24 December 2006

Project Row House

It is Christmas Eve. Two of my sons, Doug & Jeff just phoned me to say they are on their way over to the house for dinner (which is in the oven). My youngest son August is spending his first Christmas Eve with his mother and grandparents in Eugene, Oregon. He will be here tomorrow evening. The boys are my joy. I came close to simply writing about them tonight. But I also want to write about something hopeful out there in the world; after all this is the world in which they are coming of age. So I will go ahead and write about a sign of hope. This post is for Doug, Jeff, & August.

Let's begin with a passage from Dewey's Art & Experience:
"Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community are signs of a unified collective life. But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life. The remaking of the material of experience in the act of expression is not an isolated event confined to the artist and a person here and there who happens to enjoy the work. In the degree in which art exercises its office, it is also a remaking of the experience of the community in the direction of greater order and unity."
This passage came to my mind because my friend Susan Orr called my attention to this article from The New York Times (17 December 06) reporting on a truly inspiring development taking place largely outside, and more or less directly challenging, the familiar institutions of the elite "art world." Despite that locus, The Times reporter Michael Kimmelman suggests that Project Row House "may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country." From the sound of things, I would tend to agree. The project, founded in 1993 by artist Rick Lowe and still coordinated by him, aims to defend and extend social and cultural traditions in Houston's African American Community. In describing the venture Kimmelman refers to Joseph Beuys' "enlarged conception of Art,” which aims to integrate art and life, to tap the creative aspirations and capacities of each individual. I don't know much about Beuys (but intend to find out more). Kimmelman also might have invoked pragmatists like Dewey for whom art and experience were inseparable. In answer to the question "Is the work Mr. Lowe and his collaborators are doing art?" Dewey might respond: "the work of art has a unique quality ... that of clarifying and concentrating meanings contained in scattered and weakened ways in the material of other experiences." This, it seems to me, affords the basis for an indisputably affirmative answer.

Regardless of its sources, Mr. Lowe's vision should provide hope well beyond Houston's Third Ward. I will close by citing an appropriate remark from Rebecca Solnit's wonderful Hope in the Dark:
"Problems are our work; we deal with them in order to survive or to improve the world, and so facing them is better than turning away from them, than burying them and denying them. To face problems can be an act of hope, but only if you remember that they're not all there is."

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