City, Arts and Public Spaces: Julia Bryan-Wilson

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Julia Bryan-Wilson, Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at UC Berkeley.
Keyword: “Arts”
I’ve started to note what happens when “art” goes plural to become “arts,” as it has in the title “City, Arts, and Public Spaces”:  how, and in what contexts, does this multiplicity matter?  Art historians often assume that the definition of art in its singular form defaults to the realm of the visual, as if the concerns of, say, painting, photography, and sculpture are distinct from those of literature, music, or dance.  “The arts” is a convenient way to signal a more inclusive or multidisciplinary approach, one that widens out from a narrow understanding to include a host of creative practices—this is particularly important and timely given that so many artists themselves move between and beyond these categories. 
Because I am immersed in a research project on contemporary textiles, when I hear the word “arts” I also immediately think of its formerly common companion phrase, “and crafts.” Historically, “arts and crafts” has been connected to specific aesthetic and political movements; yet recently it has also become a short-hand for children’s after-school activities or summer-camp playtime.  I am intrigued by how the ghostly presence of craft techniques is often excised from current understandings of “the arts,” especially hobby or amateur formations.  When cultural creation intersects with contested notions of public spaces, how can we responsibly account for many modes of production along the high/low continuum?  What boundaries might we productively place around our definition of “the arts,” and which limits are unnecessarily constrictive?