UR Here: Keys to the City

Kudos to Mark Ginsberg and Marc Moen for putting pianos out in our public downtown walkways a la the “Play Me, I’m Yours” initiative in New York City and elsewhere. Now, anyone can share their musical talents, big or small, with everyone else. This is the truest definition of “public art,” and I hope we see much more of it in Iowa City. In the few weeks since these keyboards have graced our sidewalks, I’ve enjoyed seeing and hearing dozens of folks from our community plop down and fill the air with music of all sorts–and that has immeasurably expanded a dimension of our public life here in this city of arts.

The past century-plus has seen the invention of incredible communication formats and devices–mass publishing, movies, radio, TV, records, CDs, iPods, the internet, etc. These devices and venues have revolutionized the accessibility of both great (and low) art and entertainment for masses of people. And because of that accessibility–and the media themselves–some wondrous art and entertainment has been created that would not have existed otherwise. But as with anything, along with the positives come negatives. One of the major downsides of mass media is the commodification and professionalization of art and entertainment.

I could not imagine my life without my recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, my DVD collections of Twin Peaks and Lost, my books by professional authors that are too many to count or enumerate, etc. Every one of these precious items is not only something that was purchased, but contains art and entertainment that was created by someone else at a skill level far beyond my own abilities, and usually in (and about) remote places. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–enjoying the achievements of talented people from around the world and across time is one of the marvels of modern life.

But mass accessibility to these wonders, I think, has also diminished an important part of human life. Not that long ago, without the professional art and entertainment products so prolifically available today, people created more of their own aesthetic expressions and leisure amusements and shared them directly with their family, friends and community. Nightly conversation laced with personal and family stories, evenings in the parlor singing songs around the piano or pump organ–these are images of a bygone era, certainly, but they are also symbols of loss. When we depend too much on “hiring” professionals to entertain and inspire us and on purchasing access to their performances or artistic products–tickets, recordings, printed matter, cable and internet, etc.–we not only diminish the need and motivation to create art ourselves, but we also lose the family and community bonds that self-generated art creates.

Iowa City is a mecca for public art, and I wouldn’t change that one iota. I’ve written before in this column about my support for the city’s public art program. Our summer festivals and weekly music programs are tremendous assets. Our theaters and music venues are second to none. And while these activities do build community in their own way, they are still mostly about watching professionals provide us with art and entertainment.

So I encourage our city–both public and private sectors–to offer even more venues for everyday folks to share their expression and entertain each other, be they wildly talented or just enthusiastic. We’ve recently enjoyed another remarkable jazz fest. The stages–main, local, college and youth–present a tremendous array of national and local talent. But how about adding a “jam stage,” where anyone with a horn, guitar, keyboard, etc., can hop on up and play for awhile? How about the Iowa Arts Festival adding a “storytelling stage” where anyone can step up and spin some tales? How about an open mic night for one of the Friday Night Concerts?

How about some of the Washington Street businesses sponsoring a small, permanent, community stage at Black Hawk Mini-Park, where anyone can step up whenever they feel like it and sing a song, recite a poem, play the guitar, juggle or perform a scene from a play? That would only cost a few bucks in materials–and even though anyone can pretty much perform spontaneously there now (though currently sans open guitar case or empty coffee can for donations), the presence of a simple stage would both encourage and declare this city’s commitment to public art, in truly its purest sense.

As I said, I wouldn’t trade Summer of the Arts, our downtown sculptures and our lively professional music scene for anything. They are crucial to Iowa City’s identity and character. But they’re always quite expensive, and they depend largely on professional–and often outside–talent. Ginsberg and Moen’s pianos have opened up an opportunity to enrich our artistic and community life with something long lost in the 21st century–sharing and bonding through art on a personal and civic level that is barely seen in American culture anymore. I say let’s go for it even more.