When public art disturbs its viewers

  • A Philadelphia vision

    A Philadelphia vision

    One of the more than 2,000 works in the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

    Photo: City of Philadelphia of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, via Flickr

  • Welcome to North Minneapolis

    Welcome to North Minneapolis

    A mural next to a parking area. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

    Photo courtesy of Juxtaposition Arts.

  • Covering blankness

    Covering blankness

    One question that might be asked about a building mural is whether it makes a place more appealing.

    Photo courtesy of Juxtaposition Arts

  • Twin Cities message

    Twin Cities message

    A mural about "putting creativity to work" in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

    Photo courtesy of Juxtaposition Arts

  • Trompe l'oeil

    Trompe l'oeil

    A building painting that fools the eye.

    Photo courtesy of Juxtaposition Arts

Better! Cities & Towns

Most years, the hottest topics at the urban journalists’ forum organized by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy are issues the political world is talking about—from climate change to President Obama’s national rail initiative.

But this April was a bit different. During two days of discussions about “the contested city”—put together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by the Lincoln Institute, the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—attention shifted for a while from Tea Party politics and troubled government finances to the boost that “creative” activity can give an urban economy.

Ever since Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, urbanists have taken comfort in the idea that “creative” people (however they’re defined) have the power to do great things for the cities in which they congregate. 

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor in public policy at the University of Southern California and author of The Warhol Economy, passionately pursued that theme during this year’s forum, insisting that individuals in fields such as fashion, art, and music need to cluster together so that they can pursue their interests and advance their careers.

Such clustering benefits the cities or districts in which arts-oriented people gather. Los Angeles and New York were cited as prime examples. “The exact same person in a different place has a lot less opportunity,” Currid-Halkett insisted. “You have to be in the place where it’s all happening.”

I’ve noticed recently that advocates for art and artists are taking the Creative Class perspective one step further—arguing that if creative activities are good for cities, then cities ought to do everything possible to encourage artists by opening up opportunities for them, including giving them a chance to apply their talents to public spaces.

Roger Cummings, co-founder and artistic director of Juxtaposition Arts, an arts-oriented community development corporation in Minneapolis, told the forum about his organization’s role in orchestrating artistic activity in the Twin Cities—especially in a minority area known as North Minneapolis. With encouragement from Juxtaposition Arts, young people paint murals of many different kinds on the sides of buildings and produce other kinds of art work as well.

Cummings showed some striking sights from the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the US: beautiful geometric patterns adorning the sides of buildings; illusionistic chalk drawings on the asphalt of a city street; a storm drain whimsically painted to look like the head of a mouse; a gigantic face staring out from a building’s deteriorated wall. Some of the murals he showed, however, were disturbing: a huge painting of a man pointing what appeared to be a weapon toward a plaza; representations of guns and skulls; symbols of death. (The most troubling scenes apparently weren’t produced under Juxtaposition’s auspices.)

I wondered how the work of Cummings’ organization is regarded in the Twin Cities, so I asked Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “Our students and faculty have had a 6-year relationship with Juxtaposition Arts, and we have found that many high school students who are not doing well in traditional education often thrive in their visual arts/urban design/sustainability activities, working with local businesses,” Fisher replied. “It’s a pretty successful way of engaging disaffected youth, while enlivening an urban neighborhood.”

Cummings himself, after showing work from the extensive Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, which has generated some 2,000 murals, said, “It’s giving people opportunities to stay out of trouble.” Certainly there’s value in that. But that strikes me as an incomplete standard, if it means that the public environment may be treated in ways that disturb the public.

Art for whose sake? 

The fundamental problem is that public art does not always make a place better. That’s true even when the art is created by individuals who have a substantial following in the art world. The most notorious example of that failure is Richard Serra’s sculpture, “Tilted Arc,” a 12-foot-high wall of rusty steel that the General Services Administration installed in 1981 in the open space in front of an addition to the Jacob Javits Federal Building in New York.

Many people, including workers in the Federal Building, viewed the 120-foot-long brownish wall as an eyesore—a harsh obstruction that detracted from their enjoyment of the plaza in Lower Manhattan. After four years, the sculpture remained so disliked that after a public hearing, the $175,000 art work was dismantled, turned into scrap.

