The last assignment of an introductory studio art class was to respond to the question “What would you create—anything at all—if you were not limited by time, space, or resources?” For what my instructor at the time named “The Impossible Project,” each group was to draft and present a proposal for a public art project that had to “benefit the community,” and would then be given a yes or no by the “board members.” A previous group, for example, drafted a project involving a clothesline that stretched across the Atlantic Ocean to other continents: an exchange machine for interested individuals to send and receive clothes from outside their country.
The class separated into groups and threw around ideas. After a while I started talking about how the $300 billion bailed out the banks while the banks are foreclosing on homes, completely uprooting people. In the spirit of “That’s public money, the houses belong to the public now,” I proposed that we draft an enormous reclamation of foreclosed houses and/or empty buildings across Atlanta. We could draw a blueprint and devise a plan that would house people (there is no public housing in Atlanta), starting with Atlanta’s legendary largest abandoned building—City Hall East. CHE is bigger than the mall of Georgia. Plenty of people will tell you it’s “impossible” to re-prioritize social environments according to ideals.
After I laid it on the table, the rest of the group (18, 19, 20-year-olds) shuffled around and nodded. “That’s cool…” some said, trailing off. A young, particularly chafing group member defiantly asserted that those people got kicked out of their houses because “they bought houses and loans they couldn’t afford, they knew they couldn’t afford them.” She spoke with that ignorant, hollow-sounding characteristic of anyone repeating shit they heard just once. After my response, she remained completely unmoved. “Ehh, yeah…that’s just like, too political. I mean that’s like a social…project, not really art. Like what’s artistic about it? It’s political and I want to make something, more, beautiful, you know.”
So someone suggested we transform City Hall East into an art school for people in “the community” to come to.
I got up mentioning the restroom. I was gone for longer than could be excused for any bathroom break. When I got back the group notetaker leaned forward and whispered, “We’re thinking about doing something more impossible, like something in outer space maybe. Just wanted to fill you in since you’ve been gone.” Class was ending. I told her thanks but actually meant “You don’t even give a shit about people here, what the fuck are you gonna do in space?”
On my walk to the free parking space I managed to find downtown, I passed the park where the homeless come to absorb warmth while the sun’s out, their shopping carts and sleeping blankets turned into burdens during the daytime hours. I passed the biting smells of urine down Edgewood Ave, where so many houseless wanderers were too internally frozen to give a shit about people passing by.
Finally, I’m under the bridge where I park, walking on the same ground where their bodies sleep.
I hate ‘art.’ I hate these people. I’m enraged and sweating—I don’t sweat. Tears are making my eyes fuzzy and my face is burning and I’m smelling the piss on cold concrete.
If that’s not art I don’t give a shit about art. It seems poignant that somehow Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto was required reading but Benjamin, Adorno, and Marxist art historians were nowhere on the itinerary. Where a vague “benefit the community” was too watered down to probe the social implications of art, Claire Fontaine’s comment that “The painful indifference toward our feelings that characterizes any commodity doesn’t exist in a good artwork” could have intervened. Does painful indifference toward our feelings constitute bad artwork? Does something similar go for artists, as well; does indifference toward our feelings exist in a good artist?
When I had nowhere to go once, a very aged someone taught me that a way to stay warm when you have no heat in the winter is to never wash your clothes. It traps body oil and keeps in the heat.
I saw an incredible thing last week. Two lines of very poor seeming, possibly homeless black men were marching in unison down Auburn Avenue, the street where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up. Their clothes were worn and tinted with earth tones, and they were being led by another homeless drill sergeant. Frantz Fanon came to mind: “The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world…that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters.” My only thought then, and even more now, was I hope they’re doing what I hope they’re doing.