Dave Loewenstein, community murals and living democracy
Browsing the artwork in Dave Loewenstein’s online shop, I was delighted by this lovely image of the view from East Lawrence, the city in Kansas where he has lived and worked for 30 years. It’s a gentle tribute to one of my favourite works, Saul Steinberg’s ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’ (1976), but it’s also a reminder that community art is always rooted in specificities—place, history, relationships. It’s one of the reasons I stick to the term, in preference to any of those that have been minted to replace it.
Dave is a community artist in that same sense, rooted in his home and, with that knowledge of belonging, able to work with other communities, of place, experience or culture, elsewhere. Often the result is a mural, but it has taken other forms too. The common thread is that the art connects an actual community, understanding that it is also porous, shifting and even temporary. It expresses shared hopes, feelings and fears, common identities and bonds, a vision of reality and the sense a community makes of its experience. And, in making those intangible things visible in public space, it naturally brings debate, within and between communities, contributing to the essential democratic process of conversation.
It’s a mistake to think that democracy is about votes and legislatures. They are the tip of an iceberg, onto which some people are quick to plant a flag of ownership. But the real, unseen body of democracy is composed of human relations, lived and enacted by communities at local level. It is the quality of these relations that determines whether democracy is strong or even possible. Autocratic regimes can deliver the illusion of democracy, organising and winning elections that seem to give their leaders legitimacy. But when the fabric of everyday relations has been worn thin by public lies, gerrymandering, media control and hate speech there is nothing below, nothing real. The erosion of democratic life is happening across the world, and not only in the usual places. In Britain, India and the United States, places which have long made democracy the foundation of law and identity, the fabric is fraying. In places it is visibly tearing.
That’s one reason why the work of community artists like Dave Loewenstein is so important. Below the radar of politicians and art critics alike, it sustains the practice of democracy on the ground, in actual places, with actual communities. In times like these, community art’s virtues of civility, honesty, trust and tolerance are unfashionable, but they are also a form of lived resistance to a politics that fosters polarisation and division in pursuit of power.
To learn more about Dave Loewenstein’s work, please –
- Visit Dave Loewenstein’s website (and don’t miss his online shop)
- Listen to the conversation that Arlene Goldbard and I had with Dave in our podcast
- Read Arlene’s blog about that conversation on her site