thoughts on our urban future

TV Review – Art through time: A global view: The urban experience

Art through time: A global view: The urban experience a television production by THIRTEEN

Thank you to a reader who suggested we review one of the episodes from this 13-part educational series exploring the most commonly recurring themes that come up across history and art.  The series tries to isolate some of the universal concepts addressed through human creativity and brings them up to the current day to see how those ideas are being worked out in our current age.  Of course for this review, we are focusing on what the series identifies as “Theme 11: The urban experience”

Before I go into the review properly, I want to let you know that if interested, you should be able to watch the 30-minute episode online here.

This 25 minute program touches briefly on a wealth of ideas and concepts about the relationship between concepts of art and urban design and cities.  Although it is short, and therefore misses many global points of interest and examples, it does a fairly good job of highlighting a range of global examples with some stunning visual material.

The show starts with the premise that cities are the largest vernacular forms of collective human artistic expression and embedded within these vessels are more specific examples of urban design, architecture, and public art.  Cities are suggested to provide an experience of space and social interaction and for that experience to be similar to the aspiration of painting or sculpture, which attempts to create an emotional, physical, and/or intellectual response.

Cities are shown, through looking at one of the first cities, Uruk, as being a thing that allows intellectual and artistic life to flourish by pooling human resources.  Once people are not required to work all day to survive, they are free to use their time to pursue other interests.  The program suggests that cities are the cradle of human innovation and creativity. It also looks at the early understanding of the implications of large scale gathering and the development of a ‘sense of center’ and the city as a physical manifestation of social order.

This leads well to the next area that the program tackles, which considers the urban environment as a tool of political or higher will with a focus on the development of Rome.  I thought what was perhaps the most interesting about this part of the program, was not the information given on the use of the urban design of Rome as one of political and then religious manifestation (although that was well articulated), but rather the imagery that goes along with the words.  I think also because I was very recently in Rome, what is amazing is how these places still exist!  How you can still see the shaping of the spaces and the order of things, how decisions made so long ago are still integral aspects of a living and thriving city.

The program then changes focus from the ground plane to consider the skyline of cities and their visual aspect with a focus on American cities and their development.  The program makes an interesting theoretical link between previous cities being thought of by one entity (political or religious) trying to exert control over it, and through extension, the population, to the shift in ideologies to the rise of the skyscraper which for the most part is representational of individualism and the rise of corporations.  That a city of skyscrapers is more an expression of the combination of entities that make it up rather than one overarching expression of authority.  In this section the connection between the artistic expression of architecture is again  related to how cities are artistic expressions, or rather, how artistic expression is tied to the creation of cities.  A small quote of interest that I particularly liked from this segment was about how looking at high-rise buildings gives a visual expression of the ground plane multiplied vertically which is a physical expression of density.  Of course high-rise buildings represent density, but I rather liked the imagery of the stacked replication of the ground plane, which although logically there are issues surrounding this, the theoretical view was rather appealing to me.

The program then shifts to look at a very different sort of modern city by showing the viewer Djenné.  Djenné is famous for its mud-brick architecture which has since around 900 AD and has the largest mud-brick building in the world, the great mosque.  What was most interesting about this segment, aside from the actual building process, was how the entire community must come together to refresh/re-plaster their mud buildings after the rainy season each year to ensure they last.  It is a view of a city that most of us are not familiar with, and for that reason I find, particularly interesting.

The next segment of the program talks about the city as inspiration for artists highlighting what can be learned about urban life from looking at Impressionist art and interpretations of Paris as well as late 18th century Ukiyo-e prints of Edo (Tokyo).  The discussion suggests that such artwork was a response to the changing world around the artists, and can show not only the cities as they were, but also as an idealized version of themselves.  The artwork also reveals much about how cities shaped the ways that people interacted (or didn’t interact) with one another.  Obviously there is far more that could be said about this area, and the program only touches upon it lightly with these two examples.  But it is enough to challenge the viewer to go to a museum or gallery to look at other examples of urban representation to consider how it is a reflection of the urban experience.

This discussion segue-ways well into one of the last segments of the program about public art in cities.  In particular, there is quite a lot of coverage and images of murals from the Mexican Muralists to a the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.  Many of the images shown are striking if you have not seen large scale urban murals before.  The mural is seen as often having both political and social significance and I can see how this is the case.  I have often been impressed with murals I have been fortunate enough to see myself.  They always seem to me like some wayward combination of graffiti and art- but one that is sanctioned and supported by the people instead of subversive.  I think what is particularly interesting when considering murals is to consider the blank walls of buildings and the purpose they serve.  We are so used to advertising taking up much of this space in our cities, or for there to simply be blank walls.  Why should these walls not be covered in art?  Are they not the perfect canvas?  Some graffiti I have seen lately which has been more ambitious and large scale like the work of ROA or Banksy seems to attempt to bridge this gap but falls more on the high-brow graffiti side then the high art side.  Is it because it’s not the art of the people but rather the art of an individual in the public realm?  An interesting one to consider.

This train of exploration then leads on to looking at public sculpture tracing the origins from more monumental and commemorative pieces to current abstract works which are more an exploration of form and material in the public space.  They talk about how a sculpture can come to be an icon of a city, or a part of the city.  I think this is particularly true and that most of us can think about urban places that we enjoy and can call to mind a landmark sculpture or artwork that has grabbed our attention and is memorable.  I can think of many in London and New York but can also easily call to mind those that I have seen in Copenhagen, Paris, St. Louis, Austin, Dallas, and Washington DC and I am sure I have seen many, many others.  So there is this aspect of public art that acts as mental bookmarks for places.  Then there is also the concept of temporary art, like The Gates project in New York’s Central Park in 2005 and how a temporary intervention can alter the societal perception, use, and memory of a place.

So what is your experience of art in the city?  Is there a particular moment, place, or experience that has transcended from simply ‘place’ into art?  Is there an aspect of a city you have been to that swept you up in an expression of greater cultural idealism and unity?  I’d be curious to hear what people may add to this topic, as I said, the program is good but short and I’m sure there is much more to contribute on this subject.  Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences of art in the city in the comments below.

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