Opinion: Community Jesters or Leaders? - Community Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Philippe Petit, best known for the documentary Man On Wire, got his inspiration for his Twin Tower wire walk in 1968 from a magazine featuring what the towers would look like when they were finished in 1973. The towers themselves were still being built and already, Petit was getting ready for one of the biggest presentations of beauty that the tip of Manhattan has ever seen. Not that Manhattan is short of performance artists. Just, who wants to go out of their way to give the financial district a show?

Flash forward to today, and the Big Apple is still one of the cultural centers of the world, and street art is a way of life. Take, for example, local celebrity, true New Yorker, and online personality, the “Fat Jew”.

This past summer, Fabrizio Goldstein, also known as “The Fat Jew”, could be found giving impromptu “Bikram Yoga” classes on a subway platform. Bikram Yoga is a type of yoga that requires a hot room, high humidity, and a teacher leading you through multiple poses to get yourself adequately stretched and your cardiovascular system pumping. A Bikram yoga studio tends to smell like hot plastic and body odor, so the association with subway platforms make perfect sense.

During any given New York City summer, the subway platforms become humid tombs, the only relief from which comes from the “breeze” of air force down the tunnels as trains barrel into each stop. So to bring some release from the equally suffocating monotony of subway etiquette, Goldstein decided to take to the subways and make lemonade out of hot lemons but not just for humor.

“Anyone who thinks it’s exploitative is making a tremendous snap judgement,” Goldstein to The Daily Intelligencer. “There’s water, food, and everybody feels good. There’s no obligation to go and the people who do have the most killer time.”

This was certainly not Goldstein’s first time taking to the street to encourage fun with what is publicly available. Before this, he was teaching “soul cycle” classes on parked CitiBikes.

Now, to be fair, public art can be seen as a nuisance. New Yorkers have high standards, as was brutally demonstrated by an anonymous NYU Film Graduate berating a trumpet player just last week. Move over Simon Cowell, the video below contains far more soul crushing criticism than you’ve ever managed to dish out.

This poor trumpeter is not the only one who has been poorly received this past month. The notoriously mysterious street artist Banksy has been in New York this past month, and most of his work is already ruined, tagged, or are gone altogether. Well, except the few pieces that are now under 24-hour watch.

Now, the controversy behind Banksy’s work is undeniable. Technically, his work is graffiti and according to Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD, that is a big no-no.

“Graffiti does ruin people’s property, and it’s a sign of decay and loss of control,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last week. “Some places are for arts, and some aren’t.”

The NYPD’s vandal squad has been pursuing Banksy across the city, to no avail as of yet. Perhaps it’s because there are no known photographs of that artist himself, or maybe it’s because he is just that elusive. Either way Banksy, spray on.

Harsh critics and politics aside, New York is notorious for birthing and cultivating all sorts of public artists. The city itself is practically a museum of history, so it’s no surprise to this writer that each of these public works garner so much attention but is it the right sort of attention.

Photo courtesy of Finger Trouble.

So far, Banksy has had his work ruined by rival graffiti artists and is being hunted by the NYPD. Back in 1974 Petit was arrested after his high wire walk. Fabrizio Goldstein seems to be out of trouble, but maybe that comes with being a local. Yet what these artists are doing is more than just putting their work on display for the public.

In the case of Goldstein, it would be easy for people to dismiss him as just another attention grabber. But these activities were for the “homeless” and highlighted how some people in this city are so disenfranchised that they don’t have access to the “amenities” the city provides, like luxurious yoga studios and spin gyms.

Banksy encourages everyone to see the art in everyday spaces and to question the merit of making people pay to see beautiful pieces. For Petit, stepping out onto that wire, over 1,300 feet in the air, was challenging what people could believe was possible. Of course you could wire walk between the twin towers, but if you had asked anyone before it happened, they would have thought you were insane.

These artists, and others like them, are just examples of how making art on the fringes can open people’s eyes to the beauty that is right in front of them. This is often forgotten in the wake of September 11, but the twin towers were once considered the “eye sore” on the south side of Manhattan. Petit changed that in his walk. Banksy takes vandalism and turns it into valuable art, much to the chagrin of the NYPD. Fabrizio Goldstein is actually able to draw attention to the issue of homelessness while also being humorous and having a good time.

In fact, that is the most common thread among these public artists: the desire to spread joy through their work unmitigated by the powers that be. Not every form of art needs to come with a capitalist plan of attack.

While Citibike hasn’t released any statements condemning the use of their bikes like this, the spin classes will likely come to an end when Goldstein figures out what’s next for this jester of the streets.

“It’s for whoever wants to show up,” Goldstein told the The NY Daily News. “Everyone can kind of get into shape— me, first and foremost.”