public art

Do Better, Faster

During the summer of 2020, the majority of the United States finally paid attention to the unequal treatment of Black and brown people by the police. Throughout a year when so many emotions had been stirred, artists began to work heavily to express the aftermath of such oppressive circumstances, making the frustration visible to the world. In the city of Austin, there were cycling tours that amazed many people, despite the fact that there had been Black History tours, many months and even years before; of course, there were also anti-racism songs and dances. However, all of this was done in a backdrop of a city full of Confederate statues and other homages to the Confederacy, including school names and streets. People have wanted changes, and have made efforts towards change. When attempting changes to the projection of the dominant narrative within the built environment, people are always told, “Things take time.” Maya Angelou said, “When you know better do better.” My admonishment to the condescension and smirks in the answer to things take time, is to do better, faster.

First and foremost, all depictions of White supremacy needs to be diminished in this city. It is long past time to accept that the existence of such “art” was to affirm White supremacy, and ensure that “ungrateful” Black people were always aware that the Confederacy could rise again. Once a person understands said thought process, it ceases to be about expression or a genuine portrayal of how people felt. It was a threat designed to intimidate former slaves of White power. All Texans know the Confederacy existed. Pretending that statues, streets, schools, buildings, and all the rest should still be devoted to remembering the Confederacy is tantamount to saying that White power remains effective. At some point, people need to decide if that message is worth preserving, especially since an attempted coup actually happened this year based on that misguided mindset. Surely society is aware of the danger in leaving up White supremacist ideology for all the world to see.

Meanwhile, it takes several months of city council approval, 19 grant applications, and countless meetings to get anything devoted to black or brown people put in a public place. Demonstrably, the city believes that it is acceptable for Black and brown people have to struggle for any sort of visibility. Everybody knows of Barbara Jordan, because she represented the state of Texas; many also know Cesar Chavez was an activist, though many students are not quite sure what he did. People in charge should be ashamed that Black and brown Austinite activists are not consistently known. Such behavior tokenizes Barbara Jordan and Cesar Chavez—and other activists, reducing their accomplishments while canonizing people like Michael Dell, who can buy a good reputation. The message being sent is that everybody needs to remember the Confederacy, but meetings and excessive negotiations must barricade the city against Black and brown heroes.

Bureaucracy is designed to get nothing done, and to excuse leaders with more autonomy from the responsibility of execution. People are making choices right now to protect whether they want to be a part of the progress that includes everyone, rather than the continued “progress” at the expense of more than half of society. Everybody already knows that certain people have the ears of people in power, while others have to abide by the process. It takes little time to oppress, but justice takes all the time in the world. The populace is becoming increasingly reluctant to praise systems that do little more than delay justice and validate the false yet dominant narrative of a “free economy.” No one is confused anymore about whose interests are being served by the delays in justice. Saying that nobody wants to see or fund Black and brown art is further proof that the people who have the funding, jurisdiction, and power to promote and support Black and brown art are making other choices. That there are still so many vestiges of the aura of White supremacy in a city that brags about its liberalism is further proof of why many Black and brown people do not trust people who are not Black and brown. There is no reason for there to be so little dedicated to Non-White people in the city of Austin. Anybody claiming to be a “liberal” who also believes that the only way to see Black and brown people with consistency is to go through extended delayed processes is a liar.

The relief efforts within the City of Austin have been an absolute nightmare of paperwork and demands for proof. A city that just gave a billionaire tax incentives to locate a factory to build cars that almost nobody can afford has no business patting itself on the back after a mere $15 million. A city in which billionaires and millionaires live should feel embarrassed. So many artists are struggling to get the emotional energy to express because they spend so much of their effort looking for ways to sustain themselves. There are no actual, weeks, months, or years to support themselves while everybody else thinks about whether or not non-White artists should be supported. Time is a luxury that assumes those waiting have enough resources to sustain themselves on a regular basis; even for White artists, this is rarely true for those who make their living through art.

More importantly, it really is time for everybody to stop looking for publicity for every act of anti-racism, especially if the disadvantaged people are suffering because of those same people’s actions. There is no reason for anybody to get to make a speech, take a picture, or receive attention for correcting a wrong. Black and brown people have to be Black and brown every day; society demanded that we deal with consistent racism and emotional abuse. Moreover, we are instructed that there can be no response to that emotional abuse, except through artistic expression that remains indirect, not targeting this or that other person. The idea that White people get to feel good about every act of anti-racism while Non-White people have to carefully guard their expressions is yet another form of oppression. No one is entitled to feel good about justice; in fact, if one has empathy at all, that person should feel worse for a bit about the amount of time it took for them to recognize their wrongdoing.

Barriers and processes convey the message that Black and brown people can have a little bit when white people feel like letting that happen. That toxic mindset needs to die, and it is explicit proof that everyone wants to keep doing the same thing, without consequence ad infinitum. Restorative justice is not about attention. Restorative justice is not about exposure. Restorative justice is not about being seen as “one of the good ones.” Restorative justice is about acknowledging wrongdoing, and correcting it. Sitting and smiling while expecting Black and brown people to climb over ever-expanding barriers like circus animals is demeaning and abusive. At any rate, philanthropy needs to involve more searching for things to fund rather than artists begging for funding. As 2020 comes to a close, do better—faster.

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