By ASHLEY CLAYBORN
Everywhere you look in this bustling college town nestled in the Ozark Mountains you’ll see bumper stickers and t-shirts demanding that you “Keep Fayetteville Funky”. Often ranking high on lists and clickbait columns of best places to live, Fayetteville, Arkansas has grown into a unique culture of what my mama calls the “hill-hippies.” Think overalls and dreadlocks, banjos and ENO hammocks, biscuits-n- gravy with kombucha. As a lifelong resident of lower and central Arkansas, this conundrum of culture in the northwest confounded me and I turned to the local art to help me better understand it.
I considered myself a cultural anthropologist, of sorts. In anthropological studies, researchers use the products of the culture they are studying to determine a larger, cultural narrative of what values, ideologies, and social structures are present. Wherever there are people there is art, and where people are not, there is no art: meaning that the two are intrinsically related, making analysis of art an essential form of understanding the human condition. Some of the artifacts used for this research are functional or ceremonial, but others are purely aesthetic. It is not historically uncommon for societies to use art, aesthetics, and architecture to communicate social values. In my own studies, I intended to understand the cultural narrative of Fayetteville, Arkansas as told through the aesthetic experience of the local, public art, primarily using the lenses of postmodern consumerism and cultural materialism.
I quickly found that this public art, specifically, is pertinent to study because of the history of active efforts from the community to develop the art scene. In 2009, there seemed to be a surge in interest in the artistic development of the downtown region specifically. The university Chancellor announced that he would be commissioning a new “public art oversight advisory committee” that would specifically focus on increasing the amount of art in the city. Around the same time, two local sculptors offered a critique of the public art scene, saying that for a community the size of Fayetteville, there was little to no public visual art. Since then, there has been a surge in the support for local public art, perhaps because the community, not just the Chancellor, has begun to see its value. In 2013, there was a public art fundraiser, Refresh Fayetteville, whose goal was to specifically raise money for mural and sculpture projects.
For my own explorations, I started with the striking work of Alexis Diaz that is featured on the corner of College Avenue and Center Street in downtown Fayetteville. This art piece was completed in September of 2016 and was part of a larger movement in Northwest Arkansas called “The Unexpected Project,” that strives to bring artists from around the globe in to create striking works of art in public spaces. This large-scale piece features an owl and crescent moon in greyscale. I would like to note that in this piece, and in much of the work I found, a thematic commonality is that of natural elements. This demonstrates a locally recognized value of nature and the natural world, fitting for “The Natural State.” Aesthetically, the size and location of the art piece work to promote capitalist values. The location of this sanctioned art is frequently visited and easily photographed, making it easily accessible to the public as well as a tourists and visitors to the town. This speaks to the communal values of demonstrating a cultural appreciation for art, especially considering this art piece was done by a well-known, international artist and could therefore attract attention on a larger scale.
The aesthetic experience of this art piece is also a commodification of natural expression. The community of Fayetteville sanctioned this new art piece, which archival research shows had exceptional interests surrounding it when it first went up. The owl, branch, and crescent moon are all elements of nature. The human eye could be interpreted in both a spiritual and literal sense as humanity’s role in nature. Postmodern consumerism would assert that this piece of public art creates a paradox of identity: a connection and appreciation of natural elements and aesthetics while being purposely placed and displayed on a prominent canvas for the sake of getting the most exposure.
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Another example of sanctioned public art in Fayetteville, AR was created in 2015 by artist Jason Jones. These two murals are particularly significant because of the explicit values placed on consumerism. The “Enjoy Local” mural was paid for by the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission after Jones had already created the “Shop Local” mural in another part of town. Aesthetically, these two murals both use some of the same elements found in the other public art around Fayetteville: natural expression, whimsy, and childlike or fantastical wonder. The face value operations at play here are the promotion of supporting and utilizing what is locally available. There is, historically, a struggle between large chain corporations and local mom-and-pop stores along the highly commercialized areas of downtown Fayetteville and specifically Dickson Street. The city’s self-proclaimed mantras of “Keep Fayetteville Funky” and “Fayettechill” provide an easy segue to promoting what the local area must offer.
The less obvious operations, however, are almost entirely representative of postmodern consumerism. They demonstrate the community of Fayetteville’s reliance on consumerism, locally, for a construction of identity. This is glaringly obvious in the “shop local” mural, which, almost too ironically, uses a robot looking at a bird in childlike wonder, while the bird is singing the message of “shop local”. The “enjoy local” mural is in a prime shopping area of Fayetteville and provides a fantastical scene that ultimately commodifies nature.
