City building is an imperfect process. Poverty, segregation, and income disparities persist, or worsen, despite longstanding efforts to affect change. The unsightliness of these social failures are called “blight”. Blight is commonly thought to be the antithesis to beauty.
Urban revitalization efforts have been infatuated with idea that removing blight creates the conditions for community good. Specifically, the field of aesthetics—or that branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste—has for long been held up as a lens through which society can be ordered, with the thinking that beautification can “rehab” the masses.
For instance, the early 20th-century upper crust framed the conditions of poverty this way: the deprived were laggards on the evolution toward modernity, and they needed aesthetic inspiration. So arose the City Beautiful Movement, whose premise, according to Julie Rose at the University of Virginia, “was the idea that beauty could be an effective social control device”.
Put simply, outside pretty would arouse inside pretty, inspiring civic loyalty and morality in the impoverished.
A line in the 1904 classic “Modern Civic Art, or The City Made Beautiful” puts it frankly: “[M]odern civic art can now hope to banish the slum thus to redeem the tenement and to make its own conquests thorough.”
Cleveland tried its hand with this approach. Back in the early 1900’s the city’s elites commissioned then-starchitect Daniel Burnham to create the Group Plan. The Plan called for a City Beautiful civic center, which involved demolishing downtown housing tenements and commercial structures deemed expendable, with a series of elegant Beaux Arts-style buildings eventually being constructed around a plaza-like green space, now known as the “Mall”. It was believed such a central source of civic beauty would radiate out into the city, curing ills of all types. The beauty would be timeless, without half-life—always anchoring Cleveland’s progression, like a compass of godliness.
It didn’t work. Today, Cleveland is wayward, with a poverty rate of over 30 percent, and more vacant houses than perhaps ever before. Such failures made plain the fact that impoverishment cannot be “prettied” out of the city.
The use of aestheticism in city building has not went away. In fact efforts have redoubled over the last decade. The idea is no longer about flushing impoverishment out of the city system, but rather using art—particularly the romanticization of the artist and the act of creation—to spark economic growth.
In the article “Artists, Aestheticisation and the Field of Gentriﬁcation”, scholar David Ley discusses this strategy, whereby a neighborhood moves from “from junk to art and then on to commodity”, or form poor to reinvested in. The gist of the process—one with roots in 1960’s France to present-day everywhere—goes something like this:
Artists, as members of the bohemian vanguard, historically seek affordable, gritty locations. They do this out of necessity—most of the creative class is paid pittance—but also for creativeness.
“Hardship was the price one paid for being in the thick of it,” wrote artist David Byrne in the article “Will Work for Inspiration”.
Where artists cluster, so does the concept of anti-conformity and “cool”. Here, according to Ley, the space of the artist and the space of middle class youth overlap, bringing an era’s hipsters into a neighborhood’s fold. Things can turn quickly after that. Developers and entrepreneurs constantly sniff out the next big thing so as to buy lower and rent higher, with the scent pegged to “what the kids like”, hence the incessant “Millennial” fixation. Eventually, as gentrification continues, the artists and hipsters give way to professionals, until a landscape of wealth and conformity fills in the “starving artist” romanticism that greased its path.
Notwithstanding which side of the gentrification debate one falls on, the fact of the matter is that this form of city revitalization—from junk, to art, to commodity—is rampant, becoming defacto neighborhood development. In Cleveland, the arts-fueled districts of Tremont, Detroit Shoreway, Collinwood, and St. Clair-Superior speaks to the popularity of this approach.
This isn’t to say it inevitably works. There are only so many artists and hipsters to go around, and not everywhere is Portland, Austin, or Brooklyn. And so when Anywhere, USA does the art-as-development approach, things do not always go as planned.
In the recent piece called the “Best of All Possible Worlds”, writer Mark Lane travels to Evansville, Indiana, where a public art contest sparked “a debate over class, race, and good taste”. The story details how the town’s arts district plan devolved into land-grabbing by a quasi-governmental agency whose attempt at subsidizing housing for artist attraction often turned into the demolition of stately structures, if only because getting artists to move to small town Indiana is hard.
Beyond the wisdom of such a strategy, the piece examines the role of art as an aesthetic discipline, noting that the use of art in city revitalization is commonly not art for art’s sake, but is rather employed as a means to “fertilize” low-income neighborhoods for the arrival of the creative class.
“It’s not about the art,” noted an Evansville city planner to Lane. “Art is just another tool for economic sustainability.”
Such is a far cry from Picasso’s purpose of art, which is “washing the dust of daily life off our souls”.
Curiously, you don’t hear much from the mouthpieces of the art establishment as to the way the discipline is being used: as a means to create commercial order. Historically, the beauty and need of civic art has been about allowing the brokenness of life to enter into the artist’s realm so that the pain and suffering of humanity could be recast through the value of creation. Here, the soul is the audience, with the ovation meant to reverberate into how we “do” community.
But civic art as “junk, to art, to commodity” achieves something else. It turns the act of creation into the act of “creative classification”. And given our current economic inequalities and the erosion of the middle class, it is fair to wonder why a field that can heal the soul is being used to patch a system that adds dust to our daily living by the day.