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Sharpening Blunt Instruments

Dear Readers: I’d love to see you at my upcoming book launches in New York at 6 pm on Thursday, 23 May and Berkeley at 2 pm on Sunday, 2 June.

 

 

What comes to mind when I write that someone has used words as blunt instruments? Insults or arguments maybe, the kind of hate-speech that pushes you away? But today I’m thinking of something slightly different: phrases and concepts that come pre-embedded with coded meanings that are seldom questioned. Recently, I’ve seen a bunch of them deployed in ways that block insight and progress. Let me offer a few examples.

“Artists equate to gentrification.” Like other blunt rhetorical instruments, this one contains a half-truth. There are many examples of artists moving into hard-pressed neighborhoods in search of cheap rent and disused commercial space; fast-forward a few years and galleries and performance spaces have filled out storefront vacancies, bars and restaurants have multiplied, and trendsetters with spending capacity are scouring the vacancies left by local families who can longer afford to live there.

The accusation gets thrown at artists and organizations contemplating a move into one of these neighborhoods. The typical response is either slinking off in shame or adopting a kind of willful blindness and forging ahead. But are those the only choices: move in and push others out or move on?

This is yet another manifestation of a familiar tendency in this country’s political discourse, the repeated conversion of public issues to private troubles (to borrow a concept of C. Wright Mills that I love). That way they can more easily be hidden, dismissed, and ignored. The real issues have to do with policy and planning, economic inequality, and a market-driven culture that privileges profit over people.

It’s just not as simple as the equation of artists and gentrification wants to make it. No urban neighborhood is static: go back a generation or three and the complexion, class character, and fabric of just about any block will bring surprises. Some neighborhoods rise, some fall, but they all change. People don’t live in a museum: anything you might do to freeze the fluidity natural to urban life is likely to lead to stagnation. After all, some of the ingredients of what we callgentrification can be positive: more amenities, safer streets, more economic opportunity. The big downside of gentrification is displacement. People get priced out of their own neighborhoods; they feel uncomfortable or unwelcome on streets that once felt familiar. Change was desired, but when it comes, someone else reaps the benefits while those who are displaced pay the price.

Often, I see people accepting the sleight-of-hand that converts this social mess to a question of private choice. Artists or organizations move in, knowing they may be part of the common pattern that ends in forced resettlement (for the artists too, when rents rise far beyond the affordable rates that enticed them in the first place). They don’t talk about it too much. Maybe they try to be friendly, even offering their gifts to the neighborhood in some way. But no one really believes that a sustaining neighborliness will prevail.

Instead it feels like a slow-motion accident: you can see the days coming when a cup of coffee costs $5 and swarms of fit, fashionable young adults line up for the privilege of buying it. After all, when issues are reduced to a toggle-switch—move in and be an evil gentrifier or stay away altogether—there’s not much incentive to deeper scrutiny.

The antidote? Unpack the concept of gentrification, converting a blunt instrument to a sharp tool for understanding. Ask harder questions: what can artists and arts organizations do to resist being used by speculators whose aim is to profit from displacement? How can they engage with their neighbors in understanding the forces at work and devising ways to have an impact on the neighborhood’s future, vitality and prosperity that aren’t driven by displacement? How can they build relationships that invite collaboration rather than defaulting to mistrust? How can the discoveries made in their own neighborhood work their way back up the policy pipeline to affect the actions—the regulations, programs, funding pools—taken in other neighborhoods?

“Ethnicity equates to cultural integration.” I was in a meeting where someone bemoaned the pervasive failure to value culture’s power. People don’t yet get the transformative force of image, music, drama and other art forms, this person said. They don’t yet get what’s to be gained from bringing artists with their gifts of innovation, improvisation, resourcefulness, and imagination to the table when important public issues are at stake.

Someone said, “That’s not true for all communities; our community understands this.” Another rhetorical blunt instrument with a half-truth at its core. In general, the community life of people whose cultural value is under attack—immigrants, racial and sexual minorities and many others—is more lavishly threaded with artistic expressions. Songs and celebrations take on multiple meanings, carrying their traditional messages of commemoration, for instance, but also asserting the right to culture in unmistakeable cadences. Sometimes there are special roles for professional artists, and sometimes the invitation to make culture is open, equal, and universal. But either way, a truth pointed out in a 1996 UN Report continues to be true: The World Commission on Culture and Development wrote that, “people turn to culture as a means of self-definition and mobilization and assert their local cultural values. For the poorest among them, their own values are often the only thing that they can assert.”