Another common theme found in some of the public art around Fayetteville are quotations. Some exemplary pieces include one of the utility boxes, located on Dickson Street, and an installation of “moss graffiti” by a University of Arkansas art student. The utility box features a natural scene, a home in the woods, with the smoke from the chimney holding the quote “We are the things dreams are made of”. A brief journey of research on this quote brings you to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in which Prospero states “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” One of the many popular quotes of Shakespeare’s work, one could interpret this in many ways. Regarding emic operations, one might see this is a portrayal, and continuation, of the dreamer and childlike curiosity narrative found throughout much of the aesthetics in Fayetteville public art. The etic operations, however, might suggest that this identity, and thus perhaps the communal narrative of Fayetteville, is somewhat illusory. Postmodern consumerists would say that the city of Fayetteville, as a community, relies heavily on consumerism, in this instance sanctioned public art, as a means of constructing their identity because there is no one, ultimate truth to what the community of Fayetteville is.
Another example of quotes used in the local public art is a moss graffiti installation by University of Arkansas student Livvy Pierce. This piece was a part of her citywide installation of lettering titled “Things I am Learning in My 20s”, in which she intended to use concepts and influences from her own experiences, for instance her favorite quotes from literature, and bring them cohesively together in a new context. This piece is a part of a quote by Margaret Atwood, which states “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.” On a subjective level, one might read this as a contemplative moment of social comparison that many people go through in the transitional period between teenager and adult. The aesthetic experience of this art is once again one of nature, although not merely an expression but an actual use of plants as a tool.
The objective interpretation of this piece, however, especially when taken in context with other sanctioned public art in Fayetteville, might speak more to the illusion of childlike wonder and the falsehoods of social identity constructed by consumerism. In one regard, it is generally considered to be part of adulthood to begin to play the game of capitalism and to begin to construct your social identity from materialistic goods. Perhaps this, and other, public art in Fayetteville speak to the desire of maintaining that childlike wonder and denial of their inherent consumerist social identity.
The cultural narrative of Fayetteville, Arkansas through the sociological study of cultural materialism is one of subjective appreciation of nature and childlike curiosity while promoting and supporting environmental causes and local business. The objective narrative, however, is one that values functionality and utilitarianism when it comes to social causes. It demonstrates the denial of a social identity created largely through consumerism.
I would argue that, from a postmodern consumerism perspective, this constructed identity of public art in Fayetteville speaks to the “branding” and commodification of the “Keep Fayetteville Funky” movement. As a city known for being quirky and, perhaps, more progressive in an otherwise socially and fiscally conservative state, the message of keeping the city ‘funky’ was promoted as means of perpetuating this idea. Not only is the communal identity of Fayetteville now a commodification of that ideal, but it could also be evidence of gentrification. So many of the overarching themes in the public art pieces, natural elements, support for environmental and education causes, and childlike wonder, were representative of one, hegemonic culture present in the region. This could largely be due to the high financial powers who dictate which art pieces are allowed in to be made, but it is also representative of which ruling political, social, and cultural group is determining the identity of the Fayetteville community.
The public art discussed is all sanctioned through public funds, whether those be nonprofits, the City of Fayetteville, or Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission. These often-citywide art projects allow for local artists to express their interpretations of the community on public spaces. However, those interpretations are often up to the approval or disapproval of larger entities from which these projects are financially dependent. It begs the question whether, then, these murals and public art pieces are an expression of the true community or the mediated expression and subjective definition of “art” from those with the financial means to support them. This seems reminiscent of the high and low culture concepts put forth by Frederic Jameson and postmodernism. Public art, in some contexts, could be considered mass communication, popular culture, and even “low” culture. However, in Fayetteville it is being decided and funded by the “elite” and is therefore high culture in that it is at their discretion of what is acceptable. The community of Fayetteville wants to put forth an idealistic image of keeping Fayetteville funky with their public art. Those with the financial and social power to dictate are deciding which messages and art pieces are sanctioned to put forth these messages, creating a moral and emotional void in the etic operations of this public art. There is as concern for “urban revitalization” leading to gentrification when it comes to one culture dominant deciding what the communal identity is, especially when that identity is constructed via consumerism. The commodification of natural elements and the branding of Fayetteville as this utopia of social justice and appreciation of nature is contradicted by the messages being, sometimes subliminally, communicated in these art pieces. Whether public art keeps Fayetteville funky or affluent remains to be seen.
Ashley Clayborn is currently a graduate student at the University of Arkansas studying mass political communications. She is particularly interested in the interaction of Southern culture and politics and the manifestation of that in daily life. She thinks one of the best ways to understand a community is to look at the art, propaganda, and rhetoric that it produces.