Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dear Thomas Paine,

There’s a plaza named after you here in Philadelphia, just north of City Hall. On the front steps, in front of the Municipal Building, a giant Frank Rizzo statue is frozen, tyrannically, in mid-wave to traffic. Over his right shoulder a statue of the Philly Phanatic like some harmless little alien of a vice-president, about a third of the size of the actual mascot, tries to welcome us. And over Rizzo’s left shoulder is a sculpture of a game piece from the board game Sorry!

Big pieces of Sorry!, chess, checkers, Monopoly and dominos are scattered throughout Thomas Paine Plaza. The installation is called “Your Move”. You can climb on the big replicas and write your name on them. That’s what the kids do. The older, more permanent piece of public art here is the Jacques Lipchitz sculpture “Government of the People”: chunky human bodies squished tightly together, many feet and hands, holding each other up and some nebulous object at the top that’s hard to make sense of. A dedication on a plaque interprets it for us:

“Symbolizing family life, the wellspring of society, the hope of the future and the concept of government being of, by and for the people. This sculpture is dedicated to the people of Philadelphia.”

What’s at the top of the sculpture must be a big piece of shit then, my brother suggests. He’s a bike messenger. People I know always see him fly by and then tell me they saw him, so it’s like he’s everywhere. As far as jobs go, he likes it. He likes the freedom of riding his bike all day, which he does anyway when he’s not working. The bodies in the Lipchitz sculpture do not look free; they look uncomfortable and ridiculous—and looking at the top, at the ultimate production, it doesn’t seem that what they’re doing is worth it. Maybe they should all take a break and climb down from there and each get on a bicycle and go for a ride.

No family life for the bike messenger, who achieves freedom horizontally, not vertically. He goes home and makes music with his friends, and that is a kind of family, and that is his wellspring. Or he goes home and thinks about himself and the world that presses him, another wellspring. His ambitions are concentrated and few since he does not think vertically either. If there’s a heaven above, who cares?

I’m sorry, Tom, that there is no bicycle named after you. There’s only this plaza which is an ugly, painful emblem of the limits of freedom we impose on each other and ourselves, and of the shit we collectively produce. It gets worse: inside the Municipal Building is the Streets Department, which this year initiated the Unlitter Us campaign. The ads are all over the subway and on TV. The print ones show a person speaking a poem about the virtues of throwing away your trash. The words appear (littered, you could say) on the speaker’s profile. All but one of the poets I’ve seen so far are dark-skinned. Here’s one of the poems:

          Outside looking in
          All they see is trash
          If you’re a product
          Of your community
          What does that make you?
          Reconsider your litter
          The kids watch what you do
          So c’mon
          We can end this cycle
          Reconsider your litter
          The brush is in your hands
          Paint a pretty picture.

While the rhyme of “litter” and “picture” is charming, I wonder who the “they” is looking in. Tourists? White people? People with money who don’t litter? Maybe just the kids that arrive in the middle of the poem? Let’s see—the brush in my hands would have to be more of an eraser, and the pretty picture what exactly? A city that doesn’t look poor? If there’s such a thing as “big government”, this must be it—an implicitly racist campaign of bad poems that isn’t going to make the city cleaner or anyone in it more responsible. The program itself is a total waste.

I propose a Litter Us campaign instead. It’d go something like this: we all go around town knocking over trash cans in a fury, perhaps imagining each can as someone who’s done us wrong, and then we all get drunk somewhere. When we wake up the next morning, hungover, we write about the emptied contents—what we saw and felt—and then mail what we wrote to our mothers, fathers, sons or daughters, lovers or ex-lovers. Or we draw a picture or write a song or make some kind of thing and send it to them. I figure if we do it on a grand scale, this repressed culture of ours will begin to see what art is for, value it and evolve.

Oh, as for the trash—the mayor, city council and their families could clean it all up.