The Rochester Improvement Society and the Rochester Young Democrats at RoCo

A while back I got involved with a small group called The Rochester Improvement Society. We basically meet once a month, really informally, and just shoot ideas around. Simple as that.

This month, the "instigators" of our group got together with the The Monroe County Young Democrats and decided to meet at The Rochester Contemporary Art Gallery (137 East Ave.) The idea was to "make art" for the upcoming 6x6x2012 show, to talk about art and the community, and to chat with councilmember Dr. Elaine Spaull, Ph. D..

Right off the bat, I was a bit puzzled to see "Sam's Choice" soda and cookies which come from Walmart or Sam's Club. I wondered if I was a the right event — our Improvement Society always meets at a locally-owned business, so I kept looking at the cookie boxes to see which local bakery they came from, only to find they didn't. Well, okay …

Then it came around to art in the community. It's obvious that nobody in the room knew what art was. Here we were ostensibly creating 6×6 works as a fundraiser for RoCo, and the goal was to bang something out in an hour with arts-and-crafts tools (e.g. non-toxic markers, glue, magazines for collages). I just did a little abstract piece which really was very lousy, but I felt guilty just throwing it out so I submitted it.

I just kind of listened.

Elaine Spaull spoke a bit on the topic at hand. She mentioned the bus garage and how it was controversial, but failed to see why: that it does not improve bus service, that it will be (as a friend pointed out) essentially a quonset hut that will be loud as hell and reek of diesel exhaust, and that it should be built as an intermodal station supporting train service. Instead she kind of shrugged it off and touted that it will have art in it.

She then talked about improving neighborhoods with art. She made a point of mentioning that the goal was to remove graffiti and to install art in its place. Now, graffiti comes in two forms: tagging and street-art, both on their own spectrum of quality. Tagging is a call for attention, filling a need to have a voice and a place in a community. Street-art is a desperate outlet for creativity: lacking a legal outlet for their voice, the street-artist turns to graffiti. Removing graffiti and installing art from somewhere else is just a big "fuck you" to the local community, reinforcing isolation.

I gathered that what she meant by "art" is "pretty things", specifically to differentiate from "practical things" like factories and office buildings. But factories and buildings can look good and be integrated into the urban landscape, fulfilling the need for "pretty things". Art  is more about communicating a message: the story arc of creating, presenting, observing, and interpreting. Especially interpreting: that's really important in art.

The young democrats hungrily consumed her words. If they disagreed at all, I couldn't sense it. All these bright young faces, excited to be part of making a better tomorrow, and all absolutely clueless. It was incredibly disheartening.

And then I understood what it was that bugged me about the outsourced refreshments: it was an incredibly shallow understanding of community. The family who runs Genesee Bakery (1677 Mount Hope Ave.) are my neighbors. By visiting them, I'm visiting my neighbors. And by spending my money there, I keep it in the community — and that's important because it's the transfer of money that is an economy, so sending it away stalls the economy.

So the money they saved with the cheaper snacks was really a burden they placed on  their community, their neighbors, their family, and ultimately themselves.

But they could only see the numbers on the receipt.

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2 thoughts on “The Rochester Improvement Society and the Rochester Young Democrats at RoCo

  1. On many points I agree with you. It was a bit odd with the sodas and cookies. I was not sure what to expect. The general idea you put forward makes sense in arguing what A-R-T "is". Be careful when generalizing "Everyone in the room". I know more about the subject and practice it daily than you my friend. That pithy comment I will take as a friendly poke and not a smack in the chops. I will say – You in fact don't know shit about high art and culture or how it can be integrated for the betterment of our/your limping city. If so, you would be doing it and we would all know about it and the wonderful influence is it having in leading the way to enlightenment. But, whose to judge.

    You have hit on something big on the lack of knowledge about art and culture in this community. The big question is "how do we bring in the real thing and get the community on board?" A full frontal attach is never a good answer. The "tagging" that is happening around the city and what I see in the south wedge is vandalism. Not even close to art. Pissing with paint anonymously is stupid. Own up and put a name and face to it. Graffiti has shown it self quietly around town as interesting comments with paint, stickers and posters threaded throughout our public spaces. Much more interesting even though the anonymity. Mural size graffiti works are better when thoughtfully and respectfully are integrated in the community vernacular. So, Tagging, No. Graffiti, Yes.

    What is a possible solution can be identified in the creative subcultures that are spawning around the city in the form of performances. Including dance, theater and music. Stuff that does not make your circa-1990's community calendar. There is a ton of talent. Young talent. With a little more time and confidence this will start to influence the "creative culture" of the city in the weeks, months and years to come. I have confidence Rochester will evolve. I wish it would happen sooner than later.

    I, too, wish there was better leadership in the Rochester art community. Bleu Cease has and is doing the right thing. His influence is slow, but it is positive influence. Rochester needs more creative leaders with inspiring projects that engage the community and please curmudgeons (term of endearment) like yourself. Together, let's identify what is "good" or even "great" and flying well under the radar of Rochester's art fanatics.

    Yes, adults coloring with crayons, sipping cheap sodas, chatting quaintly and making marks on cardboard squares is not a "high art experience". I look forward to see what you come up with to counter this event that demonstrates a grander vision that introduces young adults who are desperate to make a difference in their community to a "REAL A-R-T" experience. So, they can carry the flag to their peers.

  2. Bill, I did think of you when I was making comments about "everyone" and I tried to pay attention to accuracy without exaggerating … much. And yeah: for sure you've got more art chops than me. I tried to avoid making this an essay double in size by infinitely qualifying everything I said — I didn't even survey my own table for degrees, qualifications, or experience.

    In the end, I'm more of a nut who hates the misuse of language. I think it's important to be precise, especially when making public policy. I might as well give up on this one, though: when Elaine Spaull says she wants art, she cites ArtWalk. Enough said. She's made it perfectly clear that she doesn't want something that makes people think — something that inspires dreams and nightmares — but rather something that looks more hand-crafted than the even repetition of mass-production.

    I like to see things that make me think. And in that, I'm among a tiny minority. The majority wants to either not think, or to only see that which they agree with.

    So alas, I throw up my hands and admit defeat. I think the direction the city is going is not a good one, so I think it is valid and valuable to say that no action is preferable, and anti-action may even improve things (that is, if the city would just get out of the way rather than dabbling in draconian permit processes). However, the only option I'm permitted to present is an alternative action — inaction is not allowed — and I have no such action to offer.

    I can only hope that people like Bleu Cease persist. I don't know what his grand plan is, but I too applaud his patience and respect his skill, and I think his results have been very favorable.

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