The cultivation of traditional customs, festivals, and cultural practices is often more robust and determined in immigrant communities of all races than in comparable urban communities in the home country, where cultural identity and a sense of belonging are not so strongly contested. But that doesn’t translate to each and every person. In any community, regardless of ethnic identity or immigration status, numbers of people feel disconnected from the music, movement, stories, or imagery others associate with their ethnic category. Perhaps they’ve been drawn into the rootlessness fed by commercial culture. Recently a friend posted her astonishment on Facebook when an evidently Latino teenager passing her family in a public park said, “I hate people who speak Spanish.” He’s not the only one cut off from what might be of value in heritage, not the only one missing out on how it might be renewed today for the benefit of the living. Nor are most of the artists that I know in these communities any more likely to be invited by the powers-that-be to take meaningful part in making general social policy (as opposed to, say, providing entertainment at a political event).

It’s possible to make reasonable generalizations based on outward signifiers: I don’t know any white person who’s experienced a direct equivalent to being pulled over for “driving while black,” for instance, but I know many African Americans who have. But the type of disconnection expressed by that boy in the park is too widely distributed for many generalizations to stick to large, blunt ethnic categories such as “Asian,” Native American,” or “white.”

The antidote to any kind of essentialism is particularity. Unpack the blunt categories of race or ethnicity to make room for the truth that individual experiences and perceptions—including perceptions of culture itself—differ just as much within categories as between them. The emergent world holds a wide space for commonality and for huge particularity of difference; our understanding needs to be sharp enough to see that.

“We don’t have the metric for culture and social change.” This one drives me nuts. I’ve written many times (most recently in my new book, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future) on this challenge, which is something like a locked-room mystery: no exit if you accept the given parameters.

Philanthropy in general is risk-averse (which is kind of ironic for an enterprise which amounts to investing in what has not yet happened). Many funders now want extremely detailed accounts of proposed projects, including the prediction of specific outcomes should funding be received. The fear of looking foolish is pretty pervasive in this society, distorting our notion of success in many ways. But among the risk-averse, the metric-obsessed subgroup of philanthropists really has it bad: above all, they don’t want to be seen as betting on the wrong horse.

Naturally, many grant applicants take these requirements at face-value: what else are they to do? They search for ironclad indicators that will prove to funders that a socially engaged art project justifies investment. This snipe-hunt ignores major obstacles. Cultural change aggregates over time (just like any meaningful change), frustrating the desire for immediate results. What claims can provably be made for a one-year grant? In a complex situation with many coexisting factors, it’s nearly impossible to prove which ones have clear impact: not every correlation is a cause, not by a longshot. The more people try to find the metric, the clearer it becomes that it’s not actual proof being sought, but a sort of gentlemen’s agreement in which funder and grantee/applicant tacitly agree to treat some metric as plausible, even if its logic is holey as Swiss cheese.

The implicit assumption behind this blunt rhetorical instrument is that in other contexts, the metric exists and dependably delivers. Sometimes it does, although there’s always a tautology in measuring what can be measured. Still, if your metric is babies vaccinated or malaria cases reduced, what you measure actually says something about what you get (but not necessarily about the priority, ethics, or depth of your approach). But if your goal is to cultivate community, bridge social barriers, or enable self-expression, it’s not at all clear that the typically proferred metrics capture or convey value in any meaningful sense.

Under these circumstances—and to me, this is now the crux of the matter—the demand to produce the metric is akin to spinning straw into gold: an impossible and impossibly preoccupying task that provides plausible deniability for funders who didn’t really want to fund culture as a path to social change in the first place. The antidote? Unpack the metrics syndrome, bring the debate out into the open, and sharpen this blunt instrument into a tool for understanding a broken system which is now being further damaged by an obsession with the quantification of absolutely everything. Take inspiration from the most forward-looking investors in new ideas in technology, who understand the need to embrace risk and who know that the best investment is in people, not numbers.

I was moved by this subtle dance film, Well Contested Sites, a collaboration between a group of previously incarcerated men, performing artists, choreographer Amie Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord. The collaborators say, “several of the artists/performers have been incarcerated and it is by drawing on these men’s physical memories that Well Contested Sites connects audiences to the impact of incarceration. Not a blunt instrument.

John Trudell knows how to unpack blunt instruments. “Crazy Horse” from his album Bone Days.