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Art in Earnest: Harlem-Based Artist, Tyson Hall

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I recently sat in a talk hosted by the Aspen Institute and led by Howard Gardner and Ellen Winner. As the room wrestled with the dog-yeared question of why Art suffers in taking up its proper space (i.e., any space) in public education, I thought of people who don't have time to properly theorize: Artists. But, I mean peculiar kinds of Artists. The ones who realize that they have committed themselves to a trade that usually pays best long after they are gone. The ones who do not complain that top galleries have not yet hunted them down in their Brooklyn studios. The ones who see the lack of art in education and who simply... do art, conscious of the hurdles, but who nevertheless continue for some love of the game.

Mr. Gardner remarked on the classic, inaccessible nature of Art, as it has never seen a time when it wasn't driven by the advocacy and commissions of wealthy patrons who, in turn, make up most of the audience in people who have the means to enjoy it. Ms. Winner remarked on efforts to integrate arts into curricula as a way of getting around the total lack of art in education. The room lamented on the current state: It's still not really a part of education. And, after good discussion, we were left at the beginning. No fault to lay anywhere. This is the modern frame. In a way, this is a good thing, as the art that presents itself in the current day must be a pretty strong one, having survived gross neglect and malnourishment. Surviving, in this case, converts to a good catch-up to folks who took "real" jobs. Actors know this well.

My problem, however, is with allowing the question of art and education at all. It is like asking me which of my limbs I value the most and forcing the triage. We don't have to lobby for inclusion of math. And we've been pretty happy with awarding the "smart" label to people who can only master math, leaving Mr. Gardner's "multiple intelligences" -- spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, etc. -- in the wake. You've never heard of Barry Sanders being lauded as a bodily-kinesthetic, spatial and logical-mathematical genius. He is. (Before you doubt the last one, get your hands on an NFL playbook and come back to me.)

If I answer the problem myself, I am led to say that art will not in any forseeable future be supported in equal ways as other disciplines. We only revere it once it is either ushered to the top in the form of one artist or one type of art or once it alone runs the gauntlet, naked and screaming, and survives. That leaves me with the idea that we should just DO ART, not seeking validation or support in traditional ways, but rather putting things in front of people that they MUST respond to. That's the whole idea of this series, examining when art MAKES things change. There's a pretty strong history there; so, I'm not pretending any original idea. I just like exploring it and the people who do it.

Tyson Hall is a widely exhibited painter, filmmaker, actor who simply does art.

I write about him because he dwells specifically at the intersection of Art and Policy, his work aiming to touch people in the everyday. People on their way to work in that art hotbed of Jamaica, Queens, for example. (Yes, this is sarcasm. It isn't a hotbed. It's just hot in the summer.) His art is for the people. That is so cliché that it hurts as I strip the meaning of that universality down to a untreaded feel-good thing to say. I don't mean it that way.

That's the power of cliché: the speaking of it. By the time an act or a thought arrives there, we've usually forgotten its origin ("A bird in the hand" means what, again?); that is, we have forgotten that there was once some thought or some act that was so powerfully communicative that it endured.

The cliché that "art is for people," i.e. not just some people, is often spoken by artists and patrons but it isn't often that art escapes the paradox that constrains this wide-reaching of people within the highly provincial borders of geography, culture and money. We can't much avoid being bound by our time, but those other artifices are just that, artifices that can hide art.

Kandinsky would have had all of us, regardless of station, climbing a spiritual pyramid, being led by the artist. El Anatsui, remarking on why it took so long for the world to know his work, effectively brings a condition to this free-climbing of the pyramid: "I think it has to be the fact that if you're an African artist based on the continent you suffer from the invisibility syndrome, unless you have some 'godfather' or 'godmother.' But I have none of these, so I had to let things take their natural course."

That is: Art is for the people, but we can't really know it beyond the moral and cultural aesthetic of whoever happens to be the gatekeepers. Of course Art is universal and local at once. You'll say that and be right. But, as regular old people, we only know that intellectually but don't really believe in this universality until we have the rare occasion of seeing a Ghanaian artist and a young viewer in Montana commune perfectly and without words or previous context, save their humanity.

We won't change any time soon. It's human nature. We have enough trouble considering the one person who has achieved the feat of being personal everywhere: Jesus. That is why I appreciate the work of artists who aim explicitly to a local audience knowing that this universality, even in the world's revered pieces, may not evidence itself. It may arrive by cliché, getting into the world's language in the way Picasso is an easily spoken word. But then we're back to the problem of cliché, a powerful idea we know only as device -- metaphor -- but lacking the complete power that would come from knowing the physical root. Guernica could be personal to Brooklyn.

Now come back to a Harlem-based artist who traverses this field as microcosm: Tyson Hall. If you know New York City, you would know that it qualifies for locals as a trip abroad for Mr. Hall, an Uptown artist, to go to Jamaica, Queens, and propose his art to that specific audience. He works in various media, but primarily in paint, acting and film-making, having trained more than 1,000 students through his Actor's Boot Camp.

I found his work in Jamaica, Queens to be emblematic. Titled "Love Life," the installation consisted of painted wooden figures placed on scaffolding. As people would start and finish their daily commute, they were greeted by the large yellow abstract figures. The effect was to place a mood on the street. People didn't expect it, and, as it usually happens when we violate low or negative expectations, the effect was profound. (Art? Here?) Shopkeepers, commuters and residents became attached to the figures. They were missed when they came down and people actually remarked on how the figures made for a better daily routine.

It seems a simple scenario, and it is. But this isn't to say that there was not a complexity and range in the responses. Happiness, wonder, curiosity, lingering. To get people in NYC, most on their way to the first-world oasis that is Manhattan, to linger on the way to work is no light thing. Life is a hustle in this city if you're not dealing in millions. No wasted space. If you stop walking or talking, someone somewhere immediately fills the space just trying to get ahead of you.

This is the intersection: Art and Policy. Policy here taking the form of mass change in behavior. The dance of an outsider gaining community trust to do an intrusive work is another part of the work that must be noted. This aspect may remind you of JR, not Ewing, just JR. I think that is a fitting parallel.

We would wait on fame, validation, permission. Or we will succumb a different way with the tired forms of "rebellious" art that betrays itself fully by proclaiming "Look at me!! I'm a rebel!" and wears the typical clothes of the rebel. I think it's a much more rebellious thing to engage people, gain audience, gain permission when you don't have nominal authority. There, the art has command. It's a place many rebels find uncomfortable because they would rather just drop the art on people's heads and run. The yellow people don't run. "Love life" -- C.S. Lewis in "On Good Work and Good Works," calls out this responsibility of the artist not to divorce himself from people. Once you make your art public, you owe people and honest conversation. Art for the people is art with the people, Art in Earnest.

Here's what's next from Tyson Hall, as a filmmaker:

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And here's a look at "Love Life" behind the scenes:

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Art in earnest.