Some high-level sort of thing
By the time last week’s Courier arrived I was so cold, and so short of stuff with which to light my evening fire up here in the east tower, that three sections of the paper were used as kindling before I even had time to read them. On Friday evening the situation had not improved, and I was obliged to take two copies of The Free Press from the South End Grocery just to have enough paper to light the fire that evening, too. It has been a long time since I had to treat a newspaper so unkindly, but I think I was justified.
I did salvage the front section of the Courier, enough to read about the proposal in Rockland to create “a municipal arts and culture commission,” to manage the placement of sculpture in our public places. My first thought is that people often misunderstand the idea of culture, assuming it to be some high-level sort of thing that most of us are too busy (or too straightforward) to have anything to do with. The truth is that collectively we all have a culture, and we all take part in and respond to our culture. McDonalds is part of our culture, and so is the Strand. What I suspect the guilty parties are trying to say when they talk of a culture commission is that they want to promote, or cultivate, a certain aspect of our culture, namely the fine arts.
Don’t you think it interesting that a city once known for the overwhelming aroma of rotting fish flesh and for fights between the police and biker gangs is now in a position to debate what art to set up, and whether to admit an art gallery organization which has existed for some six decades in Rockport? Art is unlikely to engage the whole community because, in certain ways, art as seen traditionally is now old-fashioned. Painting, in particular, is being called out-of-date as a form. Camille Paglia (I think I have the name right) recently wrote a book suggesting the leading edge of contemporary art is film, and not painting or sculpture, which if it is true means there is a confusion between art and entertainment. But we shall see.
Art is almost unique in providing an opportunity for a certain form of democracy. In 1937 the Nazi government organized a traveling exhibition of art deemed to be degenerate by these degenerate gangsters. The idea was to show the people what was not approved by the fascists, so that fascist taste would be understood. Despite living in a dictatorship which they had more or less invited into power, the people failed to get the official point of the show. They voted with their feet in very large numbers to visit and to enjoy the “degenerate art” which was of course far more interesting and fun to look at than the humorless rubbish approved by the Nazis, and Hitler was somewhat upset. (Perhaps this is why he started the war?) There is a reference to this pre-war fascist show in the March 24 edition of The New Yorker, in a review of a current exhibition in New York that features some surviving art from that first show.
Despite this demonstration of public support for good art even in Hitlerite Germany, artists today live with the fear that their art will not be understood by other people. There was a piece of public art exhibited in downtown Portland years ago that drew widespread derision, for example, and which was eventually removed. So there is a natural tendency in the creative community to shield their sensitive material from public complaint, while at the same time hoping to expose it to a discerning public gaze. This somewhat awkward condition tends to express itself by the appointment of experts to make decisions on behalf of a public which is not expected to have the taste, the culture, to make decisions about art itself. I hope that any arts and culture commission appointed in Rockland will be aware of this potential difficulty, and will have the nerve to involve more people more fully in its decisions.
It is an enviable thing for a city to find itself in the position of having to choose which art can go on public display. It shows a certain idea of our town having grown up. I am aware of some of the machinations behind the whole idea of having an arts commission in Rockland, and naturally they are not entirely selfless motives. But once proposed, I think it is an idea to push ahead with to see what happens. But let us all remember this is not some private venture. The less involvement is required from the people, the less the people will support it. It is a public thing. Now, in the words of one of our more unforgettable presidents, bring it on.
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Thanks to the people who have replied concerning the history of these towers where I am supposed to live at the foot of Mechanic Street. I have not even begun to sort through the material, but will do so as soon as the warm weather arrives and I have feeling in my fingers again.
David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.