THE POLITICAL THEATER OF “SUPPORT” FOR THE ARTS
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
You may have immediately noticed the quotation marks surrounding support in the title of this post, it is indeed very intentional. Much of my recent research has focused on the connection of anthropology and theater and the OK Trenton Project provides representation of the two definitions of political theater, presenting political and social issues through a stage play, and also uncovering the political posturing that embraces the efforts of grassroots projects for photo opportunities and cultural credit, but disappears at the hint of controversy or need for meaningful funding. While support for the arts can come in many forms, in the case of Trenton public art projects, support from the local non-profits, city and state government it rarely goes beyond lip service and the difficult task of funding is left for the artists themselves to sort out. I’ll be providing several examples of support that disappears when conversations get difficult and instances where the support is an illusion or purely political theater. Everyone loves to be involved in the ribbon cuttings, and photo opportunities, but few work behind the scenes to ensure the projects make it through the various hurdles necessary to bring them to fruition and properly compensate artists.
After several successful participatory public arts projects in downtown Trenton from 2012-20141, artists were provided blanket permission to paint on city owned and some private property that was boarded up or had roller gates that remained closed due to shuttered businesses. On the surface this was a vote of confidence from city officials in support of the artists who were largely creating artwork out of pocket or with donated materials, however when artist Will Kasso chose to depict Michael Brown in his cap and gown (pictured above) during the protests in Ferguson, MO in 2014, a complaint from the police led to its immediate removal. The mural was created to prompt discussion between the residents of the city and the officers who serve them, the conversation that was intended never materialized because the artwork was whitewashed rather than considered for the social commentary that it was. So was the city supporting the artists and their message or were they merely taking advantage of the artists to cover the neglected buildings that were their responsibility? The knock on public art is often that messages or content must be watered down in order to get through the bureaucratic red tape, and this is an example of exactly that. The support seemed to be in place to allow artists to share their message freely, but at the first sign of dissent, the support evaporated.
An eerily similar situation unfolded several years later when a local non-profit working with an arts organization provided space for the installation of a sculpture created by local and regional students led by a professional sculptor in a summer program. Created by welding and screwing old pots and pans together, the hand with red fingernails, making the “OK” symbol, made it to the cover of the Trentonian, the next day. The artwork was not featured to celebrate the installation of community-created public art, as it should have, but as threat to public safety. An anonymous member of law enforcement had called the newspaper to say the sculpture resembled a “gang sign”, the red paint on the nails representing the Bloods, and that it was in a “disputed” territory between the Trenton faction of the Bloods and Crips. Despite no confirmation of this, and no conversation with the artists or the non-profit organization about the meaning and context of the sculpture it was promptly removed. Again, if the organizations involved were truly “supporting” the arts, they should have stood their ground and made an effort to open dialogue and discuss context. If we are viewing artwork as a commodity, this was a gift taken away and an example of a lack of support for both the artists who created it and for a perfectly deserving community (see OK Trenton post).
Additional efforts to show “support” for the Trenton arts community have included multiple discussions of creating arts districts and councils, but these all seem to be attempting to build on grassroots projects and programming by artists to acquire grant funding and create a guise of active urban development. The problem is, these districts and councils are rarely followed through on, never truly funded, and don’t take the necessary steps to be seen through to fruition. A city councilperson can host an event touting the “Trenton Arts Explosion”, but never move through any actual legislation to help fund the projects or build infrastructure to support a true arts community. One can only fill out so many surveys saying they would want affordable live/work artists spaces without ever seeing one get off the ground, and still feel supported by local organizations and politicians.
Public art is a contentious discipline2, it is truly difficult to please everyone, and art objects that are publicly funded or publicly placed will always come up against dissenting opinions, but from an anthropological perspective, that is exactly their cultural relevance. This is also why real support is so important. If those involved are not willing to stand behind the work created and fold in the face of negative feedback or demand for removal, we will continue to avoid difficult conversations about meaning and placemaking in public art. Mural projects are embraced from an urban planning perspective as they serve as visual placeholders or as cultural capital for a changing neighborhood, but the best projects both challenge the establishment and serve the community where they are installed. We can’t expect true growth in an arts community that leads to long-term investment in the city without confronting the power dynamics in place and finding a way to provide financial support that equitably serves the artists and the city’s constituents.
2. Cartierre, Cameron and Ashley Guindon. 2018. “Sustainable of public art: a view on cultural capital and environmental impact” in Public Art Encounters: Art, Space and Identity edited by Martin Zebracki and Joni M. Palmer, 70-87. London; New York: Routledge.