Thursday, August 28, 2014

some thoughts on the small spaces controversy

The great thing about street art is its accessibility and proximity to the public. Street art is neither high art nor low-brow. It is diverse, progressive, and counterculture. The good ones catch your eye. The better ones challenge conventions, expose taboo, or espouse a cause. The best ones succeed in describing life; they are confrontational, they stop you in your tracks, and have you contemplate what you see. These works often make possible ways of thinking that were not possible before.

For the city of Lafayette, Small Spaces is a community-based street art project. The basic premise is for local and regional artists to create works of art that will complement the existing architecture of the downtown district. The art will feature a youthful aesthetic, built on a mix of contemporary street art, graffiti writing, stencils, paste-ups, and installations. The end goal is to have a district-wide walkable art exhibition that features new works around every corner of town.  Small Spaces may be Zach's brainchild, but really, it is a project that would not be possible without the coming together of city officials, building owners, and artists who also aspire to refresh the look of downtown.

We started the project in mid-July, and our first piece was River from a Drain Pipe. Soon after, pieces by local artists Esteban Garcia, Mitch Schuring, Baron Mattern, and Kaleb Lucas started popping up around town. Last Sunday, Lisa Wicka, Aaron Bumgarner, Aaron Molden, and Zach added new pieces in several different locations.

This is one of Aaron Molden's piece from Sunday. The image, quite simply, is of a policeman in a riot helmet.

small spaces lafayette

This is also the very piece that has ignited a whole lot of controversy in the last couple of days. In case you haven't followed any of the news, let's backtrack a little ...

On Sunday afternoon, I accompanied Molden to Sylvia's Brick Oven where he pasted this image of a cop. Molden's depiction of this cop was a somber one. A simple composition. A single subject. A black and white portrait of a human being. A neutral expression. He is a common man, set apart and identified only by the outfit he wears. In its quietness, this portrait invites viewers to freely interpret its significance. As we left Sylvia's, Molden and I spoke briefly about the content of the piece. We had an inkling that it could be perceived as a provocative piece, but were still excited to have put up something a little more rousing. We were also curious to see what kind of feedback it would receive, in light of the recent unrest in Ferguson and the bad press that have been plaguing the local police department. We didn't have to wait long to find out.

On Monday Zach received instructions to cover up Molden's work at Sylvia's. Apparently, some police officers who were offended by the piece had approached the owners of Sylvia's Brick Oven with their displeasure. Their sentiments were then conveyed to Margy Deverall, project manager of Small Spaces, who decided that the piece needed to be covered up. As far as I know, cops are not schooled in art, and neither are they trained as art critics. The officers who looked at Molden's portrait saw it as a mirror reflection of themselves. And upon that reflection they bestowed their own biases, interests, attitudes, and lived experience. They responded with outrage because they disliked what they were reading into the piece. In this case, their opinions took precedence over Molden's intent.

The hasty coverage by the Journal and Courier fanned these flames of controversy. Instead of doing thorough research, the local J&C reporter leapt at his first opportunity to sensationalize the story by linking Molden's piece to the events of Ferguson, MO. The evening editorial stated that the work was "apparently inspired by recent events in Ferguson." A third article published on Wednesday also called the work "Ferguson-inspired" in spite of Molden's attempt to explain that his piece was "meant to reflect the current transition of what it once meant to be a law officer in the United States compared to what it means today and possibly the future." The reporter quoted Zach (albeit often out of context) in Tuesday's article as saying that his issue with having to cover up Molden's piece is "free speech" and "bully cops," overlooking the fact that the larger issue at stake is the purity of art and the freedom to create it. Zach's statements spurred on readers who were quick to take sides. Discussions that ensued were mostly in favor of the artist. The entire police department, it seemed, was being dragged through the mud because of the actions of a couple of cops.

The truth is, Small Spaces is a project built on compromise. Artists have the right to create whatever they want the same way building owners have the right to reject pieces they deem inappropriate. In the case of Molden's portrait of a cop, the city (not the police department) made the call to remove the image for the sake of upholding the terms of the contract it signed with building owners. Though it was ultimately removed, Molden's piece achieved its purpose by opening up dialogue within the community. We cannot ignore the people who disagree with us. But we also have to resist the urge to forge a fake sense of unity by confusing it with conformity and undermining the notions of distinction and difference.

Any worthy piece of creation should challenge existing beliefs and convictions. For me, Molden's piece and the subsequent cover up of it embodies the spirit of art by bringing to the fore the urgent need to question social, aesthetic, and political boundaries. It is a piece that grew out of and responded to the socio-historical moment in which it is created, which is precisely why it had the ability to indict its context.  It is a demonstration that art can be revolutionary in the ways it is able to call for critical thinking in order to discuss alternatives.

small spaces lafayette
Aaron Molden's other piece from last Sunday

Man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence … he is nauseated. 
[Art] alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts of horror or absurdity of existence 
into notions with which one can live.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

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