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Guest Thinkers

How Do We See Cities?

Much of the history of the city can be written as a tension between the visible and the invisible. What and who gets seen? By whom? Who interprets the city’s meaning?

Rulers of cities have always had an interest in visibility, both in representing their power and in controlling people by seeing them. The earliest cities emerged out of the symbiosis of religion and political power, and the temple and the citadel gave early urbanism its most visible elements. In the great Sumerian town of Ur, the kings built a towering ziggurat to display their devotion to the city’s patron god. A ziggurat rose in Babylon, possibly the Babel of scripture, “a tower, whose top may reach to heaven,” as the Book of Genesis relates in a primordial warning to all overzealous civic boosters.


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Few American cultural institutions stared as deep into the yawning, austerity-driven abyss of large-scale deaccessioning as The Detroit Institute of Arts. When the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, vulturous creditors circled the DIA’s collection, estimated worth (depending on the estimator) of $400 million to over $800 million. Some experts see signs of a Detroit comeback, however, but one very visible sign is the new DIA exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, a showcase of the city’s ties to Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as a tribute to Kahlo’s and Rivera’s own artistic comebacks. Few exhibitions truly capture the spirit of a city at a critical moment in its history, but Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is a show of comebacks that will have you coming back for more.

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