State of the Art: Why art matters, from the people who live it

We asked some leading lights of the South Side art scene: Why does art matter? What is the social relevance of art? Why do we need it on the South Side? What follows are their responses.

Art’s always been important. Not just music; all kinds of art. It’s spiritual. I mean, it’s hard to explain: it’s just a feeling. I’d be creating music…Right now, I’m creating music and it depends on how I’m feeling. Everyday is different. The whole picture is relative.

You need art everywhere. It keeps us alive. We just happen to be on the South Side. If we’d be on the North Side it would be the same.

…We need art. Art has always been. We develop and play music here [at the Velvet Lounge] and some musicians might not go far, but some will.
Fred Anderson
Velvet Lounge

Pilsen has given me a great opportunity to interact with the public directly from my art studio. Living and working within the Chicago Arts District for the past four years has helped me actively put my work out on the Chicago scene. Being able to work full-time on my art and support myself is important. I definitely have been lucky, but utilizing the tools that surround me has aided my pursuits.
Gabe Lanza
Lanza Studio

Art matters because at its core art does not matter. That’s what I love about it. Our lives are full of things that “matter,” be it our jobs, our family and friends, the things going on in our city, not to mention the country and the world. Art is an oasis. It is the open and empty space we can fill with whatever we want. And the beauty of it is that at the end of the day what we put on that blank canvas does not matter (except maybe to our ego). It does not matter whether we like it or not. It does not matter whether we understand it or not. It doesn’t even matter whether we pay attention to it or not. And so we can say, “try it, do it, why the hell not!” We need art because we need the blank canvas. We need empty spaces to experiment, to explore, to be bold, and most importantly make mistakes and fail. It is how we learn and how we grow.

This is why I love being an artist in Chicago. Chicago is a city characterized by its empty spaces and “blank canvases,” where art can happen in this unique way. Whether it is the physical space of our raw, empty lofts and industrial spaces, the mental space marked by the lack of the “industry” mentality that dominates other cities, or even our Midwestern sense of humility, sincerity and accessibility, Chicago’s artistic culture is infused with a spirit of “it does not matter.” It’s why many of America’s greatest artists and entertainers got their start in Chicago. It is a city in which artists can feel free to explore, develop and find their artistic voices while testing that voice in the arena of a great city. And while we lament that our artists often leave Chicago for greener pastures, I know that these same artists take pride in saying they are from Chicago–even going so far as to still call it home. I’d like to think that, like home, it is that place of comfort. It is that place you can always return to. To create art that does not matter.
It’s not that Chicago needs art. Art needs Chicago.
Nat Soti
Chicago Art Department

On the “South Side” we would say your question is bogus!

The purpose of art is linked with the purpose of human life. Human beings make, and have always made, meaningful and communicative marks on all types of surfaces within their environments. It is a defining feature of our species. Art matters if we matter. So why is there today a question coming from the University of Chicago community on the purpose and need of art on the “South Side”? What branch of intellectual study questions the need of essentials in a geographical area? All of us need art to be human.

Art is being created on the “South Side” of Chicago and has been created continually on the south side of every other place since ‘day one.’ What type of being questions art’s significance for a particular area of the globe? … Are they dismissing an area as devoid of art, and in dire need of art, because they have not ventured into that area to see the marks that are made there?… Or are they actually questioning the significance/existence of art in those areas because they see the residents as “others” incapable of producing “art”?… Or worse are they anti-intellectual and have never fully studied their own art history, its borrowings, influences, cross fertilizations, and believe theirs is the only evolved significant art? If they didn’t do it, no art exists?

I am part of an organization (Diasporal Rhythms) that promotes the collection of contemporary art produced by artists of African descent (others?). What we find is that art has always been produced, collected, and appreciated on “every” side and that the appreciators of such have an obligation to hold it up for acclaim. If it isn’t held up, it is usually lost. Our organization is within a long art appreciation tradition stretching back to the founder of this city. The art history of the “South Side” needs to be carefully studied.

The questions posed to your University audience should, more appropriately, be (a) how do we assist in the promotion of art creation and art appreciation activities that are already occurring in and around the University and (b) how do we leverage the material and intellectual resources of the University (without changing its mission) in concert with those of community individuals and cultural institutions to read, study, and preserve the artistic marks produced, and being produced, and thereby foster a fuller understanding of local art history and reduce the concept of “otherness” in this community?
Patric McCoy
Diasporal Rhythms

I will mention only the relevance in terms of art’s audience. One thing art does is to attract and affect an audience. What the members of the audience discover is that they are together in their appreciation of the art, and this is of enormous importance in their coming to understand that they have things in common with one another, and to that degree that they are alike. Of course this happens with things besides art, but it is especially pronounced in the case of art, and often most complicated and textured there.

