The View From Cleveland 06.06.16
Leave it to a journalist from New York to show up in Cleveland with an idea of how things must be. (In fact, last year's Art Writer-in-Residence, also from New York, did the same thing.) In New York City these days, it can feel like art and politics overlap to an almost delirious degree: artists and others protest at museums regularly, exhibitions grappling with all sorts of social and political issues abound around town. This isn't to say there's no other work to see-there is-but if you're interested in how artists are confronting the problems of the world-as I am-New York is a good place to start.
And so I came to Cleveland, roughly a week ago, assuming there must be some kind of overlap between art and politics here. Cleveland is, after all, the most segregated city in the United States. It's part of the steel-manufacturing stretch of land that was left to rust in the second half of the 20th century. Its police force is famous for killing a 12-year-old child, its river for catching fire. One of its neighborhoods experienced "more housing speculation than any place in the country" in the lead-up to the Great Recession.
The world, in other words, has impinged itself upon Cleveland. It's not a place where you can pretend that deep-seated structural problems don't exist. Yet the sense I've gotten so far, from the people I've spoken with and the art I've seen, is that most (visual) artists here are not confronting those problems in their work.
That is, I want to stress, not a judgment. It is simply, to me, a surprise-especially given the city's legacy of literary activism and the impending Republican National Convention. (Two of the most high-profile RNC-related art projects are being brought to Cleveland by…New Yorkers.) And as one of my greatest professors once taught me, surprises are always worth investigating: they represent a rich gap between expectation and reality, a wealth of knowledge yet to be learned. If the truth is that Cleveland artists aren't making work about politics, then I want to understand why.
The other point I keep stubbornly returning to is that "most" does not mean "all": Some artists here are activists in their own ways, some painters and performers are making work that either they or I would call political. They're just a little harder to find, and their art may not adopt a shape that's familiar to me. So, in the process of sussing these people out, I've found myself returning to some fundamental questions: What's the difference between social and political art, or between political art and activism? What defines "political" anyway? What criteria am I setting up subconsciously in this search, and are they fair? How can I understand what it means to be political in Cleveland while only spending a month in Cleveland?
I don't expect to answer any of those, but it helps me to consider them continually, to let them linger in my brain as I go about the process of seeing art, meeting people, and having conversations. You might live here as an artist or arts worker and have thoughts on them, too. If that's the case, please get in touch. I'd love to hear what you have to say. I know I won't be able to fully understand Cleveland in 30 days, but I hope to learn a damn lot about it.