Art is not your enemy

If you consider yourself to be an advocate of the poor and the disadvantaged, please know that you are not alone. Please also remember that the art community is not your enemy.

We each have different strengths and passions. In one part of town you will find thriving sports clubs – soccer, kayaking, and gymnastics clubs filled with people who are giving up their time to help children unlock their sporting potential. Elsewhere you will find champions of business – people who are exploring ways to encourage new investment into the city.

The whole point of living in a community is that we rely on each other’s diverse talents. My neighbour fixed our washing machine; I made a fun video for his son’s birthday. Both are legitimate contributions to our collective quality of life.

The community needs your passion for advocacy. We need you to harness your burning drive for equality to make sure that society doesn’t tilt too far against those who can’t help themselves.

The community also needs people who are passionate about the arts – people who can envision creative projects that will enrich the world we live in.

Social causes and arts projects are not mutually exclusive.

Two days after the Hairy Maclary sculptures were unveiled on the Tauranga waterfront, someone vandalised the lawn in front of the statues. They spray-painted on the grass: “Feed the kids. Eat the rich.”

It seemed a lacklustre protest to me. What was the point? “Eat the rich.” You mean, like cooking them? How does this vague act of paint-scrawling help anyone’s cause?

When you are angry about something – such as the widening gap between rich and poor, as I presume our grass vandal was – it is easy to seize upon art projects as symbolic scapegoats.

Are those sculptures really your enemy? They were funded by a whole range of different individuals, clubs, businesses and organisations. It is not a straight-forward case of “spend the money on hungry children instead of building that sculpture”.

Most people might agree that we have issues with poverty and inequality in New Zealand. There is a growing chasm between rich and poor that we should all be concerned about.

I don’t know how to fix those problems. My skill-set nudges me toward creative endeavours so I need other people to work to their own strengths. Together, we fill in the gaps. That is how everyone wins.

We are all doing our bit where we can. It takes a community to grow a city.

The people who put their energy into bringing the Hairy Maclary sculptures to life have contributed to the wellbeing of the city in the best way they know how.

Those same people need you to contribute to the wellbeing of the city in the best way you know how. They would not stand in your way.

There will always be disagreements. It doesn’t need to get nasty. If you disagree with an arts project (or a sports project, or any other project), disagree constructively. Be informed and respectful in your critique.

Advocacy and activism should not automatically require you to make a new enemy every time you don’t like something. There is nothing to be gained from one part of the community attacking the hard work of another part of the community.

Remember, we’re all in this together. You might even find you have more friends than you think.

(By way of disclaimer, I was not involved in the Hairy Maclary project, but seeing the end result, I kind of wish I had been.)

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 7 August 2015. Reproduced with permission.