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Reading: Streetfare Journal's Token Culture

Behind any effort to "bring art to the people" is the snobbish assumption that it isn't there already. But long before TDI tried to make it official, mass transit was an exciting venue for art.

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About six months ago on a bus headed for the Loop, I glanced up at one of the small posters above the aisle and noticed one of Mary Ellen Mark's photographs of Indian circus performers. The photos in this series had shown up in many books, magazines, and locally in an exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, but I had never expected them here--the idea that someone had chosen to dress up a CTA ad with a bleak image of two unhappy-looking three-foot-tall men in gorilla costumes came as a surprise. I wondered if I was looking at a public-service message about poverty in India or some other worthy subject. But as I looked closer and read the short, vague poem beside the picture, I inadvertently increased the circulation of Streetfare Journal, volume VII, number five, by one. Fare hikes, rude drivers, overcrowded buses, and now this to add to my list of CTA annoyances.

Now in its tenth year, the San Francisco-based Journal is described by its editor as "a national non-profit poetry and art project sponsored by TDI (Transportation Displays Incorporated), the Out-of-Home media network which manages bus advertising in your city." It was originally conceived as a sort of renewal project for this ad-world ghetto, featuring health tips, quotes from the famous, gags from popular humor books such as Sniglets, and the occasional poem. Somewhere along the line, though, the Journal picked up some pretensions. As evidenced by the editor's statement as well as major grants from sources including the National Endowment for the Arts, it's now being presented as a viable nontraditional arts venue.

That idea is full of possibilities: the Journal has an unrivaled potential to simultaneously address everyday life, art, and the often strained relationship between the two. But by presenting only a narrow range of material in an unimaginative style, the it betrays its capacity to challenge any elitist notions of art, instead further alienating "high" culture from daily living. Despite presumably good intentions, the Journal seems to operate on the principle that exposing a wide audience to "fine" art is in itself such a noble act that issues such as relevance to the readership pale by comparison.

Behind any effort to "bring art to the people" is the snobbish assumption that it isn't there already. The vaguely defined "public" is assumed to be uncultured, and their own creations are overlooked in favor of academy-approved work from the outside. But long before Streetfare Journal tried to make it official, mass transit was an exciting venue for art. Instrumental music, rap, and graffiti are the most common mass transit media, and seeing how they come from riders, perhaps the most legitimate. The colorful new murals at the North and Clybourn subway station are much more exciting works of art than the Journal, succinctly capturing the chaos and beauty of the urban experience in an appropriate medium. Certainly they're better suited to the mass transit venue than the Journal's effete musings.

Visually, the Journal is unlike the ads and public-service announcements that surround it, though that in itself doesn't make it distinctive. A black-and-white photograph and a short poem are placed against a one-color background adorned with some simple computer design. A bar of text at the bottom identifies the publication by name, and the masthead runs to one side of the photograph. The colors are muted, the typefaces are mundane, and the layout is static. Neither embracing nor rejecting the design conventions of its chosen medium, print advertising, it has all the presentation flair of a paper plate.

But even a bravura design job couldn't disguise the Journal's timid material. Like the saying goes, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit. The consistent detachment of the Journal, particularly in its selection of poems, is a strategy destined to fail given the publication's context. The ads for organ banks and wedding photography studios make for better reading. If Streetfare Journal were the only venue for contemporary poetry, we'd have to assume that only hushed, remote verse is being written. Not that there isn't a place for such poetry--but in the world of Streetfare Journal there is no other kind. Some variety, whether in the form of Sassy-style angst or dense, academic verse, would add much-needed spice. The Journal only resurrects the view that "art" is boring and out of touch by definition.

The poems in the present issue--by Xavier Villaurrutia, Lucille Clifton, Michael McClure, and others--vary only slightly in subject and style. Most of the selections obliquely describe awe in the face of one or another of life's little mysteries, then sum things up with a sort of punch line without the punch. A monumentally limp tag concludes the excerpt from McClure's hippie-ish "Not Youth":

WE LOOK INTO A VISION

and only see

it narrowing. Beyond

that

there is a mystery

in this life like a candle flame

AND

it is moving

I would be as perfect as a moth.

