Painting the Crisis: Community Arts and the Search for the ‘Ordinary’ in 1970s and ’80s London

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Publication details

JournalHistory Workshop Journal
DatePublished - 2013
Issue number1
Original languageEnglish


The rise of ‘community arts’ in Britain in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, has been overlooked by historians, in favour, perhaps, of the louder and messier subcultures of the time. In these decades a network of nationally and locally funded community arts projects emerged, largely in the inner city, that encouraged working-class Britons to paint murals, write plays and poems and direct movies in their neighbourhood. This paper traces the history of two such projects in East London. The participants in these projects created performance spaces, directed more than forty short films, self-published countless poetry books and ran landscape architecture classes, all with the intention of channelling what the activists deemed to be an ‘ordinary’ working-class culture. Finding this ‘ordinary’ working-class culture in a de-industrializing and racially diverse neighbourhood proved, however, to be harder than it had at first seemed. In encouraging the residents of Tower Hamlets to express themselves through their art, community artists came up against diverse and newly felt ethnic and gendered identities, which were then promptly codified in the murals, films and stories produced by the residents, making community arts an ideal site for tracking the changes to Britain’s social body in this period.

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