Monday, January 18, 2016

David Brooks and the Proper Goal of Art

Photo: by Liza Voll via Linda Nathan

In his commentary about beauty and art, David Brooks proclaims, “ is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself.”

His essay appeals because he’s a (relative) conservative writing in the paper of record about the importance of beautiful art, an idea that seems pure common sense. We’re inclined to nod along, enthusiastically.

Perhaps my time in DC, researching social policy in a political environment, left me skeptical. David Brooks writing about art in this way seems a little bit like Paul Ryan taking on poverty.

This essay could turn out to be an unwanted gift in pretty wrapping. While proclaiming the awesomeness of beauty, Brooks is sharing another, frightening big idea: There are too many artists advocating for social change, and they are doing it wrong.

For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence).

Why wouldn’t it be possible to utilize “emotion, symbol, myth” etc. toward art that offers a view of the world as a more equitable place, or painting the painful picture of inequality? Beauty can make us cry, make us see things more clearly or in a new way altogether. Why is Brooks criticizing stance-taking by artists?

There’s one more sentence in this paragraph and it’s an odd jump to a new topic with no explanation. He writes, critical of arts advocates: “Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?”

Why is this reference to arts advocacy here? It sounds like he’s criticizing the proposition. True, it may not be an effective statement with the public (they don’t buy it), but how does it fit into this discourse on beauty? Does Brooks believe that, like stance-taking, economic development is not a proper goal of art? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make its economic impact less true—or at least any less true than any other sector’s claims about economic impact.

This throw away comment bolsters my sense that Brooks is not just writing about beauty, but criticizing art when—by design and on purpose—it contributes to culture change.

He seems to soften the criticism in the next paragraph.

In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

I’m inclined to agree. It’s true that we’re often able to reach more people on a difficult topic—like poverty, or race, or gun safety, and so on—when we meet them with it sideways, when we bring it to them in a fresh way, a way that makes them reconsider, or at least willing to hear us out.

Too often, when we talk of poverty or race directly, people turn away. Who goes to see a play about racism and gentrification? Mostly people who are troubled by racism and gentrification, people willing to spend a couple of hours being challenged. We don’t reach the people who’ve stopped listening to the direct appeal. On the other hand, the direct, or even provocative, approach offers a chance to inspire and activate the already persuaded. Isn’t that a worthwhile endeavor?

What is Brooks’ point? Does he mean that artists should only take on social issues if they can do so in a beautiful and oblique manner? We can appreciate his recognition of the power of art in the comments about race. But we shouldn't be blinded by the positive things he writes, and thereby miss seeing his narrow view of arts' goals.

Brooks starts the piece with a description of his own experience seeing unexpected beautiful art.

Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.

It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day.

This is what I call serendipitous art, the art you see at times or in places where you don’t expect it—happen-upon art. My theory is that this unexpected art is especially affecting, changing the way we feel about places and connecting us to others. Brooks’ description is moving (although it created some controversy among the commenters on the New York Times website) and the experience is familiar to readers.

Unfortunately, Brooks’ uses this lovely description to wrap his disconcerting view of the role of artists and community change through the arts. It’s a troubling perspective, particularly when so much of our national conversation is about the contributing role of arts in changing the future of places.

We’ve suffered through years of attacks on funding for nonprofits that advocate for more social services and civil rights. Will there be a similar proposal to prohibit public spending for art that directly (or insufficiently vaguely) promotes more affordable housing, opposes gentrification, advocates for gun control or body cams, and so on?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Nine Predictions for the Arts in 2016

1) People will continue to use their digital devices during performances. Arts management will find a way to make it work for engagement, and artistic directors will see the benefits and stop whining about the 'preciousness' of the art.

2) Orchestra management and players will encourage clapping between movements. Signage in symphony halls will signal the new rule: “No Shushing."

3) Everyone will understand that they’ve been “creative placemaking” all along.

4) The economic impact benefits of the arts will be known by all and arts administrators will be able to eliminate the labor-intensive collection of that data for leaders who used to insist on seeing it.

5) Board members of old institutions will notice all the heads around the table that are bald or white, and all the pale skin. And they will feel itchy. Some will resign, making room for younger and more diverse trustees.
6) Event organizers will offer to pay artists a living wage for their contribution to entertainment and community. Asking artists to donate their work will be a thing of the past.

7) Traffic engineers will meet their artsy selves and support community-designed, creative crosswalks. The traffic slowing, public safety benefits of this arts-infused infrastructure will be universally acknowledged.

8) Co-created art made by citizen artists will be known as….ART. Donors and funders will start supporting artists and arts groups that meet community where it lives, bringing the art—music, dance, theater, paintings, sculpture—to the people, and sometimes—yes—even creating art with the people.

9) THIS.

Monday, November 23, 2015


12th and Vine Streetcar Stop, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati

I’m grateful for artists. They create the opportunity for us to celebrate our place and come together to get to know each other in new ways. They build the platform for sharing joy.

