Neighborhood Association Threatens Village’s Artistic Integrity
September 11, 2017
A valley in the metropolitan mountain range of Manhattan, tucked between the skyscraping peaks of Midtown and the Financial District, Greenwich Village, with its tree-lined streets and low(er)-rise buildings, is a comparatively calm, welcoming refuge. For more than a century, our neighborhood has attracted preeminent academics, activists and artists from all around New York City and the world. Consequently, the Village is an extremely desirable place to live, with soaring rent forcing out many of the free-thinkers that made the area so remarkable in the first place. But people who cannot afford exorbitant rent for a closet-sized walk-up — or an overpriced NYU dormitory for that matter — should still maintain the right to witness and participate in the progressive activity that has long defined the Village. The center for this inclusivity has been, and should continue to be, Washington Square — the Village’s centerpiece, a verdant public park created with all New Yorkers in mind.
In the past, resident groups like The Washington Square Association have nobly maintained our park and neighborhood by blocking a Fifth Avenue extension through the center of Washington Square and preventing a sizable portion of the West Village from being razed. But with its righteous battles won, The Washington Square Association, bored and lacking any substantive challenges, has now turned self-destructively inward. Instead of continuing to revel in the artistic open-mindedness that initially made the Village worth defending, the group is now targeting Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s temporary piece in Washington Square.
Mr. Ai’s project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” is an upcoming citywide series of around 300 installations that will call attention to issues of immigration and incarceration. The pieces vary in scale: Brooklyn bus shelters will be accented with chainlink fencing; the facade of The Cooper Union will be obscured by security-barricade material; and, most controversially, the space underneath the Washington Square Arch will be enclosed by prison-like bars. At the center of the piece, which is reminiscent of an oversized birdcage, will be an opening in the shape of two embracing humans. According to Mr. Ai, the installations will serve to remind viewers of our common humanity — “while barriers have been used to divide us, as humans we are all the same.”
The Washington Square Association, an organization of decidedly privileged citizens dedicated to “the quality of life enjoyed by residents and visitors alike,” vehemently disagrees with Mr. Ai. They repudiate this alleged responsibility to do more — they won’t even tolerate his art.
In the words of President and Spokesman Trevor Sumner, who helped pen the association’s letter of condemnation, “the parks themselves are for people to get away, to seek some escape from the city and there’s going to be a giant political thing in their face the whole time.”
In other words, the association is claiming that the park — a space created for the public to communicate, is not a place for political speech. Their letter elaborates: “we have no objection to Mr. Weiwei’s piece in itself, but only to its placement on the arch.” Is objecting to the public display of this artwork not the same as objecting to the artwork itself? If Washington Square Park, the focal point of our, allegedly, artistic, open-minded, socially-aware community is not the place for this timely political expression, what could possibly be?
Despite the temptation for the privileged among us to ignore uncomfortable realities — how many of your friends just don’t really care about politics? — we do not live in an era in which social awareness should be optional. Thousands of disproportionately poor and nonwhite people sit behind bars on Rikers Island, less than ten miles from Greenwich Village. Millions of people worldwide seek escape from gruesome, American-made wars. Poverty, conflict and disenfranchisement of real humans are side-effects of our way of life, and the vast majority of Washington Square park-goers, and WSA members, are complacent in this one-sided system. Fellow humans are separated from us by bars, fences and walls explicitly designed to keep them away, and if we cannot tolerate an artistic reminder of their plight, a mere piece of fencing that in no way inhibits our own well being or physical movement, we have lost our humanity.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 11 print edition. Email Theo Wayt at [email protected]