Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!


Phoenix's picture



Play in the City 028

Sunday, September 08, 2013


            The subject of this photograph is a picture titled Spiderman, by Sigmar Polke, which can be found at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, New York. It cannot truly be called a painting, because it is composed of “cut-and-pasted painted papers on canvas” (MOMA). However, I will refer to it as such to more clearly distinguish it from my photograph.

            Spiderman’s title character is a seemingly emblematic feature of New York. Like many superheroes, Spider-Man fights evil in a big city, but unlike DC Comics characters Batman and Superman, he baldly claims his city to be one of our own. On the same trip on which I took this photograph, I passed a street performer dressed as the famous webslinger. On another, I watched the Broadway production Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. My habit is to buy a T-shirt to commemorate every place I visit, and for my New York memento, I bought one of the shirts available for purchase in the lobby of the theater.

            Turn Off the Dark is not the only Broadway show I have watched while on vacation, and even less so is it the only play. As theatre aficionados, my family has developed a habit of visiting a city and watching a production. On our most recent trip to New York, we watched Phantom of the Opera. In San Francisco, Wicked. London, Much Ado About Nothing; Stratford-on-Avon in Ontario, Titus Andronicus. Even one of our last trips to Washington, D.C., the closest city to our hometown, was for the purpose of watching a commedia dell’Arte piece titled A Servant of Two Masters.

            This theatre habit strikes me as ironic, since Lewis Mumford in his essay “What Is a City?” compares the entity of the city itself to a theatre production. There is nothing, he points out, done in a city that is not also done in the country. What, then, is the draw? The drama, says Mumford: “The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culminations” (2).

            Of course, we do not always have enough time in a city to watch a play. We spent less than a day in Montreal and Toronto each. But we always embrace our tourism and take a tour of the city, usually by bus. And often, we visit some form of museum. They were science museums when I was little, natural history museums and aquariums. More recently, after taking a course in European art, we began to visit art museums to find our favorite paintings. In this way, we ended up at the MOMA and discovered Spider-Man on the wall.

            Tourism, then, is the legacy left to me by cities. Could it be any other way? Although I live near D.C., I am not native to any city. Cities, in my experience, do not embrace non-natives. They tolerate us, even rely on us, as good for business, but we are an intrusion to be resented. The people of a city are not known to be open, caring people, nor, argues Georg Simmel, are they able to be. The constant change that city life induces in every way, by forcing so many humans and their resources, such as highways and stores, into close proximity, initiates in the mind a kind of defense that forces city residents to be essentially intellectual people rather than emotional (11-12). Indeed, says Simmel, “[t]here is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook” (14). The sheer number of people every city resident comes into contact with on a daily basis limits the amount of energy he or she can expend on any of them. They must limit themselves to the small group of close acquaintances which was the birth of every kind of movement, and therefore is not incompetent socialization, only basic (15).

            A city, to me, represents a chance to see a new piece of theatre, while a city perhaps acts out a play in its very streets by sheer mass of people. Then that same mass of people forces the inhabitants to close themselves off and leave me wandering, alone, with only touristic activities to occupy me, since they cannot afford to invite me in. A city sounds like a fascinating and terrifying place to live. Perhaps it’s a bit like what Spider-Man would feel while leaping off of a building, hoping his webbing will catch him.


Works Cited

Mumford, Lewis. “What Is a City?” Architectural Record (1937) n.d. Web. 8 Sept. 2013.

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” n.d. Web. 8 Sept. 2013.

Museum of Modern Art, The. “Spiderman.” MOMA, 2013. Web. 8 Sept. 2013.