Art and cities

WHAT ABOUT THE CITY?

Sociological and cultural discussions of cities have become increasingly prominent in recent years. In Britain we have also seen a sudden eruption of a public 'town versus country' divide. Farmers, hunters and other country people have formed vocal and well-organised campaign groups, including the 'Countryside Alliance', to protest about what they perceive as the city-bound politicians' lack of understanding of, and sympathy for, their country ways. Murray Bookchin (in The Limits of the City, 1986) has argued that 'the great revolutionary movements that opened the modern era' (such as the French Revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871) are usually best understood as urban movements rather than class movements, and says that we should look for the elements which foster a municipal identity within cities, and lead to cultural change.

              

SOME NOTES ON CITIES

The city is, of course, a place, and a set of facilities and institutions. The introduction to the useful City Cultures Reader edited by Miles, Hall and Borden (Routledge, 2000) point out that it is also...

-- A set of practices. Things happen there. Markets, shops, libraries, business and streets themselves are all places of social life. Interactions there may help to foster identities, diversity, and social solidarity; by the same token, they can also lead to bad feeling and conflicts.

-- Invisible. Emotions, desire, love, and electrical impulses representing money, information and art all flow around (and between) cities.

-- A set of beliefs. Living in the city depends upon a set of assumptions and rules, thrills and fears, which we live with.

-- Urban professions. Economic, creative and cultural activities are all centered here.

-- A place of the spectacular. Big events, ceremonies and artistic happenings take place there; as do the innumerable spectacles of day-to-day living. Miles, Hall and Borden (2000: 2) say: 'It is where all spectacles must find their ultimate relevance, not in themselves but for how they resonate with and are reproduced through everyday lives.'

              

A city's culture is everything that happens there, from official concerts in great halls to the skateboarders playing on the hall steps, from shoppers to shoplifters, and from transport policies to a drunken fight in the bus queue.

Diversity is at the heart of city life. Different cultures living side by side. Affluence and deprivation. Alongside the growth of organised, corporate cities we see the corresponding growth in resistance to the dominant city culture, in graffitti art, squatting, alternative lifestyles and personal presentations.

The culture industries build upon our own experience of cities with their own representations of urban life -- whether as places of business, or romance, or gun-toting gangs, or future dystopia. These inevitably may affect our own thinking about cities.

Living in a city is important if you want to feel at the heart of things. But as the home becomes increasingly a 'domestic network terminal' -- a place where you can do your work, and have social interactions, via the internet -- the physical location of home in relation to work and other people becomes less significant. Nevertheless, social activity in the actual (!) presence of other people remains important to many of us -- and many kinds of work cannot be done by 'remote control' -- so we are not going to see the breakdown of society as we know it into dispersed, networked interactions just yet.

Shopping malls on the outskirts of cities inevitably tend to affect the life of the city centre. Some American city centres have had the life sucked out of them by surrounding malls, so that the centre is only a place that people go to in the daytime, to work in office buildings, leaving the city empty and unstable at night. In one study of responses to Meadowhall, a large shopping centre a few miles from Sheffield, England, many noted the negative effect it was having on the city centre. One woman said of the mall's appeal, "It's like watching television that you know is not very good. You sort of enjoy it at the time, but you know that it's not good for you."