The conversation going on about whether or not there should be criteria that excludes the use of guns for art work placed in the Addison Street Windows exhibition is very delicate. But now that the conversation has moved from the Civic Arts Commission meetings to the public sphere in the form of flyers and newspaper articles, I feel that it is time that I add my voice. I have served on the commission for the past year and a half and during that time I have had the privilege of learning an enormous amount of information about the ways that a city commission works. I have a newfound appreciation for those who serve in public office, their roles, responsibilities and the challenges of reaching consensus in a city with a progressive history and outlook.
Publicly funded spaces have a different mandate than those which are privately owned. On-going exhibitions free of any type of consideration, or restriction based on size, theme, content or material are very rare outside of the “virtual” displays on the Internet. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of galleries, museums and art exhibition spaces have in place some criteria, either clear and stated or covert. The selection process and curatorial decisions of these institutions are not done publicly, usually not informed by public input. In museums or galleries, one has a choice to visit and view art that might be considered controversial. Publicly displayed art doesn’t allow the viewer to have this choice. I believe that public art should not be focused solely on individual artists and their work. As an art form connected to public awareness and appreciation, public art’s capacity to educate, inspire curiosity, promote new ideas, support community involvement and provide a pleasurable experience should be in the fore ground of our conversations. As such, the focus is on the effect of the work on the larger mass of public viewers.
As an African American parent of a young child who attends a Berkeley public school, it is my responsibility to provide a safe environment in our home, monitor and interpret the imagery presented on the streets so that she is buffered from sexism, racism and commercialism (among other “isms”). As we know, young children are deeply affected by the images around them and the world they live in. Until they reach a certain age, it is hard for them not to take on physical and psychic damage because they have not developed the ability to analyze and deconstruct what they are seeing. As a professor of art in the state university system, I have the opposite task; to encourage my students to create work that questions their world, to help them to critically analyze the images they see in the media, and to assist them in resisting the negative, destructive “isms” they see in any form, anywhere. Many of my college students are learning visual literacy and the impact of image and the underlying message that is being “sold.” It is my hope that the development of these tools will be a lifelong process that will inspire them to become active artists, productive local and global citizens, family members and participants in community building. As a parent and a professor, I am acutely aware of these two groups; minors who are sheltered in certain ways due to their vulnerability and young people who are entering the world as adults for the first time.
Though I agree with those citizens and colleagues who question censorship in any form, I want to highlight the role of location and context in the Addison Street Windows display debate. Framed as “censorship,” I feel that the criteria is thoughtful and appropriate in light of two factors. The Addison Street Windows are two blocks from Berkeley High School and because of this location they operate as a public gallery. Our high school students are up against an unprecedented level of violence in their daily lives. This violence comes at them in a variety of forms ranging from shooting on the street to the violence in Iraq as a result of the United States occupation. A significant number of high school students in Berkeley and surrounding cities have been affected by the gun violence involving friends, family members, and associates who have been killed or injured as a result of being shot. Often, the students make altars as public displays of grief. A sense of anxiety and fear has been triggered in young people (and all of us) even for those who have not been directly affected. Parents worry about their children walking or biking to the neighborhood schools, students worry about being beaten up or shot as they walk to the corner store. There is an overall environment of apprehension in the city of Berkeley because the level of violence has increased to an unprecedented level. And Berkeley as a city is not alone, this is indicative of a national and international trend. The depiction of guns and the violence that is implied either metaphorically or physically could re-trigger the psychological wounds inflicted upon our young citizens so we need to be extremely thoughtful about their display in The Addison Street Windows space and the ways we approach a discussion of violence. When art is public is presented in a venue such as the Addison Street Windows, there is no structure in place for analysis about the images to help young people who may need guidance in understanding the work. For the record, I am not anti political art. On the contrary, I have gotten into trouble a number of times for my work being “too political." Therefore, I understand, support and applaud most political artwork as an essential safeguard against the tide of “art for art’s sake” and its associated commercialism. It is the location of the Addison Street Windows and the context of violence faced by our young people that are primary considerations in my support of the current Addison Street Windows criteria.
Finally, do we want to extend the conversation about this particular venue into the foreseeable future? What kinds of compromises can be made to insure that our cultural ethos as an arts community is maintained at the same time that we pay attention to the needs of young people and other passersby? Though I appreciate the debate and discussion about this particular venue, I came to the Civic Arts Commission with a number of plans in mind. At this point in history both personally and nationally resources and time are precious commodities and I would very much like to turn my attention back to those ideas; the creation of city, community, campus and community art partnerships, the creation of art opportunities for the young people in Berkeley, and the active inclusion of communities of color, working class and poor people in art projects that renew, empower, and beautify all parts of my beloved city of Berkeley. Thank you for this opportunity to express my opinion.
Professor Stephanie Anne Johnson is co-chair and service learning coordinator for the Visual and Public Art Department at California State University, Monterey Bay and represents Berkeley's District 2 on the Civic Arts Commission.