Can contemporary art be très Brooklyn? The answer is yes, if you’re French or negatively predisposed to the sort of idealism taking root in New York’s artiest borough. Part of a movement that has fully flowered in American cities like Chicago and Houston, Kings County’s own seeding of socially engaged art is on view in a survey called “Crossing Brooklyn: Art From Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond” at the Brooklyn Museum. Billed as a show focusing on artists who are “engaged with the world,” the exhibition proves by turns inspiring and cringe-worthy. Like genuinely radical politics or Frenchmen in Speedos, it promises to leave few unfazed.
A display that features more than 100 artworks by 35 artists (or artist groups) who live or work in the borough, “Crossing Brooklyn” is committed to examining the area’s “established role as a creative center” but sports a significant subtext promoting the local version of an emerging avant-garde. For those who missed the memo, the past decade has witnessed a gradual shift toward community-centered art on a global scale. A multigenerational response to $58 million Balloon Dogs and $142 million Francis Bacon triptychs, these creative efforts have largely been designed to counteract two historically related phenomena: art’s ongoing gentrification and the cultural effects of rising income inequality. For those who prefer their art to critically address their time, socially engaged art — or, as it’s alternately termed, social practice — may provide a last best hope.
Curated by Eugenie Tsai and Rujeko Hockley, “Crossing Brooklyn” presents works in virtually every medium, including a few most people will have never heard of. Titled after Walt Whitman’s famously expansive “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the exhibition unfolds in the fifth-floor galleries, yet it also spills out onto the museum’s sidewalk and its green areas, not to mention several off-site spaces that include Brooklyn’s streets, its waterways, and not a few square miles of air rights. Like much of the Brooklyn Museum’s popular programming, the show is intended to extend art to a wider public. And like nearly all socially engaged art today, the display is anxiously preoccupied with the new definitions, social responsibilities, and real-world impact of art beyond the confines of the art world.
The product of visits to many of the borough’s reported 4,600 studios, “Crossing Brooklyn” varies wildly in form, execution, and quality. The number of clunkers on view is shocking at first — until you consider the amount of reflection that goes into reinventing art’s wheel, one struggling artist at a time. For every hermetic John Cage–inspired performance (Gordon Hall) and instance of someone bundling up twigs to make a photo-diary (Matthew Jensen), you’ll see an equal number of cases of winning innovation and downright usefulness. Among the latter are the greenmarket, vegetable gardens, and bicycle-generated “Energy Hub Station” that Linda Goode Bryant and the Project Eats collective have parked right outside the museum. Among the former, there’s Miguel Luciano’s videotaped record of his work with a rural community in Kenya. A flat-screen representation of the artist making self-portraits-as-kites with children, the work is not just Million Dollar Arm–moving, it actively demonstrates how art, like sports and learning, can open up unfathomed possibilities in people’s lives.
Other works in this vein coalesce around a couple of tropes that have emerged jointly with the rise of social practice. The first is the alternative-economy ideal, which in “Crossing Brooklyn” takes on several manifestations. The most activist of these is Heather Hart’s “Bartertown,” a temporary marketplace established to get perfect strangers to trade everything — goods, services, songs, experiences — except currency. The second features an increasingly popular think-by-walking artist’s motif (by my count, six show participants pick up on this peripatetic notion). Its most eloquent exponent is the adventurous Marie Lorenz, whose elegant multiscreen-and-balsawood installation, Archipelago, shows her traveling NYC’s mysterious waterways to update Diogenes’ dictum, solvitur ambulando: It is solved by boating.
Whatever you think of their heart-on-their-sleeve work, these artists deserve credit for doing something so huge it’s almost foolhardy — pitting art’s symbolic and activist power against the laissez-faire effects of raw finance. Skeptics may consider the struggle against Goliath’s instrumental values a mismatch, but it’s hard not to root for the Davids’ long-term odds. Battle lines are drawn: See this show and decide which side you’re on.