The South Side art I’m most familiar with is jazz. The role it plays here, in addition to what I noted above, is an extremely important interracial role. Oddly, ironically, and somewhat sadly, although historically jazz is very much the creation of black artists, of late its principal audience is mostly white. On Chicago’s South Side, however, both the musicians and their audience are racially mixed. The commonality thus engendered is enormously valuable, and it can lead to much more. This is perhaps not so very different from the racially mixed audiences for sporting events, and the fans of Chicago teams, but here, somehow, the object of interest seems more subtle and deep.

The University does what it can, I suppose, and lately it has been doing more. No university can do everything, and traditionally the University of Chicago is academically conservative. This is its strength, no doubt, but it means that the University cannot afford heavy investments in things outside canonical academic pursuits. There is no strong tradition here, for instance, of the performing arts. It is nearly impossible for students to earn academic credit in the performing arts. This isn’t such a bad thing. It means that the opportunities for amateur artistic activity are extensive, and the room is not being taken up by professional and pre-professional artists.
Ted Cohen
Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago

People trying to make positive change in poor neighborhoods often seem focused solely on providing basics like improved housing or after school programs or health care. There is no question that services of this kind are crucial, but it is equally as important to remember that having access to things that are beautiful is part of what makes life worth living. One reason that Art in Action is so valuable is because it helps, in a small way, to satisfy this very real need for pleasure, fun, and loveliness in Woodlawn. Moreover, I think that making and enjoying art is something that speaks to most everyone, regardless of age, background, or socio-economic status. In this context, Art in Action unites citizens of the University and the surrounding neighborhood by illuminating what we have in common, and providing a safe forum for the discussion of how we can all come together over making the area we share the best it can be, regardless of our differences. The experience of creating art with people who we don’t typically relate to or empathize with helps us all to deconstruct the traditional boundaries, misunderstandings, and stereotypes that keep University students, faculty, and staff separate from our neighbors to the south. Even if it is just for a day, Art in Action draws us together as one community, and ideally, equips us to better understand and relate to one another even after it has come to an end.
Hannah Birnbaum
Southside Solidarity Network, a University of Chicago club that organizes the Art in Action Festival every spring

I think [art] is very significant, the artists that create works of art are a voice to the public speaking on different issues–especially in the African-American community. It gives people a visual opportunity to conceive the concerns they’re dealing with on an ongoing basis, and see how people view the world at a specific point in time…what I create in 2008 can be looked back at in 2048. Art provides a historical point of view for the future. And from there we can see how things are constantly repeating themselves…like education, politicians have been talking about how we have to fix it for the past 200 years, but if I cover it in an art piece, it’s like, let’s get this thing fixed already.

[As for South Side art], I would have to say that from an institutional point of view the South Side art is primarily African-American, and in Chicago the institutions that support art are not primarily African-American–they show African-American art, but it’s not an institutionalized thing, you can’t see it on an everyday basis…it’s not [accessible] over a period of time and you don’t have that tangential access to it. If we didn’t have these institutions [on the South Side], a lot of people would have to go downtown–we need to spread these institutions across the city, get more people access to it. [When you can only view art downtown], people get intimidated–like you have to have a certain status to [view] it…I want it to be an ordinary process, get people’s mindsets to change a little bit, have people feel like it’s no big deal.

We look at our lives in the world as certain things we know we need for sure like shelter, or food and water…but just try to image a world without art–no music, no theater, no visual arts–what would you be doing? It’d be outrageous, it’d be like having no water…we need to get art into people’s lives, give people a way to express themselves.
Bryant Johnson
Steelelife Gallery

Reported by: Sam Feldman, Laura Harmon, Yennie Lee, Julia Pagnamenta, Sean Redmond, Rachel Reed, and John Thompson

It’s 10pm on a Sunday night and Todd Frugia, proprietor of Rooms gallery in Pilsen, had just gotten home after a long day at work on the set of a McDonald’s commercial. Unlike some of his peers who complain about the need to do corporate work to pay the bills, Frugia doesn’t despair. “There’s a point where, in that realm, I’m pleasing my client, and I need my paycheck! I will acquiesce there, and do what they want. And then when I come home [to my studio], no one tells me what to do!” Frugia and his wife, Marakesh, have worked and lived in Pilsen for about ten years. The second floor of their gallery, called Rooms, is their home. “One of the guys I hired to do my camera operation is from the South Side; there’s a group of us (here) that are sort of professionals, sort of artists–there’s a real community.” Indeed, a “personal connection” between artists and their galleries distinguishes the community in Pilsen.

