FIGHTIN' WORDS

WHAT IS PUBLIC ART?

John Crescimbeni and Chip Southworth have different ideas

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A fun little #jaxpol fight, first reported on by First Coast News: Keith Haring’s Ghost Vs the Man Who Would Be Council Vice President.

At issue: the Urban Arts Program, a seeming reaction to local painter Chip Southworth, who under the guise of “Keith Haring’s Ghost,” painted Haring-esque images on the drab exteriors of traffic control boxes.

This was after what seemed like an eternity of public furor about graffiti tags and the like.

Southworth got a rep, then got arrested, making philosophical points about public space and artistic expression that some ate up with a spoon and some rejected as jejune. However, there was a happy ending, in that city officials were on board with “streetscape enhancements” and public art that befit community standards.

However, even back in 2014, there were those who urged caution, even as the scene felt it scored a rare, turning point victory.

One such party: Lee Harvey, the original artistic provocateur of Jacksonville’s alternative scene late last century. Harvey passed on in 2014, yet his words of reaction to L’ Affaire Southworth in one of his last interviews bear mentioning.

“Stalin approved of public art — as long as he was the subject,” he said from his home in New York City. “I’m not a big fan of what Jacksonville calls ‘public art.’ If it is approved by the city, then it becomes less art and more decoration.”

Perhaps Southworth sees Harvey’s words as prescient now, given his contretemps with Councilman John Crescimbeni.

Southworth believes that local artists merit consideration and set-asides. Crescimbeni, meanwhile, believes that Jacksonville’s search for appropriate public art should be more global in reach.

The project includes seven utility boxes, but Southworth told First Coast News that hundreds in Jacksonville could get painted.

Crescimbeni, calling Southworth a “rabble rouser,” cited his commitment to the “best possible public art that we put out in our city.”

That public art was always going to be in accordance with community standards. And that community was going to be the perpetual governing class, the class of capital, of people with manners and vacation homes.

Crescimbeni is right. Southworth, ultimately, is a rabble rouser in a tradition of local Jacksonville artists who are at war with the power structure, their work undergirded by an anarchic spirit.

It’s that spirit that makes their work less palatable to an establishment that wants the creative class in theory, yet in practice holds that class, in its most elemental form, at arm’s length.

As well, the era that bred people like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lee Harvey, and Chip Southworth is over. The rebellions against 20th-century commercialism seem passé in this era where consumerism and commodification are simply not resisted in the way they were a quarter century ago, when zines and punk rock split singles were the rage.

Whether Southworth gets what he wants out of this project is an open question. However, a less open question is that the spirit of Southworth’s art will resurface again. Yes, in his own work. But also in the work of others, of people influenced by him, of the rabble rousers of the era to come, challenging the status quo in ways that can’t immediately be forecast.

An example of that contextual continuum: when Southworth embarked on his Keith Haring homage, it was nothing anyone could have predicted. Nothing that anyone would have expected when Haring was painting subway cars in the dead of night. The transitory impulse, somehow timeless. Haring would never have taken city money from Ed Koch‘s New York, either.

Southworth tells Folio Weekly Magazine that he’s going to plead his case to the Downtown Investment Authority. While that’s a good start, it diminishes the unique role of Crescimbeni on Council, who is among the most powerful members of that body.

Though he’s not Finance chair, he is among the leaders of the Finance Committee. There is a reason that he is a go-to quote for local media. Crescimbeni knows the process, and takes the long view; he first was elected to Council in 1991, and his longevity is only exceeded by Warren Jones and Denise Lee, both of whom have since moved on to other roles.

Crescimbeni is also a political fighter… and winner. He won re-election despite being outspent by Richard Clark’s business partner, and despite having police and fire unions mobilized against him. He also, at this writing, has the inside track to the Council Presidency in two years; he has more signed-on supporters in the VP race than any of the other candidates running. As Council Prez, he will give Lenny Curry headaches on top of headaches.

And Crescimbeni plays hardball. When he flashes his temper, it is like a sun lamp in a dark conference room.

“I’ll personally make a deal with Councilman Crescimbeni; this has little to do with my ability, I have multiple pieces large in scale and in a variety of materials... If Crescimbeni thinks this is an entitlement program for me,” says Southworth. “I will pledge not to take any money from the program if he pledges to tour the City’s main studio complexes while artists are there working, meet them and see that much local art is on par with any city in the US and pledge to make only the boxes made legal for Council bill 2014-730 for local artist and that the boxes can be painted rather than wrapped. I’m putting my money were my mouth is…Mr. Crescimbeni: your turn!”

In short, it’s going to be difficult, no matter what Southworth does, to overcome the will of one of the smartest and most effective politicians in Jacksonville.

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