I went to a Planning Board hearing Tuesday night to discuss the proposed new Master Plan. Despite superficial attempts at public input, it was obvious that the plan was written with developers and large property owners in mind. “Highest and best uses” is the phrase most often used. When I first got involved as a “preserver” of historic buildings (not the most rewarding occupation in a place like Stamford), I naively thought the term meant the most socially beneficial uses. Instead, I quickly learned it meant the most profitable use for the investor. The meeting I attended was filled with homeowners, ordinary taxpayers aware that what was being proposed would severely compromise the equity they had in their homes and their quality of life. None of the big property owners who stood to profit from the new regulations attended. They were represented by a handful of land-use lawyers and consultants who were there not to speak but only to size up the opposition.
While it might seem like a frustrating evening, it was an insight into local politics that turns up frequently in my artwork. I am first and foremost a social satirist and if I sit in my studio, away from the real world, what do I have to work with? I once created twenty life-sized puppets that were inspired by a hearing I attended a couple of decades ago, a time when developers themselves actually showed up to present their case. Now, all you get are “goons and ginks and company finks” (in expensive suits.)
Even when it is used as a protest, it comes off as hollow. The work being done today is empty because the artists themselves are empty and their attempts at political engagement are safe and superficial. Why bite the hand that feeds you cocktails and caviar? A recent trip to Chelsea turned up gallery after gallery of faux photo-realist paintings and dreary, oversized photographs. The best show we saw that day was the work of a now deceased photographer who did street scenes in the 1940s. Unfortunately, artists tend to live in insular enclaves and even when they try to become involved in protest movements like “Occupy Wall Street,” it’s essentially superficial because they rarely have anything to protest about. It’s hard to be sincere when your belly is full and you have a roof that doesn’t leak over your head. I’m not saying you have to suffer to be an artist…. God knows that canard has long been disproven, but you need to be engaged in the real world beyond your studio and artists often find it easier to tuck their heads down and paint away.