Sure, there’s plenty of bad graffiti out there, along with enough dilapidated buildings to keep bulldozers busy for years. But let’s face it: How many times have you stopped to Instagram a great piece of street art – legal or otherwise? Could Memphis actually be a beautiful city?
I visited curator Stanton Thomas at the Brooks Museum to get a better sense of how the City of Memphis might compare to classical ideals of beauty.
He led me straight to one of the museum’s most famous paintings, called Au pied de la falaise (At the Foot of the Cliff) by William-Aldophe Bouguereau. It’s the image of a little girl who looks lost and forlorn at the foot of a rugged cliff.
“This child is shown in a rather dirty setting,” Thomas says, “but immaculately dressed. Perfect skin, no dirt on her nose, no scratches or anything.”
Memphis is certainly a place of stark contrasts, which can foreground either the beauty or ugliness.
Thomas then leads me into a room of religious art. One painting of St. Francis depicts rays of light shooting from a nasty wound in his side, which Thomas says shows “how suffering here has been elevated into something beautiful and profound.”
The Memphis blues would surely fit into that category.
But what about old-fashioned romantic beauty? Thomas himself considers Memphis to be a more Romantic (with a capital R) kind of town – a little dangerous, a little untamed. He shows me a pastoral painting.
“What we’re looking at is a shot of the hillside where you can see some of the ancient ruins of Tivoli.” He says. “And you’ll notice there’s a blasted tree, something that’s been perhaps struck by lightning that has fallen over.”
Ruins and dead trees.
Come to think of it, all of the paintings we looked at seemed to embody some of the characteristics of blight. When it’s in the Brooks Museum, beauty is blight. Not so in real-life urban situations.
I asked the experts what a beautiful city meant to them.
“To me a beautiful city means one is one that is litter-free, clean, and aesthetically pleasing with landscaped areas,” says Eldra White with the Memphis City Beautiful Commission.
Cecile Carson with Keep America Beautiful adds, “A clean, green and beautiful place to live.”
But most people I asked took a few moments to ponder. Mayor Jim Strickland dubbed it a “philosophical question.”
So I asked philosopher Luvell Anderson, a professor of aesthetic philosophy at the University of Memphis.
“Figuring out what’s beautiful depends on knowing what properties make something beautiful,” he said, adding that one popular idea of beauty favors orderliness. Or standards of taste. Anderson adds a caveat to that rule: “One person’s orderliness is another person’s boring. And another person’s chaos.”
Could universal standards go against who we are as a diverse city?
“Our ideas of beauty and ugliness largely depend on our social economic group, our racial identity, national identities perhaps,” he says.
So maybe there’s beauty in Memphis. Just not in a tidy Western European package. Paul Thomas, an Orange Mound artist who makes sculptures out of litter and found objects, says that beauty isn’t about looks at all. It’s the “transformation of the community’s spirit.”
Transformation is one promise of the city’s Blight Elimination Charter, a comprehensive plan to deal with our epidemic of vacant and abandoned buildings. And it’s true that ugly places are generally bad. They create crime and lower property values. But they also factor into the fundamental aesthetic doctrine of Memphis, which can be summed up in a phrase famously uttered by Grizzlies basketball player Tony Allen “All heart. Grit. Grind.”
So how does a city’s ugliness add to its beauty?
Photographers and urban explorers Bill Simmers and Carla McDonald invited me to check out an abandoned medical care facility off Lamar Avenue.
Like the scenery in a zombie movie, an office wall calendar was frozen on September 2012. Carts of medical supplies were loaded with bandages. Beds were still made. Otherwise, the building had been ransacked. Simmers and McDonald began taking photos of the ruination.
People who would never venture into such a place buy these photos at art fairs and at gallery exhibitions. Many of the rooms were covered in graffiti, several large works by nationally known artists.
We were soon joined by a street artist named Paser.
“There’s nothing like walking into an abandoned building and trying to find, like, the wall that you’re gonna place your piece on, like: that’s that wall I’m gonna piece right there,” Paser says, pulling out his paint pens and getting to work.
“Graffiti and spray paint in general on different objects around the city really show a character of the city that we live in,” he says.
He’s not wrong about that. Commissioned murals are popping up everywhere these days. Most of the artists started out in places like this, honing their style and now earning commissions. Paser says that Memphis should flaunt its tattoos.
Simmers and McDonald both say visual grit is Memphis’ calling card. Craig Brewer puts it in his movies, and high school seniors want it in their yearbook photos.
“Like parents love it, if you have their kids in front of some apocalypse looking thing,” Simmers says.
McDonald adds: “Street cred for kids who don’t have any.”
The romance of blight is probably better than the reality of it. But with a building boom downtown, revived areas like Overton square, and citywide beautification efforts, those seniors may one day look at their photos and wonder what happened to that Memphis.
NEXT: City of Grit, Part IV. In the era of “Big Data,” cities are using new numbers to figure out the real costs of blight.