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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Art on the Streets Empowers Us

Written by Diana Boros, Visiting Political Science Professor

Last summer, a London installation artist, Luke Jerram, put 27 pianos throughout Manhattan for anyone to sit down and play. The project was called Play Me, I’m Yours.

As we walk down our busiest streets, we are overloaded with images of commerce, technology, and our material needs. Everyday life might truly feel different if it also confronted us with creative inspiration and new ways to imagine our lives.

Public space, at least in a democracy, is free, constantly changing, and multi-functional. There, people travel, relax, communicate, avoid each other, and work together, every day. Likewise, public art takes on many forms. Art on our streets can be seen in unique takes on architectural structures that enliven our skylines, and in the sculptures, performances, and sound experiments that take place in our communal spaces. It can also involve political ideas, or be based on shared dialogue and physical interactions.

Public art can be commissioned and installed into the office spaces and parks of our public lifescapes, and it can also be placed “guerrilla-style” on the roads, walls, and corners of our streets. Experience with art can be relaxing, invigorating, empowering, and spiritual. Psychologists have produced many studies on the mind processes that take place during artistic interaction to examine how and why creativity makes us feel good.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has shown, both in its 2007 and 2008 studies on public participation in the arts, that Americans who experience art or read literature are more active in their communities than nonparticipants and nonreaders. They concluded that high levels of creative participation indicate community health. Using the study’s findings, the NEA chairman explained that, “Something happens when an individual actively engages in the arts – be it reading a novel at home, attending a concert at a local church, or seeing a dance company perform at a college campus – that awakens both a heightened sense of identity and civic awareness. We must banish the stereotype that reading books or listening to music is passive behavior. Art is not escapism but an invitation to activism.”

At the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., President Obama argued that the arts strengthen America. He spoke of increased attention to arts education and to art in communities. Unfortunately, the NEA survey also showed that there had been persistent decline in arts participation among adults since 2002.

Despite its known positive effect on children, communities, and civic involvement, arts education in this country, especially through the vehicle of public art, is generally undervalued in our society, and often under-funded by our governments. To combat this injustice, many have created new avenues to bring the arts into public life.

Many efforts to encourage public art projects concern the creation of new foundations, alternative gallery spaces, and schools, which tend to focus on better-known artists. The ability of lesser-known socially engaged artists to receive funding to provide art in the community is often an uphill battle. While art organizations are undeniably important, there is always the possibility that in institutionalizing public art, we again put it within the elitist walls of the museum – open to all but frequented by far fewer. The same people who don’t visit museums will generally not become involved with public art organizations, nor will they attend the sponsored community art events or seminars, unless they are physically confronted by them. For a large part of our population, art is already an intimidating subject, thus the greater goal should be to make creative experience more inclusive.

There must be a component of public art that is confrontational, and that leaves the viewer without the conscious choice to experience it. Art on our streets should in some way reconfigure public space and provide a rearrangement of the world as we normally see it, as well as be accessible, and even unavoidable, in order to reach the everyday man and woman. These new arrangements of the way we relate both to ourselves and to others are key to revitalizing American public life.

Experience with art does not often lead directly to higher or stronger levels of democratic participation, but it certainly leads to higher and stronger levels of participation in critical thought, and to a deeper participation in life in general. With this new awareness comes a more urgent desire to assert one’s own thoughts in the public realm – the very definition of what it means to be political. The reawakening inspired by interaction with art creates more active citizens, who then shape our democracy anew simply through their very participation.

The relationship between art and an invigorated interest in public life is important, though it is not usually direct. Like most relationships between experiences that are subjective and ever-changing, the correlation between experiencing art and experiencing increased public awareness and activity is difficult to simplify. Despite this, we must nurture, rather than avoid, this relationship. We need to encourage our children, our communities, and our governments to re-engage with art as a political and social necessity.

Artists have historically needed sponsors – patrons willing to invest in their art – so artwork has always in a sense reflected those who supported its existence. If we want to support a free unbiased public art movement in this country, we must not only rely on the support of private organizations. It makes sense to invest interest-blind tax dollars in public art so that our public arts could democratically reflect all of us – the public.



Some Recent Examples of Public Art



St. Mary’s Pianist tackles Chopin Project
Starting in late January, St. Mary’s College artist-in-residence Brian Ganz began an attempt to perform all of composer Frédéric Chopin’s approximately 250 works. “Chopin’s music is the language of my soul,” said Ganz. “One of my lifelong goals has been to study every single note Chopin composed. This project gives me a lovely framework within which to reach that goal.”

Ganz, who hopes to reach his goal in 10 years, is researching the question of whether every work has been performed before by a single pianist. “Of course, the important thing is not whether I’m the first to do this,” he said. “I’m excited to share works with Chopin lovers that they may never have heard before.”

He will play Chopin pieces at the College throughout the spring. (See the calendar of events page)