Judging by a great many comments on social media and heard around the downtown Clarksdale area from both residents and visitors, this year’s Paint the Town event has been a great success. Large numbers of people have been enjoying the new, and the old, paintings on walls and have been talking about art in general. Many of the tourists in town this time of year have been seen photographing the paintings and being photographed in front of them. Many of them then post those photos on social media that is seen around the world, and that, in turn helps to generate greater interest among people in coming to Clarksdale and having one more activity (looking at art) to engage in when they are here.
Some people like some of the paintings but don’t like others. That’s good, that’s art, everybody isn’t going to like everything. Those differences in opinion, however, have led to some people calling for a formal review process to approve, or not, art that will be on public view in Clarksdale. I am not in favor of that for the following reasons.
On a general level, government meddling in the arts, as in many business activities, tends to stifle creativity (entrepreneurship) and get in the way of growth rather than leave it to blossom. In the arts it tends to lead to the creation of bland, at best merely decorative work that doesn’t usually excite much attention or discussion of any sort.
There are also very basic issues of free speech and private property. Short of something that demonstrably poses an actual risk to the community, artistic expression and free speech are protected, as is the right of building owners to have something painted on, or not, their own walls.
Still, Paint the Town does not simply tell artists to do what they want. We ask them to avoid obscenity as well as any extreme political, religious or violent imagery. We send visiting artists a large packet of materials about Clarksdale, along with photos, so that they might be inspired to create art that is, within their own style and interpretation, related to the community. (But that is not a requirement.) So far that self-regulation seems to have been working very well.
With regard to the rights of property owners, self-regulation has also been working. Paint the Town has discouraged a couple of property owners from having paintings done on walls that are seen by many people in downtown as having historic or architectural significance.
Lastly on a practical level, part of what is making Paint the Town a success is its mix of local and visiting artists, increasingly finding ways to work together and learn from each other. The visiting artists, most of who are internationally known, with their work on exhibit in museums, galleries and on public walls in other cities in the U.S. and Canada, in Europe, Latin America and Asia have been a major part of the effort to get Clarksdale recognition as an art, as well as a music destination. Part of the appeal of Paint the Town for its participating artists, local as well as visiting, is that within the bounds of the guidance that they are given, they can express themselves freely. If that is limited or restricted it will surely lead to a much lower level of interest by artists in helping the effort to further enhance the growing international appeal of Clarksdale.
In short, the public art that is growing in downtown Clarksdale isn’t broken, so there isn’t any need to fix it.