“It’s different from the intimidating galleries in the West Loop; they do great work, but I go in and I feel separated from it. And I come down here and see Gabe Lanza’s illustrations and I meet his family and his cats, and he’s (also) worried about bills; and his work is outstanding and it’s right there and I could buy a piece! It’s that personal connection. Even the MCA or the Art Institute, I go and expect beautiful pieces, but it’s so far away…” In regards to his experience as an artist on the South Side, Frugia ruminates, “we came here and met some friends who are photographers and video artists and almost immediately they took us in and we began to collaborate–that’s the spirit here.” Once Rooms Productions settled into its home on West 18th Street and built a small inventory of actors, camera crew, etc, Frugia noticed “…a texture to this environment, it’s just addictive: you want to stay here and work and create… It’s such a welcoming community: you can come in on any level, and if you’ve got good ideas you can work. That’s what’s unique to the South Side, and Pilsen in particular.”

Frugia recently returned from teaching an acting class at Colorado College. He thought it might also be a good opportunity to get some work of his own done. He admits it was a meaningful teaching experience, “but as far as writing or creating–I wasn’t like Walt Whitman, I just wanted to ski and relax. And then I come home and back to the texture.” He added, “I’ve never created as much as I have down here, it’s important to foster that. The key for me here is there’s a lot of energy…The South Side helps bring art out of you.” So for Frugia, the need is not bringing art to the South Side as much as bringing people to the South Side to see it. Those people comprise essentially two groups. On the one hand, those who live on the South Side but “feel intimidated by the gallery, as if it wasn’t for them.” On the other hand are artists on the North Side that show reluctance to trek down south, with excuses like safety and parking, despite support from artists in this area. “It’s about making the neighborhood more comfortable with that, but (also) making those North Siders more comfortable with it.” While Frugia doesn’t view art on the North vs. South Sides as a competition, “you start rooting for the South Side [all the same]” he admits. “On the one hand there’s a logical, aesthetic piece of me that says it’s great to bring [art] to this area; the North Side has this great history of art and theater but…something in the air down here, it’s more energized.”

When asked about incentive to work on the South Side, his response was anything but martyrdom. Quite the opposite, “I just saw it and thought wow, that looks like a great place to create… There’s just that right mix of grittiness, life, art and vibrancy that makes this area so vivid…it’s not about bringing art to the South Side, art already lives here, we just need to bring it out…” Every third Thursday Frugia personally helps bring art out rather than to the South Side, when he opens Rooms gallery for “Salon.” This is an impromptu performance, essentially prepared by forming a list of individuals from whom Frugia has received interest. It is an outlet for aspiring artists to perform or display any form of art. This in part responds to his “gripe” concerning the South Side: “When I was on the North Side, I kept feeling like I needed a lucky break.” Frugia noted numerous organizations that help showcase South Side art: the South Side Arts Network (which his wife Marrakesh recently joined), the Mexican Cultural Center, and the integral “Second Friday” event in Pilsen. The proximity of artists to their art is unique to the South Side, and for Frugia this is an important goal of art. “People like us who have to go during the day do the corporate work but come back to your gallery and do what you want.” (Rachel Reed)

For Sociology professor Terry Clark, art is part of “making culture into magic.” It fulfills the aesthetic demands of particular social groups and serves as an integral part of the rise of “scenes,” an increasingly vibrant unit of social activity. With post-industrial trends like a general increase in education, income level, individualism, and social tolerance, individuals come to regard art as a valuable amenity, not just a peculiar or interesting aspect of cultural life. This trend makes art socially meaningful not just on an individual level, but on the broader level of community cohesion, political action, and economic development.

“Traditional models of urban economic growth point to production, land, labor, capital, management, and later, human capital. But as these new post-industrial, post-modern cultural trends take place, cultural amenities such as art become increasingly important elements of economic growth as they attract the creative, young classes who have the human capital necessary to fulfill the needs of the new creative, service-based economy. But,” he clarifies, “it is not art in general that inherently holds social value, it’s about the kinds of art and scenes in specific locations and how they cater to the different aesthetic styles and cultural values of individuals.”

Particular local cultural preferences manifest themselves in “scenes,” which can be described in terms as diverse as “Disney Haven” and “Cool Cosmopolitanism.” Art acts as an essential part of these scenes, attracting individuals who want to consume particular kinds of culture and participate in new kinds of social interaction as well as tourists. From the local to the global level, the growing importance of art summed up in scenes is reshaping political and economic trends, as governments must respond to scenes as important social entities and businesses must respond to the cultural sensitivities they demand. (Laura Harmon)