Posted by: cantmisssd | October 15, 2010

The art is barely the point

The public art discussion continues, with a new, pearl-clutching perspective on the outrage of people being provided the opportunity to beautify their communities. I’m not going too far down the wormhole of debating whether government is inherently corrupt and failed by its very existence, which is where that particular commentary leads. Government is a tool like anything else, and it is whatever we make it. If we make it useless, then it is. If we work to make it useful, then it certainly can be. But I would note that part of the point of these posts is to provide a perspective that’s often lacking in San Diego- that government can, in fact, be a useful tool.

More interesting is the polling cited by Kelly in the same post (pdf), in which residents ranked how essential they found various city services. There are a lot of reasons why this doesn’t particularly reflect much of anything, to the point that I’m surprised it would have been structured in such a way. First of all, it implicitly attempts to rank relative importance of various city services, which doesn’t really get at the relevance of public art (or any of the other services). As I’ve said from the beginning of this discussion, obviously if it came down to it I want EMTs more than a mural. But if you look at the list, you find obvious results- the services are arranged directly in order of direct, obvious impact on the lives of individuals. It demonstrates the services that people interact with most consciously, which is all well and good, but isn’t a reflection of the order in which services should be distributed.

The most obvious example is neighborhood code enforcement. It’s very easy to say that it isn’t important, but if the government left the business of code enforcement, I’m willing to bet that people would quickly find that it’s a lot more essential than they realize- it’s a safety issue and an immediate quality of life issue- just not something that comes up in people’s day-to-day life.

“Essential” and “valuable” are different things, and what the poll highlights more than anything is what city services have been prioritized by city leaders, both elected and organizational. Certainly public safety is more essential than public art, but it’s clear that there hasn’t been effective leadership in explaining the value of having a government that fosters strong communities- ones that are less reliant on basic public safety in order to get by on a daily basis. Police protection is a vital provision for local government, but it isn’t as starkly more important than many other services if our communities are better connected, better populated publicly, and thus generally safer and less contentious between neighbors.

Put another way, as I’ve maintained, public art in itself is nice, but its value lies in the broader implications of fostering public art. When I argue the value of public art, it isn’t about the art- it’s about investing in interconnected communities that are economically stronger, publicly safer, and that have stronger relationships between neighbors fostering a sense of ownership over the public and private property of the neighborhood. Ask people to rank the importance of their local government building stronger, safer, more affluent and more autonomous neighborhoods and I’m willing to bet your response will be a bit higher than “Honorable Mention in the bottom quartile.”

Plenty of people will scream that the government should have no role in this sort of thing, but I’m afraid that’s just tough. Unless we transition to literal anarchy, there will be government, and the presence or absence of government in a given community will be proactively influential on how that community functions. No matter what. What’s most lacking right now is strong leadership explaining the connections between public services and daily lives, and explaining how priorities such as public art are actually part of something much more fundamental and important. It’s not as easy a case to make as mindless drown-government-in-a-bathtub kneejerkisms, because it’s a lot harder to build things than to tear them down. But it’s a much more important reality to communicate.

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