By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
There are more artists per capita living in Somerville than in any other U.S. city. You can see their work in venues ranging from the Museum of Fine Arts to signal boxes in Somerville intersections.
The first week of each May, over 400 Somerville artists open their studios to their neighbors. The essence of Somerville Open Studios is at least as old as the lush images that cave dwellers painted on their walls 17,000 years ago in what is now Southwestern France.
It is an accessible and nonhierarchical enterprise in which all members of the tribe are welcome to participate, converse, learn from, and encourage each other. Participating artists must reside or create in Somerville, and the tribe is all of us ‘Villens and our guests.
It’s quite different from going to the secular temple of an art museum, giving $20 to someone in a glass box, and passively viewing in silence that which self-appointed elites have declared to be worthy.
There are plenty of Somerville artists whose work is displayed in galleries and museums. But during Somerville Open Studios, you can walk over to where they work, no one in Somerville lives very far from an open studio. You can ask your neighbor questions like, “How did you make this? What’s it about? Why do you do this?” You can get answers and share your reactions. And you can get encouragement to make our own art.
It’s also quite different from the perceptions of art that I had growing up as a poor kid in a poor community. Art seemed to be something alien to my family’s and neighbors’ hardscrabble existence, something for people with money and sophistication, something exclusive and inaccessible.
The rare times that I heard adults around me pushed to say something about art, I detected a defensive tone, as in, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” I also heard a kind of wistfulness.
The people whom television presented as art experts articulated an ethic that reinforced my perceptions of elitism and mystification. “The real artist’s only purpose is self-expression, and real art exists only for its own sake.”
Even as a child, this seemed bogus to me. If their only purpose was self-expression, why did they want others to see it?
As I grew older, I learned that this attitude only emerged when artists began creating for an anonymous market. Just as the Lascaux cave painters had known their tribe, Michelangelo had known the people who worshipped in the Sistine Chapel. Before art became a commodity created for unknown buyers, artists knew the people whom they were creating for, what they wished to communicate, and the impact that they wanted to make.
I also learned that artists whose work I respond to often go through their own episodes of self-doubt. They hesitate to even call themselves artists without such external validation as grants and solo shows.
Rachel Mello, this year’s Somerville Open Studios coordinator, compares this questing after markers conferred by the gallery-and-critic hegemony with an adolescent who puts on makeup to signify to herself and others that she has entered the adult world. Rachel wants Somerville Open Studios to be an “unmediated” experience, where artists and neighbors interact and learn from each other, and where artists support and make connections with each other.
In this way, Open Studios is reminiscent of dozens of interweaving social institutions that once knit together an exceptionally rich fabric of community throughout Somerville. Churches, unions, ethnic organizations, extended families, fraternal organizations, political clubs, sports teams, community groups and other associations created many different ways for neighbors to experience each other as whole people rather than as roles or as strangers.
I believe that as this institutional framework of community has disintegrated, we have become poorer as people, more isolated, superficial, wary, and ignorant of each other. Yet opportunities to build institutions that, in the process of executing their mission, also build community are rare.
Somerville Open Studios is such an opportunity. Because it is nonhierarchical, participatory, and cash poor, it relies heavily on volunteers. No matter what your interests and skills may be, there is a role for you if you would like to participate.
The kickoff organizational meeting for the 2013 Somerville Open Studios season will take place this coming Thursday, November 15, at the Burren in Davis Square. You’re invited.