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Urban decay as art serves vital purpose

In late July, the Onion published a brief article with a Detroit dateline and a headline calibrated for lacerating comic effect: "Artists Announce They've Found All The Beauty They Can In Urban Decay."

The story, which made its way into artistic circles via Twitter and Facebook, was a perfectly constructed lampoon of the art world's increasing appetite for work about degradation and blight.

In Buffalo, where a sort of cottage industry of art, photography and journalism about decay and decline has arisen as the city's infrastructure has crumbled, that article produced more than a few chuckles and struck a major chord.

It also grew out of the ongoing argument over "ruin porn," the pejorative term for art (mostly photography) that seems to exploit the plight of cities like Buffalo and Detroit by inviting viewers to marvel over the spectacle of their decline. The debate over the line between ruin porn and actual art is one of the most fascinating to hit Internet art circles in recent years, precisely because it refuses easy answers.

That debate reached a flash point in January after Wayne State University professor John Patrick Leary wrote a fascinating, if problematic, analysis of the phenomenon. The essay, published in the online magazine Guernica, claimed that much photography of Detroit ruins "aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city."

Aside from the fact that Leary asks ridiculous things of still photography, his analysis grossly overestimates the degree to which people "already know" about the struggles of cities like Detroit and Buffalo. Ruin porn is only pernicious insofar as it offers a detached, romanticized notion of neglect and disrepair. A dull patina on a piece of old brass is romantic; a neighborhood abandoned to rot is anything but.

But I'd contend that very little of what our knee-jerk culture critics malign as ruin porn actually possesses such facile intentions. Plenty of it serves the deceptively simple and vital purpose of communicating the state of things in places like Buffalo and Detroit.

On another level, work that documents a city's decline challenges us to think about why a skillfully depicted ruin should be beautiful. Exploring what draws us to images of destruction -- like, say those of the 9/1 1 attacks -- is its own worthwhile conceptual exercise.

Locally, there has been a seemingly unending procession of artists whose work thoughtfully engages the city's decline. These include J-M Reed, whose photographs of houses on fire serve as potent comments about our fascination with destruction. Dennis Maher prompts us to think about the city's experimental potential with his unwieldy sculptures made with material salvaged from demolished or deconstructed houses. Then there's Julian Montague, who has made engrossing art out of his compulsion to categorize the creatures that creep into abandoned buildings.

Amy Greenan, who paints abandoned houses, is largely going after a feeling in her work that has nothing to do with dumb awe. And John Massier, whose photography series "Kingdom: Selections From The Early 21st Century" is now on view in Toronto's Birch Libralto Gallery, is doing a somewhat more self-critical version of that.

Looking out at the artistic landscape of Western New York, it seems inarguable that the beauty and conceptual power to be found in decay and decline has yet to be exhausted. It's endlessly reconfigurable and eternally potent -- not only for reminding us about what's no longer there, but for helping us think about what might be.


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