Riff Raff: Connecting the What Was with the What’s Next – again

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 678 views 

Editor’s note: This essay was first posted 11 months ago to note the second year of The Unexpected Project. We post it again to welcome the third year.
They are back. These artists. These people who see and apply amazing visions where entirely too many of us see only brick and block and plaster and nothing and yesterday.

Steve Clark’s “The Unexpected Project” first brought these large, impressive, fun and conversation-inducing murals to downtown Fort Smith in September 2015. That first-year outcome was indeed unexpected. It coalesced the city around what remains an emerging concept that a city once wrapped tightly in the history of how-it-used-to-be can be cool again with events and amenities that speak to a future of how-we-want-it-to-be.

The spirit of a town built on law and order was reawakened by an art borne of lawless graffiti.

Unexpected remains the moniker, but the connotation is no longer one suggesting surprise. We get it. International artists work with students from local high schools and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith to not only transform our structural landscapes, but to transform what we think about ourselves and what the world thinks about us. I’m not sure Clark and the folks he has organizing the festival knew how deep our individual hearts and collective cultural soul would be moved by this unexpected event. Maybe they knew travel and its new imagery not only broadens our global awareness but boosts our appreciation of home; and if they couldn’t take us all on a world excursion, then they would bring some of the imagery to Fort Smith.

Unexpected is, however, appropriate in suggesting how a structure we’ve driven by for years without noticing now becomes a large art installation inviting us each day to search for a new angle of understanding – or simply add a smile to our day.

Not all people appreciate unexpected art. Some – a small minority, I argue – see the work as a travesty; antithetical to the frontier history iconography. It’s an iconography to which we have been blanketed – if not smothered – for decades by those for whom the Judeo-Christian, law and order, connection to Manifest Destiny, caucasian perspective is revered as if an addendum to the New Testament. But such folks are among a short-lived demographic. They were part of Fort Smith’s manufacturing-fueled growth; a time that required monolithic assembly-line thinking, non-disruptive societal influences, coloring within the lines, and certainly nothing “Unexpected.”

Historically, the impact of art is known. The value is documented. Opinions are broad, varying primarily with respect to the level of societal benefit. Esteemed American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1985 about the “Arts’ Key Role in Our Society.” He noted President John Kennedy’s reference to the push by Presidents Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt for art in times of dire national threats, with JFK saying the wartime Presidents ”understood that the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.’’

In the same essay, Schlesinger defended the need for public support of art with a quote from Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin.

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art,” Ruskin wrote. “Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children; but its art only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race.”

Schlesinger provided summary to his essay with this note: “If history tells us anything, it tells us that the United States, like all other nations, will be measured in the eyes of posterity less by the size of its gross national product and the menace of its military arsenal than by its character and achievement as a civilization. Government cannot create civilization. Its action can at best be marginal to the adventure and mystery of art. But public support reinvigorates the understanding of art as a common participation, a common possession and a common heritage.”

It is heritage and participation and possession we find through The Unexpected and the other newfound creative energy events in downtown Fort Smith. We should consider that our economic future is less tied to companies we recruit and retain and more to the human capital we recruit and retain. Trends show that people flock to places where life is worth living (yes, I went there) instead of where they can find a job. Companies then follow the people.

These Unexpected artists, who hail from many countries, are back. But they are not strangers. They are us. They are our history. They are the history of a Fort Smith populated by immigrants; made rich and different by immigrants. These Unexpected artists bring new life to walls built by the sons and daughters of the city’s founding immigrants.

We are indeed with The Unexpected seeing a view of our “character and achievement,” with yesterday getting a colorful touch of tomorrow.