The Power of Powers

Baltimore’s art scene is often lauded as being collaborative rather than competitive (for competition, see this week’s feature, page 18). But that collaboration rarely extends outside of the art world itself. So, it is astounding that Steven Powers’ “Forever Together” performance-art piece has managed to bring in so many collaborators who usually remain outside of the art world. 

The project didn’t start out very promising. Powers was contracted to paint a schlocky mural like the schlocky murals he has painted in other cities—Powers’ recent Love Letter series is a lot like that of our own schlockmeister Michael Owen, who takes his Love Project to other cities in the same way and for the same reasons: They are “vibrant” but also thoroughly safe. But, by putting the initial “Forever Together” mural on houses slated to be demolished, it seemed the city was also trying to co-opt a little of the cool, and the success, of Wall Hunters: Slumlord Project and bring it to Vacants to Values (Hey, cool idea: Start graffiti-writing a tag “V2V” on all the vacants. It could be like a WPA project actually paying Baltimore writers).

But then, somehow, what seemed to be a boring rip-off job became really interesting as Powers managed to get a whole cast of collaborators to join the project in a way that made almost all of them look bad. 

Mayor $RB participated in the elaborate hoax perpetrated by Powers, using her weekly press conference to become part of the piece. “Some people believe that if you have an area in transition, there’s no value in beautifying that area or enhancing that area or for investing in that area with art. I believe differently. I believe that an area in transition is just as worthy as any other area to receive beautiful art to improve the quality of life for citizens.”

City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, who doesn’t even seem to pretend to like art, called it a “waste of taxpayer dollars,” expanding the scope of Powers’ “Love Letter”  in an unprecedented direction. How did Powers get Young on board? The planning must have taken almost as much coordination as the Baltimore Police Department’s “Happy” video. 

With the exception of BmoreArt, we are the only publication in town to write about visual art in any serious way—but for this project, the Baltimore Brew took a momentary break from tooting its own horn to pretend to do art criticism. The Brew’s critique was a brilliant response to the money-driven art world of the international art market where nothing but the price tag is considered. I never thought Mark Reutter had a sense of humor until I read his brilliant satire, where he cast himself in the same camp as Saatchi and other demons of the big-money art market. He even made fun of the Brew by actually continuing to praise the Brew for its coverage of the art scandal.

City Paper’s “Mr. Wrong,” always ready for a good prank, was also part of the project, making it multimedia when he went on some television station to talk about it—and then he wrote about that! The scope of Powers’ work is really fucking amazing. 

And, of course, the art-world denizens couldn’t be left out in the cold. They were probably the first to be let in on Powers’ performance-art plan, because they played their parts perfectly, defending the project not based on any aesthetic merits—which, on the surface, are few—but rather on the fact that it is called “art” and the city was willing to pay for it, meaning the city would, potentially, fill their pockets one day too. It perfectly captures, again, the crassness that develops around money—the winking self-deprecation is like Cindy Sherman’s cameo in John Waters’ “Pecker.” 

With his Baltimore project, Powers has transformed himself from a second-rate so-called “street artist” for hire by unimaginative cities hoping to gain some “vibrancy” into a first-class large-scale conceptual genius.

Unless, of course, I am wrong. In reviewing artwork, one generally tries to imagine what the artist is trying to do (without bothering much with their terribly written statements) and give it the best possible interpretation, which is what I am doing here. But maybe the best possible interpretation (“lectio difficilor” is what classicists call the principle) is wrong. The other possibility is that Powers truly is just another boring-ass “street artist” that the squares somewhere in city government thought they could use to steal the street cred from Wall Hunters, and the other people were each playing their part in a larger piece that Powers really had nothing to do with. 

In which case, the mayor actually seems to be the only one taking a courageous stance here (aside from Mr. Wrong, of course). She has nothing to gain by supporting an unpopular art project. I think she might actually believe that art can transform our city—or maybe she's just stubbornly defending a project she approved, as she did the Grand Prix. This ambiguity is the reason I want to do a profile of her. When this column was still called Art Seen, it featured a run-in with the mayor at the grand opening of the new Single Carrot Theatre. When one of her handlers called me to complain, we discussed a cover story profile of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake where we could get to know the kind of art she really likes, the role she thinks art will play in the city, and just what kind of person she is. They keep putting me off, but I still want to do this story. Since I helped to get a yellow box up at Oliver St. by putting it in the column, I am now taking this call for a profile public. Madame Mayor, please hang out with me. I want to know you. 

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