If work by an artist in Serra’s position—he was selected by an expert panel assembled by the National Endowment for the Arts—can end up undercutting the attractiveness of an urban setting, there’s a risk of this happening elsewhere—perhaps not in Minneapolis, but surely in other places. 

At the forum, it was argued that art is not supposed to make people comfortable, and that murals, in particular, are temporary; they can always be painted over.

Cummings noted that those who use spray paint “don’t call what they do ‘graffiti,’” They are more properly classified as “aerosol artists,” he said, and can be subdivided into “bombers” (who do their painting where it’s not authorized and may be unwelcome) and “piecers” (whose works may be commissioned). In either case, Cummings said, “risk-taking is very important to young people.”

Alex Marshall, who writes for the Regional Plan Association in New York, strongly took issue with some of what was shown. Scenes of spray-painted words and messages—some of them on New York subway cars and on abandoned buildings, presumably photographed 20 or 30 years ago—brought back, for Marshall and others, memories of how distressing the nation’s biggest city used to be. It's demoralizing to live in, or pass through, a place that’s been commandeered by coarseness.

Marshall suggested that an in-your-face kind of art may degrade public space. In a city, things that are painted on surfaces visible to everyone greatly affect people’s thoughts, moods, outlooks. He likened an aggressive mural on the exterior of a conspicuous building to letting someone paint a disturbing scene on your living room wall.

I was pleased to see Marshall make such a forthright argument about what fits and what doesn't in public spaces. Since its inception, the New Urbanism movement has concentrated much of its attention on how to make the public realm appealing—through well-proportioned streets, human-scale buildings, street trees, pleasing materials, and other gracious elements. The public environment is the community’s living room; it needs to be thoughtfully put together, and protected.

As Andres Duany has often observed, human beings are amazingly quick to pick up on the signals that a place is sending. The character of an environment registers on their consciousness in an instant. It doesn’t take much of a disturbance in a street scene or a public space before a considerable number of people become ill at ease. And when people are made uncomfortable, a street or a neighborhood can quickly become a place that people avoid.

By a curious coincidence, while I was finishing writing this piece, a message from the national organization Keep America Beautiful arrived in my e-mail box. It announced the 2012 “Graffiti Hurts Grant Program,” which is designed to help communities carry out “graffiti prevention activities” (deadline for applications in June 15).

What was reemphasized for me during the Lincoln Institute forum was that one person’s art is another person’s provocation. Arts organizations should keep that in mind when they consider turning the surfaces of a city into a canvas for personal expression.

In these financially pressed days, when those who want to improve a city often have to do so with limited resources, there’s a danger of driving a needed restraint or subtlety out of our shared living rooms. A respect for the sensibilities of others is one of the things that makes living in dense agglomerations palatable; there's a problem when public art forgets that.

My guess is that when Alex Marshall recoiled at the exesses of "aerosol art," he was worried about the pervasive visual rudeness that made many sections of America's cities hard to live in not long ago and that would threaten communal well-being if it were to become widespread again. Art in public places has a responsibility to fulfill. 

For more in-depth coverage on this topic: 

Subscribe to Better! Cities & Towns to read all of the articles (print+online) on implementation of greener, stronger, cities and towns.

• See the March 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Traffic congestion, Zoning, DOT mainstreams livability, HUD's Sustainable Communities, Transit-oriented development, TOD tips, Form-based codes, Parking minimums, New classical town, Urban retail, James H. Kunstler, Placemaking and job growth, Maryland's smart growth.

• Get New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide, packed with more than 800 informative photos, plans, tables, and other illustrations, this book is the best single guide to implementing better cities and towns.

• See the January-February 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Value capture and transit, Social networks aid downtown, Live smaller, Rentals are market key, Streetcar inspiration, Box building, Civilizing suburbs, Alley houses, Sprawl repair, Healthy communities, Funding for infrastructure, Chicago River reversal.

• See the December 2011 issue of New Urban News. Wall Street and urbanism, streets to plazas, Sustainable Communities grants, Choice Neighborhoods, TIGER grants, buyers prefer smart growth, protecting historic buildings, public health and planning, redevelopment in Georgia, Ecovillages, parklets.