Finding Community

Well, I keep tryin’…
(Image by Carl Heyerdahl, via Unsplash)

A friend wrote me a question that her sister raised: why is art so competitive? I mean, just make stuff, right? Do more. Anybody can make art, that’s an infinite resource. But money, and recognition, and awards, and visibility… those are finite. And thus we have to fight over them.

Another friend does dog behavior and tracking trials, and her dog has done pretty well in her first two years. So every couple of weekends, we’ll get a photo like this one:

And that’s another reason we have competitions. How would I ever know if I was any good if I couldn’t be shown to be better than someone else?

Of course, once we’ve entered the world of art, “better” is no longer quantifiable, but rather a matter of judgment. We hope that the judges are connoisseurs, with long experience at critical evaluation of the appropriate work, but even with that, judgments would rarely be uniform even within a panel, much less if we replaced those panelists with a whole other cohort, even less if we replaced the dog-show reviewers with fine-arts reviewers or restaurant reviewers or car reviewers.

We aspire to approval from those whose judgment we trust.

In my final undergraduate semester, I took a Journalism class called “The Critical Review” from the truly phenomenal David Littlejohn, a broadly-interested arts critic and fine, fine teacher (1985 UCBerkeley faculty of the year). He started the semester with a question to his (competitively selected) students—”what is criticism for?” We gave the first stereotypical answer, which is consumer advice: you’ll enjoy this movie-restaurant-car-whatever. He waited us out, and then said, “Then why should we read a review of Paul Simon playing the Oakland Coliseum for one night last week? Why do people read reviews of museum shows in New York that they’ll never go see?” Well, we stumbled all over that one for a while, before he let us in on his secret, which I’ll paraphrase for you: It doesn’t matter what you’re reviewing. People will read you for the same reason they read anybody about anything—because there’s a smart, engaging voice that they trust.

A good critic has broad experience with, and enthusiasm for, whatever art form they’re writing about. A good critic has developed some vocabulary and some criteria that they can communicate about their tastes, even better when they can demonstrate where their tastes lie within some broader discourse. A good critic can describe a particular phenomenon accurately and carefully and joyfully, and understand something about what traditions or practices it lives within.

So when my friend writes of her experience of having her work reviewed by a state arts council, made up of people she doesn’t know, who don’t know her work nor the tradition it lives within, who are asked to pass judgment on it in an accelerated moment because they’ve got dozens or hundreds more to get to that day… well, really, she has no need to care about what they think, because they haven’t exercised any of the duties of a good critic. But, alas, they have the money and the certificates of recognition, so she’s forced to plead her case before the illiterate.

I’m part of a writers’ group that I assembled from folks I’d met five years ago at Bread Loaf. It’s a small group, just four of us total. And we’re all good writers, but more importantly, we all read a ton, and we’re able to make connections between the story on the table on any given day and other things we’ve read, and to talk about why they might be useful points of comparison. Increasingly, now that we’ve been together for years, we’re able to make connections between the story on the table on any given day and all of the other things we’ve seen before from that same group member, able to put one piece of work into context with others. We have different interests, of course, and by nature would take a story different directions; but these people have all become smart, engaging voices that I trust.

I’m part of some other communities of writers and artists whose judgment I trust less. And I think that one important difference is that they have no interest in a broader discourse within which their work lies. They have no widely educated judgment or vocabulary to fall back upon, just a reflex that “it’s pretty” or “I liked it” (or not).

One of my colleagues at an architecture program I worked for used to ask prospective students to name their favorite architect. And most often, they couldn’t name one at all. (If they could, it was usually Frank Lloyd Wright, the only household name the industry has ever produced.) Imagine asking that same question of prospective musicians, to name their favorite musician. There’d be immediate answers, probably more than one, and some reasons why. Imagine asking that same question of prospective actors, or directors; they’d know bunches of heroes, and be equally likely to talk about their reasons for naming them.

It’s hard to find community as an artist, and it’s not just because some people are better and others are worse, or because we work in different media. It’s because, in part, we’re entering a specific body of interests and knowledge; because we’re speaking among friends who share our enthusiasms. And the more eccentric and specific our enthusiasms are, the fewer are those with whom we can share them most fully.

Add the problems of competition into that mix, in which we have to show ourselves to be “superior” even to our friends in order to get into a magazine or a gallery or a fellowship or a faculty position, and building and sustaining creative community becomes even harder.

For the subtitle of his his wonderful 1989 book The Great Good Place, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You through the Day.” I won’t get much into his theoretical description of the idea of the third place; for our purposes, I’ll talk about the ways that one becomes a “regular” at one of these places. Frequency of attendance is only one of the factors that makes someone a regular. Two other factors are more important: that one is vouched for by someone who is already established, and thus is trustworthy; and that one adds something of value to the conversations already underway. So community is built both by the residents and by the newcomers. The residents welcome newcomers into their midst; the newcomers contribute something that the established members value. The responsibility lies in both halves.

So for those already within a community of practice… look around you and invite others whom you think would be welcome. Build your cohort purposefully. For those hoping to enter a community of practice… shut up and listen for a while, and figure out the conversations that matter to those already present before you insert your own agenda. Think about how to use your interests to enhance what already exists.

The world provides no native holes that are shaped exactly like us. Each of us has to carve out our own place among others. And the work of shaping best fit inevitably changes both the mortise and the tenon.

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