Friday, August 28, 2015

Shake It Off?

Screen Shot of Yahoo News Page

When I went to sign into my Yahoo Mail account I saw a headline I probably shouldn't have clicked on: "Taylor Swift-Approved Mural 'Lifts' New Orleans After Katrina." 

The article was about a mural by Kelsea Montague recently installed in Downtown New Orleans and presented by Downtown Development District (DDD) and Pelican Bomb. I could ignore the embarrassing mention of pop celebrity approval. I could ignore the absurd idea that if New Orleans needs a "lift" it could be accomplished by a mural. I could even try to ignore that this "lifting" of New Orleans is occurring "After Katrina." Hurricane Katrina was a horror-filled, complex catastrophe. And while rebuilding is an ongoing effort, I assure you that the good people of New Orleans have not been sitting slumped-shouldered for ten years, waiting for a mural. This headline is simplistic and condescending. 

But, I told myself, it's just a Yahoo News headline. WGNO had a similar one, though it leaves Katrina out of it: "Uplifting Mural Approved by Taylor Swift now in New Orleans." And there were others (I couldn't help it; I went looking for them). I get it. This is how headlines work and this is the way news covers whatever they place under the banner of art. The yahoo article goes on to  instruct, "Look closely at Montague's mural and you'll recognize iconic New Orleans symbols like Mardi Gras masks and beads." The promotion on the DDD website claims that the wings "celebrate the city's unique natural and cultural landscapes." Beads and Masks. 

This project was brought to us by the Downtown Development District and Pelican Bomb. The DDD's mission as stated on their website is "To drive the development of Downtown New Orleans and be the catalyst for a prosperous, stimulating, innovative heart of the Crescent City." I have absolutely no problem with the DDD presenting downtown with this mural. It is a fun-loving, tourist-ready, photogenic piece of promotion linked with eye-catching celebrity endorsement, in other words right up their alley. I would have seen the headline, rolled my eyes, and clicked on to my inbox see what junk mail needed dealing with...if it wasn't for Pelican Bomb. 

When Pelican Bomb first appeared in 2011, it was a good-looking website on which to find art listings that listed real art and writing that contextualized the work of local artists in the broader context of contemporary art. Pelican Bomb recently reconfigured its mission. Their website now states: "At Pelican Bomb, we see ourselves as architects of a new arts infrastructure in New Orleans." 

I am not going to apply rigorous art critique to this mural. Looking at Montague's website I can pretty confidently say that she is not looking for an art review. If I met her I would congratulate her on the success of her business and the opportunities for travel that the murals have afforded her. My issue is with Pelican Bomb.

Is this really what Pelican Bomb envisions when they speak of a "new arts infrastructure" in New Orleans? Is this the type of work that their infrastructure will support? In New Orleans, the word "art" covers so many objects and activities that the term is rendered almost meaningless. Pelican Bomb, I thought that is what you were for, for the discussion and promotion of real contemporary artists, for solidarity. I thought you were here to say to artists, to art lovers, You're not alone. We know what you mean when you say "art." 

I believe art is not a backdrop, a photo op, or selfie fodder. Art is not easy or easily explained. Art is not always understood or supported but art matters in part because it is different than everything else we do as humans. It is deeply impractical but we do it anyway and always have. The best art is usually ushered into existence quietly and with very few "likes" on Facebook. This is the art that could use an upgraded infrastructure in New Orleans. We need art organizations that support art, not confuse it with products or stunts to benefit tourism and commerce. We need art organizations that acknowledge what artists do is unique, that art should not strive for instant, popular approval. In the big picture, I know this mural is not a crisis, and that if Pelican Bomb continues to support projects like this it will not be a tragedy. Still, contrary to the muralist's intention, it's kind of a downer. 


  1. It looks to me that Pelican Bomb is operating on--or at least treating this as--a version of lead loss. by putting up this one populist piece they generate lots traffic/attention for the more serious art on the site.

    Or maybe they got pressure from sponsors to be more inclusive/appeal more to the mainstream.

    I'd be interested to know more about what drove this shift in mission for Pelican Bomb. But my guess is it comes down to some version of your point at the end of your post:
    "Art is not easy or easily explained. Art is not always understood or supported but art matters in part because it is different than everything else we do as humans. It is deeply impractical but we do it anyway and always have."

    Even as a 501(c), you still have to get attention/get traffic & users. Shifts like this are common as orgs grow. They sort of tap out the audience for their original mission and have to adapt to continue to do what they do and grow.

    That's my guess anyway, but I could be totally wrong.

  2. Justin, thank you so much for your comment. Your guess sounds good. I imagine much of what I take issue with comes down to inner workings, financial or political, that I can't see from where I am standing. I would be interested to hear about this from PB.

    Bringing more traffic or attention to serious art--on the website for example--by endorsing more populist work, changes the context of the more serious work. It affects how it is regarded.

  3. I'm assuming you didn't talk to anyone at Pelican Bomb (don't see them quoted here), but used Yahoo! News as your main source. OK. Doesn't make much sense, but OK. There's an editor's letter on the site which explains the inclusion of this work in their overall programming about virality. Seem on point. Your review seems off point.

    1. So... it is months after you posted this comment and I apologize for the fact that I didn't see it until now, in February. Sorry. I did send an email to Pelican Bomb but did not hear back. The editor's letter appeared after my original post and addressed a lot of what I wrote. I posted a link to the editor's letter in a subsequent post. Again, sorry to have missed your comment and thank you for your thoughts.

  4. Art presented in the public sphere does not usually have a preamble attached. What we see is what we see, unless we are moved to investigate further. I responded to this piece in exactly the same manner as Village Disco, and was too disappointed (trying to avoid typing "disgusted") to dig for more meaningful explanations. Taylor Swift's imprimatur is perfect for this bit of fluff.