The View From 32


AUGUST 25, 2007  

City Expressionz

One of Cleveland's best home-grown annual events is City Expressionz, a day-long festival of hip-hop: graffiti, MC-ing, and breakdancing. Sponsored by Cleveland Public Art, it's one of those events that's almost too cool for the city that created it. Every time I go I think, "wow, this is Cleveland?" That's the paradox of this city: a reputation for being somewhat conservative and stodgy, while giving birth to amazingly creative events like Parade the Circle, Ingenuity Festival, and City Expressionz.

Graffiti panelThis year it was cloudy and threatening all morning. I put off going, thinking the rain would start any minute. After lunch I decided it was going to clear up, so set off toward the West Side Market (and neighboring City Expressionz) with an umbrella in my bag just in case.

Good planning for a change. Within an hour of when I got there, the rain started to come down. Hard. I ducked into the Market and bought a chunk of cheddar cheese but nothing else since I'll be in Chicago for the next few days.

When the rain slowed to a drizzle I opened the umbrella and walked home slowly, enjoying it. Reminded me of my favorite Thomas Merton (Catholic/Buddhist monk) essay, Rain and the Rhinoceros.

The first paragraph is what sticks with me. I'm sure the rest is equally significant, but this is all I remember, and all I need:

LET me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By "they" I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.

"The time will come when they will sell you even your rain." Sadly that may not be an exaggeration. Today I walked home slowly and was sorry to arrive so soon.

What's wrong with this picture?

Picture of group of white guys doing graffitiI don't know, maybe nothing. But one of the things that struck me about this year's graffiti festival was that most of the artists were white, I'd guess 80% or more.

Is this a step toward mass-market acceptability that means the creativity has been mostly sucked out? Another tough question to answer, since this year's activity got rained out long before most of the panels were finished.

What I saw seemed to lack the energy and inventiveness of previous years, but again, the weather may have been a factor. Several empty panels seemed to indicate that fewer artists showed up than expected. A couple of other panels looked like they'd been done in a hurry.

Two guys eating fruit tarts while watching rapperIn past years I've seen people working for 2-4 hours or more on a single piece. This is easier to do on a warm sunny day than a gray threatening one.

On the other hand, the breakdancing crew was much whiter than usual, as was the audience.

Chowing down on fruit tarts from Farkas Pastry while listening to a rapper doesn't seem to qualify as "keepin' it real."

But then, too, that's Cleveland for ya. Gotta love it.

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