I don’t believe it’s necessary to see all art in person. As the existence of Contemporary Art Daily demonstrates good documentation can go pretty far and for some exhibitions understanding the concept is more than enough.
There is a danger in living by that assumption, though, in that it’s easy to miss shows that need to be seen in person. That almost happened to me this week, when I stumbled upon Matthew Chavez’s “Subway Therapy” after coming home from dinner. I’d already read about his piece, which invites riders to express their feelings in whatever way they might need. The project began in June, but after the election, Chavez brought pens and sticky notes to the subway, and riders came by the thousands to express their feelings. Now, a subway wall on 14th between fifth and sixth is coated with people’s thoughts.
I didn’t think I needed to visit the piece for any number of the usual art critic reasons. I got the concept. I’ve seen work like this before. I already understood that a lot of people are moved by the election. Was there anything else to be gained?
These are fair questions in the context of art criticism, but not particularly useful when responding to extraordinary, emotional events. To use the most common example, when invited to a funeral, we don’t make the decision to attend based on what we think we will learn. We show up because sharing a common feeling with others feels good.
And there’s been so little opportunity for those kinds of feelings. The only conversations I have these days are about how fucked this country is now that Trump’s going to run it. Every day there’s a new scandal. Stephen Bannon, a known anti-semite and white nationalist will be Trump’s Chief Strategist. The management of the Trump Organization will be composed of his children, who are also working for him in the White House, thus creating huge conflict of interest problems. Rudy Giuliani, who’s only political qualification was terrorizing New York as mayor for eight years is considered a favorite for Secretary of State.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, then, that Matthew Chavez’s “Subway Therapy” offers a welcome reprieve. I worried the wall would be covered with angry messages, but overwhelmingly, they were notes of love and unity. “Never lose hope”, “Fight for change and love”, “Love Trumps Hate”. That last message I saw repeated countless times on the stickies. For the first time since Tuesday’s election, I was close to tears for reasons other than sheer terror and misery.
It wasn’t just the message that moved me, but the fact that hoards of New Yorkers surrounded the wall to take pictures they could share with their friends. I felt camaraderie, even as I was surrounded by strangers.
As residents and citizens of the United States there is plenty to fight for—our freedom, our economic stability, our neighbors and our loved ones. It’s easy to lose faith, but Chavez, by letting the heart of this city shine, reminds me we’re not lost at sea.