and public art is scrutinised by Coutts who raises question about the purpose of community art and how to identify when a piece of art is effective.
In her essay, Art and Design and the Built Environment, Eileen Adams faults many school curricula. She states that there is a danger that many children and young people are becoming passive learners as parents and teachers do more of their thinking for them, organising their time and activities, controlling their access to educational, environmental and social experience. Instead, she believes that children should learn to be thinkers, makers, carers and doers. She says that this can only be achieved if children are involved in public art and environmental design projects which develop their capabilities to deal with the process of change positively and creatively.
This seems to be something that Tim Jokela, a professor of art education at the University of Lapland agrees with in the opening essay about art and environment. To him, good art is dependent on its surroundings.
The experience of public art and environmental change offers a useful focus for exploring notions of creativity and collaboration in community settings. So learning outside the classroom is about raising achievement as art is not about objects but all about ideas. Furthermore, education through art enables young people to experience the world, to understand it, to think about it, to feel, to value and to take action in certain ways that are not possible through other disciplines.
Looking at how empowerment can be implemented in communities to sustain art, Mark Dawes states that there is gross misconception among many populations that creativity and the art is primarily for school children. However arts can play a wide ranging role in personal and community development and Dawes suggests that empowerment is an important function of the art.
But do the community arts achieve their intended purpose?
This is a question that Ray Mackenzie tries to answer through his essay by looking at Monuments, sculptures and statues that are erected in public spaces. He states that while monuments have increasingly been viewed as venues to render information to many people, the degree to which they are capable of transmitting educational content is debatable and the claim that they can perform effectively as mediators of ideological value is now recognized as deeply problematic.
Mackenzie says that statues cannot themselves teach us anything, however authoritative they may appear as public statements. The experiences they engender bear no relation to the discursive engagement with ideas that is required for learning to occur. Instead, they act as a confirmation of collective memories, reminders of what is already known.
Another shortcoming is the fact that the presence of some monuments is due to the contribution that the public has. As a result of good subscriptions they are erected not because they are meant for education purposes but because the public demanded for it. Under such circumstances the statues role is not to teach about something new but to reaffirm a lesson that is already well understood.
Featuring rich colour illustrations and case studies from around the world, the 16 chapters found in Art, Community and Environment bring one a comprehensive study and creates understanding of how the three interrelate. At a cost of ₤24.95, students studying community arts, practitioners and artists generally have a resourceful venue to get information. But they are not the only ones that the authors had in mind as they penned their essays, Julie Austin’s essay on ‘Training community artists in Scotland’ would be of great benefit to facilitators who organise workshops all over the world.
With most chapters being a result of research, the book is not easy to understand and thus requires a lot of concentration. The authors have indeed done detailed descriptions that exemplify the relationship between community art and artistic environment in their essays.