Like subway singers who specialize in plodding, middle-of-the-road chart toppers such as "Unchained Melody," Streetfare Journal both fuels and feeds on the vaguely depressing elements of its surroundings. But there are some musicians who are exceptions, lively performers who challenge the commuter's exhaustion rather than stoking it with another go at "Stand By Me." I expected a similar burst of vitality from the Journal when I spotted Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman's name. Coleman, an African American who often writes on race and gender, fills her verse with a passion that has become something of a trademark. Streetfare Journal's Coleman selection is uncharacteristic, however: "The Heebeegeebees" finds the poet musing numbly on how creepy feelings "live for 48-hours on the rims of dreams" and "come on after jive converse over / gas station pay phones in early AMs / or episodes of clutching the steering wheel / too tightly." Not only is the subject abstract and apolitical, the experience is located specifically in the realm of the automobile. "Like Love," another poem in Coleman's Hand Dance collection, has a stronger connection to the concerns of bus riders:

we're strugglin' to have meaning yet avoid

being ground into the cement by dick-head bosses and

butt-numbing jobs my ambitiousness his juvi rap sheet

smoking bush to rock and reggae we've got five bucks

between

us and two mugs of drip grind i'm the fool-of-the-minute

slavin' overtime tryin' to turn my naught into ought

he expects that pimp success to trip mover us like a burglar over a pair of

shoes our days spent as carelessly a pennies

"Butt-numbing jobs" are, of course, the raison d'etre of most CTA ridership. Inoffensive little poems about vaporous emotions are better suited to luxury car owners. Maybe the Streetfare Journal editorial staff should consider distributing their poetry over cellular phones instead. Here the influence of TDI's "sponsorship" shows. Grant-funded or not, the poetry-printing arm of a company that makes its money from advertisers will never have the freedom to print anything that will disrupt the orderliness of people on their way to work. So the artistic price for such sponsorship is high.

In themselves Mark's long-shot portraits of Indian circus performers, a different one on each page of the current volume, are cool studies in voyeurism. Given a situation that contextualizes them, and when they're printed larger, the physical and psychological distance of Mark's camera creates a fascinating alienation. But on a bus, perhaps the most alienating place in the city, the effect is redundant: these snapshots no longer seem to be about alienation, they merely create it. The way to help a photograph like this one that flounders on its own is to match it with a compelling text. But in the Journal, the photos and poems seem arbitrarily slapped together. This creates the possibility of a dadalike feeling of nonsense, but only rarely does a genuine relationship emerge. Volume VII, number five's most successful page pairs Mark's stunningly composed shot of a blank-faced young contortionist with poet Muriel Rukeyser's assertion that "The universe is made of stories, / not atoms."

The rest of the time, a cool photo sits aside an icy poem, and only more chilliness emerges from their pairing. One page juxtaposes Lucille Clifton's "Atlas" with a Mark portrait of two teenage circus performers, one girl balancing herself on the other girl's head. The poem's title and the picture's depiction of carrying suggest that, for once, the two are thematically linked. But closer examination reveals that any connection is slight. The picture explores the still camera's relationship to a moving world, while the poem flounders around in cutesy evasion. Mark's photograph transforms the motions of the acrobats into a frozen, almost surreal pose in the same way that Life photographer Philippe Halsman's portraits of celebrities in mid-jump seemed to embalm his subjects in air. Mark's acrobats are several rungs lower on the show-biz ladder, however, which adds a nasty feel to their reduction to formal objects.

The poem, a mush-pot of self-conscious cleverness, does not engage the themes of the photo in any substantial way. Clifton writes: "i am used to the heft of it / sitting against my rib, / used to the way my thumb slips into the sea as i pull / it tight." "Atlas" has the gimmicky feel of a game show, with a clue in the title and an unspecified, weighty "it" in the poem. (It's the world! Get it?) We're also clearly invited to make a simple, hackneyed association between the mystery "it" and less literal burdens. By way of conclusion, Clifton's Atlas claims to have "learned to carry it / the way a poor man learns / to carry everything." As it turns out, this page boasts the best-matched pair in this edition, but not because of the slight surface similarities. Just as the photo reduces real poor people to bizarrely arranged objects, the poem uses the metaphor of the "poor man" to spice up a distant mythological figure. Though such a cavalier treatment of poverty is unsavory in any case, it's particularly troublesome on a bus, where many of the patrons may be only a paycheck away from homelessness. The stylized, aestheticized presentation of poverty may alienate the broad audience the Journal has the potential to reach. This once, the Journal seems not just aloof from riders but outright antagonistic.

What is most offensive about Streetfare Journal, however, is not the content but the wasted potential. An effective mass-transit arts program could touch all aspects of Chicago life. If Streetfare Journal's resources were better employed, commuters could enjoy commissioned performances, murals, and poems that would not fade into the background. Our army of local talents would get much-needed employment and exposure and an audience that appreciates their distinctly Chicago points of view. Such a program by and for the CTA ridership might create an unprecendented democratic art. Instead, we're stuck with monotonous, ineffectual work with no relevance to our city, its people, or its transit system.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

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