Article Summary

D. Sommer, The Work of Art: Civic Agency and Public Humanities

September 20th, 2016

Reading response week 3

Doris Sommer. The Work of Art: Civic Agency and Public Humanities

In the first chapter of her book, Doris Sommer takes a good amount of time to elaborate on several projects that have been introduced in cities like Bogota and how they have been utilized to work in favor of the city. I think I do not need to dwell about how Bogota (and Colombia as a whole) are looked upon by most of the (Western) world. The general stereotype is that it is a dangerous and corrupt country. Attempts to change cities like Bogota (or countries like Colombia for that matter) seem a futile effort, as such thinking is usually reserved for naive people of the world. That may be the case, but in 1995 Antans Mockus became mayor of Bogota and tried anyway.

Mockus, the former president of the National University of Colombia never really was what you might call a regular president of a university. The most obvious example is the way he got the attention of the students during a student riot at the university. As nobody seemed to listen to him and people continued booing while he was on stage he proceeded to drop his pants and show everyone his ass. The whole ordeal was caught on camera and was shown on national television A bad example some said, but to the general public it showed how genuine and honest he was. He became very popular and decided to run for mayor, independently. Whilst running for office he then put on a super hero outfit and became Super Citizen and was seen all through the city, making a stance against pollution.

As if this was not enough, please consider the following. He was going to hold a speech in his campaign to become mayor when a student took his microphone and did not give it back. All most all politicians would do anything to not get into a fight, but Mockus lost his composure and got into a fist fight on television. What is most striking about this (no pun intended) is that he even became more popular because of it. He went on to become the first independent mayor of Bogota and won with the largest majority as well.

When in office his main goal was to change the mindset/behaviour of the people in Bogota and he used art and comical instruments to reach his goals. Mockus hired mime artists to regulate the traffic in Bogota’s notoriously dangerous streets instead of the regular traffic officers. When he saw that it worked he fired over 3000 apparent corrupt police officers and made an offer that 400 of them could come back, but only if they would undergo mime training and and became mimes. At first many people doubted is ways but gradually people saw that his ways actually changed the city, and in this case aggression and accidents in traffic decreased.

He installed the so called Carrot Laws. A Carrot is, in Colombia, a person who does not smoke or drink. These laws were made to prevent people from getting too drunk and start fights that a lot of times ended in bloodshed and also aimed to reduce traffic accidents that were caused by drunk driving. His artistic/creative approach to deal with Bogota’s problems seemed to make a difference. As one of the mimes put it: “Through art and our aesthetic and the ethic expression we will educate the citizens.”

In Bogota the law prohibits consecutive terms in office. For Mockus this meant he had to make way for others. In 1998 Peñalosa became mayor of Bogota. He too was really trying to change the city for the better, but did this in a completely other way than Mockus. Peñalosa did this in a more corporate way than Mockus. He literally started rebuilding the city. Because he had many long term plans and Peñalosa also had to deal with the fact that he could not be reelected, he looked for the best candidate to follow him up, so that all that he did would not have been for nothing. Even though Mockus was not fond of all the things Peñalosa did, he still saw potential in the general thought of his plans. Together they made a deal, if Peñalosa supported Mockus, the latter would promise to continue the long term efforts made by the first. And so began his second term as mayor of Bogota.

In his second term he was less extravagant compared to his first term, not just in ludic appearances, but also in the way he governed. He was more about building the city that building morale and was teaching the citizens how to take care of their city.

The way Mockus changed his beloved Bogota to me exemplifies the Society in Art and Society, without forgetting the first part. He used his creative wits and unorthodox approach to make an impact on the society. As is said in the chapter of Sommer, this approach most likely would not work in all cultures, but it does show what an honest and genuine approach combined with creativity could accomplish.

To end this entry appropriately, please watch the following video!



By Karel


Doris Sommer. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 2014. Chapter 1

Andreas Dalsgaard. Cities on Speed: Bogota Change. NHK. 2009


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