Owning It – Race, Class, and Art

Last week, I was driving through Salem, where I live, and I passed through a low income neighborhood known as The Point.  The Point is pretty typical of any low income neighborhood in the state – mostly minorities, the usual host of social ills that come with crushing poverty and little, if any potential for upward social mobility.  I noticed that the local “Art Box,” program (where the city awards people small stipends to decorate utility boxes,) was working at a park in the heart of The Point, a park that consists of a few benches, some anemic grass, a war memorial, and a handful of drug dealers.  The two women painting the box were notably your typical “Art Box” winners in Salem.  Young, middle class-raised Hipsters who were white.

They were also notably nervous.  Due to my schedule I had to pass the park several times that day, and never did the pair look at ease.  Considering the nearness to the Zimmerman trial verdict, one might as well have taken a picture to illustrate the dictionary definition of “Racial Unease in America.”  I should note that in full disclosure, I probably would have felt the same way, as I am a white, educated male from a middle-class family.  Mea culpa.

What struck me though, was that I had only ever seen one person from a minority group paint one of these utility boxes.  And they were doing it far away from The Point.  In fact they were doing it on the verge of a busy highway interchange in a rather industrial area of town.  In fact the vast, vast, vast majority of public art (or what passes for it,) in town was all done by the white majority.  Far in excess of the actual demographic makeup of the city.

And that is wrong.  In fact, it is part and parcel of the whole race/class issue plaguing America today.

The fact is, bringing white majority art to minority neighborhoods is not at all helpful to the actual neighborhood.  It is in fact just another symptom of the larger biases of society.  The intent to help is there.  But it often seems rather paternal.  The white man shouldering his “burden,” of having to show “those people,” what art is.  Oh, and often the art they bring is mere decoration.  Devoid of any deep meaning or resonance with the residents of the area.  As I recall one utility box in the area is decorated with nice little bird silhouettes.  Which is fine, but what does it mean?  Well, honestly, not a whole lot.  Now, compare something like that to these Chicano murals in LA – http://www.sparcmurals.org/present/cmt/cmt.html

Those murals are heavy with meaning and significance!  Even as an outsider I can see that just from the execution and effort put into them.  They mean something to the community.  They are glorious in their significance and show the true power of art to be an expressive medium!

Compare this –


To this –

Salem Art Box

I am going to be honest here, this is one of the better ones.  At least they are emulating Mondrian.  Otherwise they are mostly devoid of much meaning.  Some are even out-right rip-offs of popular cultural trends and images simply painted on.  No thought or meaning behind them.  Sure, the boxes look less Brutalist and utilitarian, but they certainly aren’t going to stir the soul like the Chicano murals one can find in Chicano neighborhoods.  And that is fine for some locations.

But the mistake here is in not reserving a significant portion of these opportunities for citizens of The Point.  Especially the younger members of the population.  Time and again we have seen that when a population is allowed to express themselves and create something that is intrinsically their own, they benefit.  They benefit socially, and they benefit economically.  When given the opportunity, they can create amazing art.  Deep art. Art that changes the way they see the world.  A teenager who is granted a $500 stipend to express himself and his culture will feel accomplished.  They will feel pride.  And most of all, they will feel hope.  They will feel that there is a chance for them to have a future of some kind and that they have intrinsic worth.  Something that is far too rare in a society that has said through the legal and economic system far too often that minorities are worth less than the majority.  Sometimes to the point of nullifying their very lives.

Do we not owe it to these people to offer them the chance to adorn their own communities with their own stories? Do we not owe it to them to allow them a seat at the communal table?

We do.

Yet sadly, we don’t.  And we should.  We should.




One thought on “Owning It – Race, Class, and Art

  1. Thank you for this insightful, balanced and first person reflection on art, race and economics in your own hometown. This is where we must begin all serious dialogues, at home.
    The vitality and necessity of both the Mexican muralists (revolution) and, in 2001 I was privileged to see the Havana Bienal in Cuba (oppression) thrse both provoked a similar revelation as yours when I compared these Mexican and Cuban artists to first world biennials, like Venice Biennale or Whitney Biennial.
    However, once we leave the arena of political and, socio-economic despair (Ben Shan, Picasso and Goya were “white”) we enter what is equally dramatic -the realm of human emotions- Munch, Warhol (yes, Warhol) and all manner of expression from subtle to sensual, etc.
    What you reject is empty, formal efforts of uninspired, trained artists who aren’t part of the communities they decorate.
    Another qiestion would be how many local artists applied, why/ why not. Etc.

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