Academic journal article Material Culture

Painting Material Culture: Community Art Research in Saginaw, Michigan

Academic journal article Material Culture

Painting Material Culture: Community Art Research in Saginaw, Michigan

Article excerpt

Abstract: In the painted and digitally assembled murals in the industrial city of Saginaw, Michigan, Saginaw Valley State University art students worked with inner-city youth to collaboratively create artworks that incorporate local motifs, youth artwork, and photography that express educational and social aspirations. Experiences - my students' and my own - in creating public art at three sites in Saginaw are examined.

Public Art and Community Murals: A Tradition Comes to Saginaw

How does one gauge the effect of community murals on an American city? Art is thought by the general public to be a lasting thing, yet one form is relatively fugitive and comparable to changing laws and political policies.

First of all, let me define "community arts" as art removed from the present commercial art world and market systems, not commodified objects but contextualized specific, sited group expression. If such art is by an individual, it is usually with the community's input or cognizance of community issues. It heals the split between art and the general populace that deliberate investment strategies have brought about, returning the arts to something approaching their rich significance in previous societies. Community arts are usually content-driven stories of real people and particularities. In our society, that means admitting race, ethnicity, and class. But all of the most radical artistic and aesthetic traditions can be applied to this ethic, for realism is a matter of content rather than form. Beyond multiethnic content occupying traditional media (paintings, cinema), community arts can take forms such as neighborhood celebrations, community murals, print media (often free), and public access television.

For "community" I uphold the political definition popularized by community organizer Saul D. Alinsky (1972) in Rules for RadicaL·: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic RadicaL· as a group with both immediate and long-term shared interests. Community art thus puts the artist's role into an unalienated context, and tests her or his professional flexibility; an artist may occasionally be as frustrated with artistic problems in this role as one alone in the studio, but will never feel isolated and alienated. The artist gives form to content shared and developed among others, in a relationship of artist and audience new to our society but the standard in many traditional cultures. For the purposes of my metaphors I will here use "community" and "neighborhood" interchangeably.

A community mural is democratic politics in the best sense of the word, a process of incorporation of many voices, addressing multiple agendas and needs so everyone benefits. As Diego Rivera affirmed in his 1931 mural "Making a Fresco" in the San Francisco Art Institute, the painting of a mural is an appropriate topic for a mural. While some community murals are a thoughtful, intentional expression of life in their community by a single, dedicated artist, many community murals are simply expressions of the ad-hoc process from beginning to end, with no preconceived design. This, of course, demands a process and proper design leadership to keep it from becoming a formless mish-mash. These sorts of projects contrast with the occasional public beautification projects that paint an image on a wall, but that may be "parachute art", which suddenly appears with no advance knowledge by the neighborhood, or that has little relevance to it. Reproductions of famous easel paintings, enlarged to mural scale, are one well-intentioned beautification scheme that some cities pursue. In Saginaw's case, there's a twostory reproduction of a painting by Matisse, an artist who, to my knowledge, never worked nor exhibited in the city. A subtle message thus conveyed is that art is something that's produced out of town.

Public art has appeared at different times in American history. Near the nation's centennial in 1876, it was often combined with memorialization of the previous decade's Civil War. …

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