In the city where I live in my Tiny Row House, many people worked long and hard to save the unique architecture in Over-the-Rhine. This neighborhood is one of our top differentiating assets, a piece of history and beauty that no other comparable city has to share with the world. Thanks to Cincinnati’s status as the first boomtown of the West in the nineteenth century, our geography, and a combination of factors (not all good at the time) that saved the buildings from demolition—we had a chance to create something special. And we grabbed it.

As in many other renovated urban places, the people of this neighborhood—old and new residents alike—are challenged by the changes here. We don’t know each other as well as we should, making it harder for us to address these issues. 
It is our artists who are leading us to a more connected place— creating a pathway to our future with art in the streets. They do this in neighborhoods across our region. Here are a few examples from Over-the-Rhine.

When city staff wasn’t ‘able’ (read: allowed) to plan the fireworks to celebrate the first tour of our new streetcar around the tracks, some lovely artists (professionals and citizens together) created a great, happy piece of welcoming street art at the 12th and Vine stop. Since chalk art is technically an illegal activity here, we won’t name any names. But you probably know some of the artists. Important because: everyone should know what’s happening in our community and that we’re super happy about this new asset!

Streetcar workers and fans admire the "Welcome Streetcar" guerilla chalk art.

Early Sunday, artists at work.


This cutie looks familiar, Pam Kravetz.

Dancers from DanceFix and Spirit of Cincinnati led citizens in a serendipitous coming together at Cincy Summer Streets on Pleasant Street. Important because: our sidewalks and streets are the place people meet, and dancing together is an easy way for people who don’t know each other to to connect.

Pones Inc revived their outdoor Over-the-Rhine immersive dance and video experience, introducing people to each other and the neighborhood streets at night. Important because: This show shines a spotlight on changes in the neighborhood through the eyes and words of residents whose voices aren’t heard often enough.

Artists are one asset that every community enjoys, as Jamie Bennett says. They are up near the front of the big parade creating memorable and equitable places. #GRATITUDE 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Video from Cincinnati.Com: Life Happens on Sidewalks, The Power of Art in Public

Thanks to the Enquirer and Cincinnati.Com for the invitation to be a storyteller at their Downtown Dreamers event. This is my talk about the WHY for art in public places and how it can change our sense of place and the way we SEE each other.

Art connects people - especially co-created, human-centric, place-based, serendipitous art.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mapplethorpe + 25: Sheriff Simon Leis Likes Art

Sheriff Simon Leis' Photograph of Paint the Street
Over-the-Rhine 2010

This weekend, FotoFocus hosted events at the Contemporary Arts Center for the 25th Anniversary of the acquittal of the museum for obscenity charges related to showing photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The conversations reminded me of a more recent art experience with Sheriff Simon Leis.

Simon Leis was "the sheriff whose deputies cleared out the Contemporary Arts Center...and hand-delivered indictments on obscenity charges to its director, Dennis Barrie," marking the first-ever criminal charges of a museum for an exhibition. But many people thought Leis was more culpable than that. He was the one who helped set the stage for the case by prosecuting numerous cases of obscenity and clearing the area of adult book stores and peep-shows, and was the first county prosecutor to take on Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine.

The Simon Leis Campaign Sign on My Wall: Is it Art?

In the Mapplethorpe case, it took a jury of eight only two hours to acquit. And this was a jury of people who’d never to be the Contemporary Arts Center, only some of whom had ever been to a museum at all. Only one of them had ever given to the local campaign for the arts, the Fine Arts Fund—a workplace-based fundraising group like a United Way for the arts.

In 2010, as part of the relaunch of the Fine Arts Fund as ArtsWave, we painted six blocks of street pavement on 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine with 1500 people coming together to co-create the mural designed by artists based on community input. 

Paint the Street 2010: 1500 People Painting Six Blocks of Pavement

While we were painting, and the street was becoming a vibrant riot of colorful art, someone asked whether we’d hired a helicopter to capture the artwork from above—this being before the days of drones.

In fact, we’d tried to find a news helicopter that might let us send up a photographer, but none of the local outlets had a helicopter at that time. And we didn’t have a budget to hire a private operator. Hearing this, someone suggested that I call Sheriff Simon Leis’ office because he had a ‘bird’.

Back in the days of the Mapplethorpe fight, the opponents of the Contemporary Arts Center had targeted the Fine Arts Fund. Contributors threatened to withhold corporate contributions to the annual campaign unless the museum was left out as a beneficiary. The museum is said to have voluntarily withdrawn from the campaign rather than forcing a decision that could harm other arts institutions with declining overall funding. Sheriff Leis was largely seen as the driver behind the overall campaign against the photo exhibit.

But what the hell, we decided to call the Sheriff’s office and ask about a helicopter for some art photos.

The answer? It was a Sunday and they’d have to wait until the ‘aviation team’ was back on Monday and then the Sheriff himself would have to approve. 

