Once I thought I did not know what art was. I knew I was not alone because not everyone ‘gets’ art. Not everyone wants to ‘get’ art. Some individuals could care less for it. For the latter though, not me.
I have wanted to be relegated to a more invested role than just an observer of what many feel when they decide to become a purveyor of that classification: an artist. On and off I grappled with the concept of public art specifically, that I had to start at the root with my personal comprehension of art, and exactly what that means to me.
I had a conversation not too long ago with a friend of mine, an artist. She breathes art. She eats art. She believes in art. From the most obscure, to the very plain, she can find an element of this idea known as art in practically any medium she is presented with.
In many ways, this I can identify with, because [art] is an everyday occurrence of a sort of magic and rapture that makes the ordinary, extra-ordinary.
My personal business card used to read: “DREAM, THINK, PLAN, LIVE…ARTFULLY.” It was this idea of imagining a piece of artwork and how each shape, line and tone had its place and purpose; no part was ever rendered disposable. Sure some elements of the piece stood out more than others. But recognizing the beauty of what could easily be pegged as mundane was the point of it. So for me (and like my friend), art could be this way of life: found in the everyday, art had the power to become a fundamental of how we function and communicate.
Yet as far as observing modern visual art; the handmade work of artists, sculptures and non-descript paintings, housed exhibits and installations; this category of art perplexed me. Because it was housed and I was not allowed to touch it, because it wasn’t like an age old recipe that I could take home and recreate, because it encouraged this separatist feeling of myself looking behind a barrier, I just did not understand what it was. I thought art was supposed to be tangible, a by-product of our existence as human beings, regardless of class and income. I thought it was supposed to be created out of some sort of individual or shared experience (i.e. a message, an occasion, a revelation) or need (i.e. vessels, textiles for clothing and to provide warmth), and then used.
As a woman with a deep affinity to my cultural identity (read: ethnic), I always equated art with heritage, making the two interchangeable. It was never a showcase but oft times normality, even hidden. It was in congruence with geography and family trees, its hands were interwoven with bloodlines, with advents and customs, with migration patterns, with diasporas, with coming of age, with marriage, with outside influences intermixed with internal roots. Art was skin, lips and teeth. Art was celebrations, food and drink. Art was native trees, rivers and dirt. For me, art was not an out of body experience, but rather was and is community.
There exist echelons of artist circles that revolve around name and reputation. I used to look on to these inaccessible worlds with a profound sense of wanting to be a part of the rush, but rather found myself twirling around in the dust particles, only to realize that the fete had passed me by once more. That is when I realized that art was more than just an extracurricular for me. It was a chain of events in time that was cultivated from the necessity of interaction, commonality and dialogue. And nestled in the context of cultural identity, shared histories and new stories, for me art became tacit, whole and meaningful. Aside from these roots, art becomes unidentifiable, theoretical and untouchable when it is commodified.
Through my initial feelings toward art in a cultural context, my grasp of public art changed my understanding of what visual art was. Public art has become so ubiquitous in urban patches across the globe that it is now commonplace; its value is attributed to how inviting it makes the mosaic of spaces in our cities.
On a visit back to Minneapolis, I saw murals with not only images but also words surrounding social justice on the side of a local business building in a residential neighborhood. This type of art, showcased in the public realm, was what I could immediately grasp. At the heart of it, the creation of public art now serves as a reminder of what I always knew art to be. For those who still don’t ‘get’ art, public art may be a frontier of experiential learning of art firsthand. For me, its communal approach pulls together observation and participation. It is a part of the everyday.