Posted by: cantmisssd | November 5, 2010

The importance of resisting art

There’s a lot to be said for the value of institutional support for public art- it strengthens communities, improves public safety, boosts local commerce. I’ve discussed all of them several times. But there’s also a danger in overly-gentrifying street art that risks undercutting relevance and restricting boundaries.

Despite the many important opportunities for communities to be involved in and reflected by public art projects, it’s important to remain conscious of art’s need to challenge institutional authority and push back on society’s preconceived notions. In other words- the art is failing if it isn’t changing perspectives about the status quo.

So while local institutions and government can promote a community that generally respects and seeks to create art, a laissez-faire policy is vital, giving artists the opportunity to create freely and also, at times, ensuring that local artists have something to react to.

An excellent (if indirect) reminder came earlier this week (thanks Kelly) in an article about the Underbelly Project. Street artists from around the world came together to create a collaborative installation in an abandoned New York City subway station that virtually nobody will ever see. Why? To push boundaries:

But Workhorse said: “There is a certain type of person that the urban art movement has bred that enjoys the adventure as much as the art. Where else do you see a creative person risking themselves legally, financially, physically and creatively?”

In this case, there was no outside institutional or governmental support. In fact, it’s a direct reaction to the increasing mainstream popularity of street art. But the government isn’t absent either. It’s a rebellion against the legal restrictions imposed on both art and access, and against the institutionalized support for street art that perhaps waters down its impact if not its content.

But the reason this sort of anti-establishment project is possible is because there’s a functional, established art community with government support. Without it, there would be nothing to rebel against, no boundaries to challenge, no lines outside of which to color.

The opposing possibility is tremendously depressing. As the local San Diego government wrestles with major cutbacks in arts funding, the weak economy (supposedly) driving those decisions is also drying up private philanthropic support for the arts. And while many people might not mourn the specific passing of a particular arts group or art project, the cumulative impact of an eroding arts community would negatively impact the community in all the ways that more art could help.

The key is simply to not be absent. Whether fostering art directly or provoking artistic reaction, never give up on the relevance.

(You can see video of the Underbelly Project here)


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