Now I was doubtful. But the Sheriff’s office assured me, “Sheriff Leis likes art!” Sure, I said, “That’s what I hear.”

A few days later, a disc of photographs was delivered to ArtsWave. The Sheriff had sent his own photographer up in the helicopter and they flew back and forth capturing multiple views of the streetart.

So yes, you might say Sheriff Simon Leis likes art.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Downtown Dreaming—Life Happens on Sidewalks

Life happens on the SIDEWALKS

Cincinnati Enquirer invited me to tell a story as part of the Downtown Dreamers Cincy Storytellers evening. This is a story of concern about what’s happening in my rapidly gentrifying place and a small step toward strengthening that neighborhood with community-created, serendipitous art.

2003. It’s the end of the day and my work is done and I’m squeezing in some shoe shopping in Soho before walking to the theatre which is basically what I do in any city—wander and see art.

Flash Mob #4
All of a sudden this shoe store is filling up with people. It’s just a big open space with a few dramatically placed tables with beautiful shoes on them, basically a shoe gallery. Now, hundreds, I’m not kidding, hundreds, of people poured into the space. They filled it up until they could barely move, took photos and talked on their phones. They stayed about 5 minutes and then they all walked out and disappeared on the streets of NYC. The other two shoppers and I are just watching with our eyes wide.

I had no idea what was going on but I was grinning and full of joy. It was so exciting to be in the middle of the experience. Later I learned that this was one of the first flash mobs ever, in the place the performance art form was born. It changed my memory of that place and I think of it every time I pass that corner, though the shoe store is long gone.

That’s the power of art, and especially art that’s co-created and serendipitous and participatory.

Leaving DC, Moving to Ohio
Flash forward. I leave the east coast, where I’d been living and working on urban and social policy issues, researching welfare and poverty, and move to Cincinnati for a dreamy job in the arts.

I wasn’t even sure I could return to my home town, but one walk from our public square through downtown and the historic neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine on a weekend visit showed me how much the city had changed. And was continuing to change.

Life of Connection on the Sidewalks
It was becoming the kind of place I’d left it to find. A place you can live and walk and ride a bike and have a life of connection on the sidewalks.

Five years later, downtown and Over-the-Rhine are changing so fast we’re spinning. We’re saving the unique historic neighborhood and buildings and that’s wonderful.

But what’s troubling is something happening on the sidewalks. All too frequently I watch as people miss each other. They are walking down a sidewalk or playing in a park, but it’s as if they can't see one another, like they are invisible to each other.

And at our neighborhood community council in Over-the-Rhine, the people who come to monthly meetings no longer reflect the diversity of our neighborhood. There are more new residents, white people of relative means, than there are long-time residents, and residents of the housing that’s affordable to people working for employers who don’t pay much.

Our council recognized this stress and we set out to create an experience. An experience designed to build community. An experience built on that moment in a shoe store in Soho.

At a monthly meeting, we asked everyone to sit with someone they didn’t know and gave them about 5 minutes each to share what they love about Over-the-Rhine: the people, the places, the buildings, the stores, the parks, their memories...whatever. There were a few, just a few, people who didn’t want to play. They stood apart from the rest of us, which was sad.

But, the people who were talking were engaged and loud. We gave everyone some tools for artmaking—colored pencils and crayons—and asked them to draw or write what they’d heard from their partner. We handed them pinwheels and asked them to attach their art to the pinwheels. Then some of us took all those pinwheels to Vine Street, in the block of Over-the-Rhine that’s arguably changed the most, between 12th and 13th—and planted a pinwheel garden in a patch of dirt in front of a parking lot. We put up a sign that said This Neighborhood Fun Brought to You by the Over-the-Rhine Community Council. The pinwheels were an attraction, bright and colorful like candy, spinning in the breeze, a little bit of surprise art by the sidewalk.

Sharing experience
We did this because we’ve learned that creating something together, sharing the experience, gets people talking. It creates a stronger community, and gives us the opportunity to open the door to talk about other things, to working together on making the neighborhood we want to live in, to focusing on equitable development, not just economic development.

I stalked that little patch of garden. I watched people stop and look at it, take pictures of it, wonder about it. They talked to strangers standing by them about it. They met and were able to see each other. And occasionally an adult took a pinwheel and gave it to a child who carried some happiness off into the neighborhood.

We thought the summer rain might batter the garden or that all of the pinwheels might disappear at once in a late night prank. But that’s not what happened. The pinwheels were sturdy. The garden did get smaller week-by-week as people took a little bit of the joy out into the neighborhood and home with them.

Sharing joy
Until one day, riding by on my bike, I saw just one pinwheel left—spinning in the breeze. It made me smile.  

A little later, as I was heading home, I saw little girl walking on the sidewalk, clutching that pinwheel. She’d gotten the last bit of joy out of that community created, serendipitous art—and she was sharing it with everyone she saw. 

And everyone could see her.

Planting the Pinwheel Garden