So, Block E—the saddest square block in the upper Midwest—has finally succumbed to the soul-sucking emptiness of its new reality, and the city, desperate to do something—anything—to counter the ever-expanding black hole of capitalism Block E has become, has decided to do what all cities do (including Detroit) after they’ve tried everything else: throw it to the artists.
Made Here is a project led by Hennepin Theatre Trust to showcase the work of Minnesota artists by allowing them to display their work in 40 temporary “pop up” displays located in the empty street-level store-spaces once occupied by Border’s bookstore, Gameworks, and Snyders. Artist applications are being accepted now, and the exhibits themselves will be on display from Sept. 28, 2013 through Jan. 6, 2014.
This is a great idea. Artists are quite adept at making something out of nothing, since nothing is what most of them start with, and nothing is what most of them get paid. A great big sense of nothingness has been Block E’s big theme for quite a while, so the whole thing seems like a perfect metaphorical fit.
Hennepin Theatre Trust (along with the Walker Art Center, Artspace, and the City of Minneapolis) is also the organization heading up the Hennepin Cultural District project, a years-long effort to transform Hennepin Ave. from the Walker Art Center to the Mississippi River into a world-class arts destination. Made Here is an experimental first step toward a more robust arts presence downtown, as well as a springboard for expanding public awareness of local artists, so that they might one day make something more than nothing from their highly skilled efforts. Stuffing them into the least-lucrative retail space in town isn’t exactly a vote of confidence, but artists are used to being treated like third-class economic citizens, so they’re accustomed to this sort of thing.
As bold as the idea is, however, the application itself contains language that is cause for concern, or at least disappointment. While any artist in Minnesota may apply for Made Here, the application clearly states that successful displays will be “engaging, apolitical, inoffensive,” and “appropriate for public view.” Furthermore, arts organizations or collectives that wish to showcase their efforts must “demonstrate the diversity of Minnesota.”
Clearly, the purpose of limiting the art on display to pleasing, inoffensive celebrations of diversity is to avoid a spontaneous riot over something stupid, like a cartoon of Muhammad or a statue of Jesus made out of pork sausage and dunked in monkey blood. But in the art world, condescending parent words like “apolitical,” “inoffensive,” and “appropriate” are code for “boring,” and do not reflect the qualities that truly engaging art often has, or the serious intent with which many of our best artists approach their work.
In fact, such limitations ensure that the art on display in Made Here will be an attractive, earnest, relatively dull collection of works that represent a kind of visual Minnesota Nice, while marginalizing and disregarding any artist that might have the temerity to address a serious political subject or raise an uncomfortable question about the world in which we live.
If these 40 displays sit on Hennepin Ave. for four months and do not raise anyone’s hackles, the city and HTT will doubtless consider Made Here a rousing success. In my view, however, if these works of art sit on Hennepin Ave. for months and are seen by thousands of people, and no one gets offended or upset, something artistically vital will obviously have been missing. If that happens, the whole thing might as well have been a poster sale at Target.
I could be wrong, of course. Maybe the selection committee can find artworks that are both “engaging” and entirely safe and unobjectionable, clean and pure in both spirit and intent, all while upholding the community’s high standard of values and low tolerance for indecency. After all, degenerates who want that sort of thing can always walk down the street and go to Dreamgirls or Augie’s.
I’m all for throwing creative ideas at Block E, and for bringing more art downtown and using it to boost the culture quotient of Hennepin Avenue. But showcasing the safest, most sanitized art you can find in the hollowed-out shell of a building that ought to be torn down isn’t a particularly bold move. In fact, it’s the most conservative possible move given that no one has any idea what to do with Block E, and the potential range of artwork that could go on display is enormous. The guidelines might attract art that speaks to Minnesota’s cultural “diversity,” and is really nice to look at, but they ensure that the true diversity of talent at work in Minnesota will not be represented, and that is a shame.
Block E may be empty, but the art doesn’t have to be.