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City Portrait:How Cities Can Serve as Centers for Artistic Life, and How Buildings and Public Works of Art Can Visually Represent the People Who Inhabit Urban Spaces

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The turn was necessary due to the fact that it was and still is difficult to live, even if you are an American citizen, in the dehumanized cities of late modernity, in which a factory-like and penitentiary model is extended even to houses (as if architects had turned into public works engineers). As a consequence, the reaction against this state of affairs—which was hardly covered up in ideological terms by the needs generated at the end of the World War II—a soon came. In the cultural realm, that reaction received the inappropriate name of postmodernism. And though the concept and its reach were already relatively well defined in the sixtiesb, it seems appropriate to say that this “American way of life” literally exploded in 1972, when the local authorities of St. Louis, Missouri, were forced to order the blowing-up of a group of so-called functional houses (the Pritt-Igoe Complex), which did not function at all according to the necessities of the marginal groups to which they had been intended (thank God they were “marginal”!).

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The ground-breaking Edward Chace Tolman’s discovery of the process of constructing and accumulating spatial knowledge, casted a new light on the perception of urban space and laid a groundwork for mental maps construction as a tool of urban structure recognition. The mental mapping method also allowed to discover what kind of attention people paid to particular places and what role artworks played in recognition and identification of urban space. Along with spatial expansion of 19th- and 20th-century cities, consequent development of their suburbs and mixture of forms, functions and architectural styles, a chaos crept into cities, defined by S. Chermayeff and Ch. Alexander as “modern space salad”. Modernism, introducing globally unified architectural patterns and inhuman scale urban structures, rejecting traditional harmony and hierarchy, contributed to the sense of disaffection and alienation in a big city. Simultaneously though, the same modern trends started off the revolution in visual arts. Artists’ abandoning lounges for the sake of the streets, freedom of artistic voice and expression of form, inspired a number of research on the processes of artwork perception as well as its social and even political role in the public space.People in a modern city are like rats in a maze. They need a tool of space recognition to get acquainted with the environment they have been forced to live in. Historically towns owed their uniqueness to deep roots in local tradition. The central market square constituted the heart of the town. A magic circle of the ramparts and the moat determined a safe and familiar existence space, which the inhabitants could easily recognize and flawlessly identify with. It was the legible street network, connected by the nodes of squares, marking out formally important places, that facilitated the ‘wayfinding’ in urban maze. Compact, hierarchical sky-line of the town, dominated by domes of churches and a town-hall tower, constituted a characteristic visual code of urban space

Since the time of Industrial Revolution, cities used to give their inhabitants a sense of security and an opportunity of spatial orientation thanks to their small size and ordered grid layout within a limited area.

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In that matter, Lehec’s paper on Palestinian graffiti and Debroux’s one on Parisian art galleries are particularly stimulating. By looking at artworks that are visible from the streets, that is to say from public spaces, even if they are installed in or painted on private spaces, these two papers blur the separation between private and public spaces and invite the reader to reflect on the potential relationships of those spaces through arts. Can arts be a means to publicize places – be it socially or politically – independently of their legal status? Or, conversely, is the aestheticization of public spaces by private actors a way to privatize those spaces in a less contentious and more consensual way (Deutsche, 1998)? The question of the part and place of public spaces in contemporary cities which tend to be more and more commodified, segregated and secured (Sorkin, 1992 ; Mitchell, 2003), is thus asked directly by the presence of arts in those spaces but also indirectly by the representation of those spaces in arts. Guillard and Pleven’s paper is symptomatic in that regard: because they belong to a certain social and ethnic group, teenagers depicted in Wassup Rockers and ATL are not always able to freely navigate the various urban spaces. Eventually, the two movies highlight the progressive communautarization of spaces in (American) cities

30Yet, even if this dimension is less tackled in this issue – surely because of the type of artworks analyzed, which focus preferentially on urban violence and discontinuities –, the ability of artworks through representation to make urban spaces in general, and public spaces in particular, not only private but also public at a smaller scale and for a wider audience might be considered. Could artistic representations be a symbolic way to give visibility and publicity to urban spaces to such an extent that they become desirable for those who do not use them on a daily basis but imagine them? What is at stake here is the capacity of arts to stimulate tourism.

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In essence, Guyton alters all the usual relations among objects, thus provoking the public’s astonishment before the prodigious (remember he is called the Voodoo Man), before a heteroclite vortex that reminds us—in a dirty version—of the Land of Oz (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”) that beings to shine in the middle of waste, like Tony Cragg’s New Tones, Newton’s Tones. But this malicious comparison returns us back to reality

Guyton has so much “earth” accumulation (there is nothing as unavailable as waste) that it runs the risk of becoming what it was again, a pile of junk, but he lacks technique instead. He lacks the trace of human work: there is no method; there is no order or arrangement in his procedure, and not only in the scarcely worked material texture, but in the spatial arrangement of the objects among them and in relation to their containers (the house, the backyard or the street). The dolls in the Babydoll House could have been placed in Your World as well; the wheels could have been hanged from the trees instead of the bicycles. Why not? I do not think Guyton would have an answer for this reproach.

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Deutsche R, 1998. Evictions: art and spatial politics. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Sorkin M. 1992. Variations on a theme park: the new American city and the end of public space. New York, Hill and Wang, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Terrin J.-J. 2012. La Ville des créateurs, The City of Creators. Marseille, Parenthèses.

Vivant E. 2006. Le rôle des pratiques culturelles off dans les dynamiques urbaines. Paris, University of Paris 8, unpublished PhD diss.

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