Grassroots Public Art and Political Power
It often strikes me that pundits and political scientists are engaged in a very limited discussion about politics. I am bored hearing about the political elite and about the influence of money. I think people that have been considered politically marginalized often illuminate sites of equality and of hope. Their stories of effecting change from the margins are especially relevant as an increasing majority of Americans find themselves marginalized from our political and economic systems.
My first encounter with public art was reading Jack Stewart’s book Graffiti Kings. At its height, during the 1970s, Stewart wrote, “Few urban communities had ever experienced such a rapid and concentrated alteration of their visual environment.” An alteration accomplished largely by 8 to 16 year old Black and Latino boys. Why was the demographic least likely to vote, or engage in organizational work, in control of one of the fastest visual changes of an urban environment?
I want to broaden our understanding of power. In our obsession with the people we deem most powerful – elected officials, celebrities, and millionaires - we ignore the people who are usually the most valuable change makers. We already have an inexpensive, readily available group of leaders, with roots established in all communities – grassroots public artists. What they do with their power is their business. We cannot predict or outline the creative solutions to an individual or a community’s set of problems. As poet and politician Aime Cesaire wrote:
"The peculiarity of 'our place in the world' isn't to be confused with anybody else's. The peculiarity of our problems aren't to be reduced to subordinate forms of other problems...in these conditions, it will be understood that we cannot delegate anyone to think for us; to do our searching, to make our discoveries; that we cannot accept that anyone at all, be he our best friend, answer for us."
As graffiti grew, it became more than a respite from the gang violence that plagued New York City neighborhoods, it actually began to resolve tensions. “Graffiti writers formed a code that provided acceptable alternatives to beating each other up,” Stewart wrote, “ [It also] eliminated the old turf boundaries, as such barriers interfered with the important objective of gaining access to all the trains in the system. [The writers] …even made great social events out of Mayor Lindsay’s “Let the punishment fit the crime” initiative, which sentenced writers to wash graffiti from the walls of subway stations.” Because the writers owned graffiti they designed the rules of the game, and used them to their benefit.
But the political implications went beyond just addressing local issues of turf wars and gang violence. In one of the world’s great graffiti bibles Subway Art, Martha Cooper says the writers were motivated by the desire to “get in the face of society.” The Mayor of New York, their mayor, was oblivious to “the social problems that had been unfolding in the most volatile and vulnerable segments of the population over the previous twenty years.” But the act of graffiti was public, and it was a place to confront and match the power of the traditional political system, to rebel against public invisibility. When I interviewed BG183, a member of Tats Cru graffiti collective in the South Bronx, he made this comparison—“It was more about my name, you know, BG183, that was the key. It was the message of me being out there like how a mayor is gonna run for mayor and he’d post his name everywhere.”
Initially powered by some of the most politically marginalized communities, graffiti is a movement that grew to be truly ubiquitous. As you read stories of the broader world of grassroots public art, you’ll find that demographics -- those inescapable numbers, those categories labeled ‘women,’ and ‘minorities,’ that plague the charts and tables of political science books -- don’t matter.
“I always thought that graffiti was a phenomenon that could only happen in New York City,” wrote Cooper in Subway Art, “[Because NYC] in the late 1970s…was on the verge of bankruptcy, neighborhoods were crumbling, and the train yards weren’t well fenced or guarded, it never crossed my mind that kids in squeaky-clean Sweden would want to paint trains.” One of the most disappointing characteristics of political science research is that study after study focuses on data that shows young people, low-income populations, women, and “minorities,” aren’t being represented, aren’t participating, aren’t voting, various statistics and reasons abound. This narrow conception of political reality is due to the limited understanding of who is a political actor, and what it means to have power.
Graffiti is just a case study of what grassroots public artists are capable of. At the art lab I run in Brooklyn, Space-Made, our mission is to build the capacity needed for grassroots creators to speak and work as experts and problem solvers, work only they can do. These creators are powerful agents of political and economic change despite their limited access to indexes of power favored by mainstream political science. Their work offers compelling evidence for the importance of power drawn from resources that are distributed throughout our society, and almost completely non-rival and non-excludable. Their work challenges overly-determined analyses of power derived from sources like wealth, political office, race, gender, age, and education. They provide an alternative, creative toolkit to build sustainable, democratic communities.
- Cooper, Martha, and Henry Chalfant. 2009. Subway Art: 25th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.
- Harris, Fredrick C., Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, and Brian Mc Kenzie. 2006. Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973-1994. NY: Cambridge Unversity Press.
- Katznelson, Ira.1973. Black Men, White Cities; Race, Politics, and Migration in the United States, 1900-30 and Britain, 1948-68. London: Published for the Institute of Race Relations by Oxford UP.
- Prigoff, James & Dunitz, Robin. 2002. Walls of Heritage: Walls of Pride. Pomegranate Press.
- Stewart, Jack, and Regina Stewart. 2009. Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s. New York: Melcher Media/Abrams.
The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.