Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.
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Sunday, February 2, 2014
This happens on a few levels:
1. Art creates a common reference that two discrete individuals can share without giving up any of their individual autonomy. You can talk to your neighbor about a performance you’ve witnessed at the local school, just like you see people of very different social extraction bonding together about last night’s football game. (Read here about Bill Ivey's amazing riff on that topic).
That may seem trivial or superficial but those initial bonds are key. No conversation of any merit can take place without a hello and the more we share simple things, the easier it is to work together on the profound. Liu and Hanauer argue that these small bonds are the key to trust, which is the only glue that can hold democracy together.
2. Art is an opportunity for engagement and if it is successful it does so in a zone of the sublime. It inspires an active response; it provokes—and that is how it is different from craft, which comforts and reassures. So art clears out the cobwebs and opens the pathway toward constructive engagement, bettering ourselves in whatever crazy way we see fit and kicks off a virtuous cycle of inspiration, creation and sharing.
This breaks through the lethargy and demonstrates that we can do something and that difference between zero and one is profound. So, as we bond together in the previous case, we do so in a way that is optimistic and with a quiver of emotional tools for positive change.
3. Finally, the making of art can itself be a community building activity on the physical level, which reinforces so much that is good. For example, in my neighborhood we painted a mandala on the road, which is now a community landmark, and it is one that we built ourselves and invested in together. By getting our hands dirty together we literally made ourselves into a community and doing so through art imbued that process with profound meaning on top of the circumstance. It was much better than picking up trash, for example.
So clearly, art within the community (as opposed to being shunted off to some cultural reservation) has virtuous effects. While it’s great to have art in the community, it is much better when the art is of/from the community. That way we truly own it (the art and, by extension the community itself). A citizen is one who invests themselves in their nation, and like the other ingredients of a successful neighborhood, an art-rich community requires active participation.
That is why we need citizen-artists even more than we need art appreciators.
As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.