Aesthetics in the age of austerity

Philly On Half Tank - from arts.gov

There are advantages and disadvantages to living in cities. While I don’t like the persistent sense that I’m being followed whenever I’m out walking, I do like being able to walk to most places I need to go to.

And a benefit of walking around cities is the feeling that you can always stumble upon something arresting and unique that you hadn’t noticed or hadn’t passed by before. To be sure, this phenomenon is not merely distinctive of cities. It’s just that it somehow feels that way in that while nature so easily overwhelms and arrests, cities can so easily pervert and disgust.

Take a few examples I noticed the other day while walking around Warsaw. One was this really sweet clock on the side of a quintessentially European-looking house. The other was a miniaturized representation of the old-town affixed to what can only be described as a more solid version of a city trash can.

Major municipal aesthetic projects, such as sculptures, parks, street-cleaning and what not, are without a doubt things that cities should invest in – they are public goods in themselves, they have positive externality effects and they aren’t really prioritized by the private sector.

In addition to this though, I think smaller, less clearly noticeable aesthetic projects are too things cities should invest in.* They are easier to develop and realize and have much the same effect as their larger and more easily marketable brethren.

What’s sad about the age of austerity that now seems almost inevitable is that funding for these kinds of projects will no doubt be harder to come by. Unfortunately, like many policies cities would do well to pursue, the immediate benefits of small, scattered and multifarious aesthetic projects don’t seem as substantial as the benefits of, say, building more roads. But these things need not be mutually exclusive. And the positive externalities of aesthetic rejuvenation ought to more seriously be considered.

* I’m also thinking here of the amazing murals that abound in otherwise seemingly blighted and municipally-neglected neighborhoods in Philadelphia. (Just google “Philadelphia murals.”) It’s like this: you know that really hideous underpass you walk by/live near/drive through? Well, now imagine it with a kick-ass mural.

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