Art-gate: a fight over the public
By Beth Connors-Manke
North of Center
In our last issue, Betsy Taylor wrote a poignant and critical article entitled “Islam, Violence and Mourning in America.” In that article, she wrote about the murder of her friend Dan Terry in Afghanistan; after 30 years of work in community development abroad, Terry was gunned down in August. Terry represented a “dynamic sense of human solidarity, open and creative” – he was an exemplar of civic action, civic being.
Taylor’s article was about the loss of a friend, but it was also more broadly about how American culture has come to work, politically and otherwise. Advocating for an American civic sphere in which citizens come together in order to act together, to create a reality together, Taylor drew on the work of political philosopher Hannah Arendt who describes a citizenry “who pledge to act together for the common good.”
Arguing against an American climate in which defensive boundary protection rules the day, Taylor wrote that this citizenry “is more open and less anxious about boundaries. . . It [has] a covenant to both care for the commons and to safeguard individual dignity and agency — to recognize their interdependence.”
Taylor was a professor of mine, and it is she who first introduced me to Hannah Arendt’s work. A German Jew, Arendt was forced to leave Germany in 1933; she eventually immigrated to the U.S. in 1944, where she remained until her death. I almost immediately fell in love with Arendt’s political philosophy because it conceptualized a political culture in which citizens could come together to create a shared world without having to enforce one common identity or political ideology.
Arendt’s views on American public controversies weren’t always well received. Her 1959 essay “Reflections on Little Rock” about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 angered activists and writers. In “Reflections,” the philosopher argued against racial oppression and the federal enforcement of the integration of public schools.
Arendt pointed out that while adults were making children the agents of social and political change, they were ignoring the fact that a more important human right was being ignored: the right to marry whomever one wishes. In other words, the South was allowed to keep its miscegenation laws on the books. The political philosopher felt that “the right to home and marriage” was more fundamental than “the right to attend an integrated school.”
In other words, Arendt was asking: Are you fighting the right fight?
The Art-gate Fight
Also in our last issue, on the back page, was a photo of a new mural publicly displayed on N. Limestone. I had noted and enjoyed the mural. I asked a few people if they knew who had done it; they didn’t know. The piece itself had nothing indicating the author’s name or the title of the mural.
When a photographer submitted a photo of the mural, we ran it with a caption mimicking the experience of passersby who saw the art and wondered who did it. The caption asked for the name of artist and the mural’s title so we could, in our next issue, “solve the mystery.”
The response to that caption and the running of the photo of what turned out to be Niah Soult’s mural churned up a discussion that was unexpected, emotional, accusatory, and at times uncivil. NoC has come to call the episode Art-gate.
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