One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

Art or Exploitation?

Well-done report from Detroit News Arts Writer Michael H. Hodges in the paper this week. It is a look at one art museum's decision to run a series of "ruin porn" photographs about Detroit and people's reaction to both the display, the photos themselves and the city as a whole.

The show is called "Detroit Disassembled." It will run through Oct. 10 at the Akron Art Museum. It features photographs from New Yorker Andrew Moore, who spent about three months in Detroit taking pictures between 2008 and 2009. This is the collection's debut, and it will soon go national.

Since when does a city's collapse -- or attempts at reorganizing -- suddenly become art? Or is this art at all?

Lots of people in Hodge's article feel it is art:

"It gets to that sense that things are bigger than you are," said Nancy Barr, Detroit Institute of Arts associate curator for photography, "and how everything falls back to the earth."

But others feel it is yet another cheap shot:
"People here are very sensitive to treating Detroit like it's a big cemetery and our ruins are beautiful headstones," said Maud Lyon, executive director of the Cultural Alliance of Southeastern Michigan. "Those of us who live here don't like to be seen that way."
In an interview on the museum's blog, the photographer notes that he was surprised to see so much "artwork" in Detroit:
The most surprising aspect of Detroit is the amount and variety of abandoned buildings. The most important quality of Detroit is the richness of personal and cultural history that these sites contain.
From the museum's description of the exhibit:
Detroit, once the epitome of our nation's industrial wealth and might, has been in decline for almost a half-century. The city is now one-third empty land—more abandoned property than any American city except post-Katrina New Orleans.

The paper's Cyber Survey showed (unscientifically) that most people find these displays embarrassing, interesting and a hoot in equal parts.

If you've read this blog long enough, you know I don't think of these projects (including freezing an empty, abandoned house in ice) as art. But I'm no critic, and I don't have a vast art background other than one appreciation-style class in college (which I aced, by the way -- ha!)

I don't think Detroit's broken-down buildings are artful. They are sad in parts, humble in others. But it is a living, breathing city. I'm tired of these pictures with their so-called images that offer "a glimmer of hope" for the city and "provide a warning to others who should avoid its fate." I hate to see ugly images of what used to be; I'd rather see people use that energy to create new buildings, businesses, homes and venues.

But that's just me.

What about you?

  • Print
  • Comment
Comments (5)
Post a Comment »
  • 1

    All in the eye of the beholder, of course, though I think you're too harsh on what constitutes art. If someone had painted that same Walden Street house, I suspect you'd consider it art, even though you may still disagree with the subject matter. But it doesn't have to look like Impressionism to qualify.

    These images don't bother or offend me at all; I think they're equal parts art and journalism at this point. It's important for people to know what the city looks like. The state of Detroit is not a scar we can hide or plastic-surgery away.

  • 2

    I agree that the author is a little too rigid about what constitutes art. Art imitates life. If this is exploitation then so is Picasso's Guernica. The artist is holding a mirror up, it isn't his fault if we as society don't like the reflection. It raises awareness, and consciousness and that is what the best art does.

  • 3

    i could spit in my hand and take a picture, and call it art.
    Detroit's ruins are not something to celebrate. imo

    i bet the business or home owner living or operating next to one of these "ruins" , doesn't think of them as art. i don't

    let go of the past, it's 2010

    a picture will last longer anyway.

  • 4

    "Those of us who live here don't like to be seen that way."

    To me this is saying 'we're in denial'.
    It's no secret that many people are working very hard to better the city, but you can't ignore the fact that this abandonment and decay exists on a mass scale in Detroit unrivaled by any other place. It would be great if the photos were balanced with beautiful color images showing the great parts of the city, I would appreciate that wholeheartedly as a long time resident. Yet these images pique interest, they shock, they shame and in that way it's possible that they may actually get something done. They are art. If you don't like the subject, roll up your sleeves in the city, get to work, and make sure there's nothing like this to propagandize.

  • 5

    As someone who has been an active figure in exhibiting and promoting primarily Detroit artists for nearly two decades, I find this one of the most creative ferments in North America.
    Great art comes from the "great wrong places" historically.
    Munich after WWI, New York City in the early 50's, Manchester UK in the 80's and now Detroit a decade into the 21st Century.
    There is a need, a compulsion to create the world in your own way, expressing creatively, the voids created by the environment in which you live.

    I personally abhor the constant, continual use of Detroit's "beautiful decay" as narrative.
    It's been done by every local yokel with a camera, somehow believing that their enlightening vision will somehow tell us something new-or creative.

    However, the current pilfering of a Banksy covered wall under the arm of , "Artistic preservation" by a "gallery" turning a work of vandalism into an art theft might be the most creative thing in this whole ruinous scenario.
    Nope, Detroit's big art story still makes us look like a bunch of Post Apocalyptic cultural scavengers, reveling in our abandonment, not trying to recreate, but denigrate.

    However, if you subscribe as I do, to the notion that this is the kind of place where great art emerges, then all of this urban decay becomes more a mythic testament to our great industrial past, like an Acropolis, something to be viewed in our cultural rearview mirror as we drive forward into a future unknown, than a celebration of our own sanctioned demise.

Add Your Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.
The Detroit Blog Daily E-mail

Get e-mail updates from TIME's The Detroit Blog in your inbox and never miss a day.

More News from Our Partners

Quotes of the Day »

NICHOLAS FISHER, expert at Stony Brook University in New York who took part in a study which found that bluefin tuna contaminated with radiation believed to be from Fukushima Daiichi were present off the coast of California just five months after the nuclear meltdown.