Thomas Frank has been making the rounds. Not only has he assumed Lapham’s editor’s chair at Harper’s and re-ignited The Baffler, he lately published a characteristic diatribe that wickedly skewers how the term “vibrancy” is used by non-profit funders, civic boosters, and artists as a façade for economic stability. Don’t get me wrong, I love poking holes in the great veil of NPR smugness that blankets urban liberal culture, I love hating the superfluities of starchitecture, and nothing makes my schadenfreude pique more than a dig at Richard Florida’s “creative class.” But frankly, when you start picking on struggling urban artists, I lose my culture of cool.
In his essay, Frank argues that vibrancy has become another empty overused buzzword. And of course, he’s half right. “Vibrant” joins a long list of empty planning jargon that includes “vitality,” “sustainabiltiy,” “best practices,” and (my doggerel champion) “stakeholder.” Gertrude Stein demonstrated long ago any word repeated enough times reduces to noise, and vibrancy is no exception. The world itself seems specially dumbing — vibrant, vibrant, vibrant — the dull notes of ‘v’ and ‘b’ thudding on the ears like a rubber drainplug.
And Frank’s correct that urban economic planning is particularly prone to snake oil. As Phil Hartman’s salesman explains in the Simpson’s Monorail episode, “a town with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel; no one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it.” Cities across America are littered with stadia, casinos, abandoned downtown malls, forlorn skyways, and haggard aquariums. Frank’s critique of urban boondoggles mirrors Michael Moore’s hilarious documentation of Autoworld’s six-month flop in Roger & Me, which (needless to say) failed to bring vibrancy to Flint, Michigan. There’s no doubt that city officials are prone to easy folly.
I also agree with Frank that public art isn’t going to change the structure of the global economy. It isn’t even going to come close. It’s like asking a fish to change the flow of a river. (Remember: only 19th century Chicago can do that.) Midwestern cities like Frank’s Missouri foils are stuck in a economic current that extends back for over a century. St Louis’ economic influence peaked in 1850, and no number of Gateway Arches or contemporary art museums are going to undo decades of neoliberal economic policy.
But there’s a difference between economic and artistic vibrancy. Lately in the Twin Cities, I’ve been struck by the emerging collaboration between the arts community and people engaged in urban design. Artists have a great deal to offer struggling Midwestern cities, far more than simple clichés about gentrification. For example, right now in the Twin Cities there are two different initiatives applying “tactical urbanism” to empty storefronts and shop windows, getting “eyes on the street” through window art, pop-up shops, and temporary installations. Minneapolis just hosted a wildly popular all-night public art festival that brought thousands of people out of their living rooms and into city parks and commercial neighborhoods. St Paul’s (literally) groundbreaking sidewalk poetry may not save the economy, but it will make it slightly more pleasant to walk to the corner store and buy local. To say that you are an artist is to say that you are engaging in precisely in the kind of “durable productive enterprise” that Frank champions.
Public art is such a powerful tool for community engagement precisely because it takes artistic practice away from gaudy starchitect museums and out into aging urban neighborhoods. Too long our cities have been turning its back on public spaces, neglecting the sidewalks that cultivate Jane Jacobs’ twin champions, density and diversity. Having a “vibrant arts community” doesn’t mean that factories are going to magically open up in cities that de-industrialized long ago, but it might mean that the city becomes more of a place where artists can make a living, more likely a place that people want to appreciate and make into a home. I’d venture to say that Frank isn’t fed up with vibrant art so much as with bad art.
In a way, vibrancy is people. Just as Jacobs seminal essay, “Cities Are For People” was an attempt to re-focus the attention of planners away from megaprojects and toward everyday people using city streets, the turn to “vibrancy” focuses our gaze on the hearts of the cities that Frank wants to save. Having a vibrant city may be a cloying cliché, but it’s aimed at luring people toward the shops of main street, into city parks, and onto the sidewalks. The fear that public arts funding may not spur large-scale industrial redevelopment is beside the point. Public art aims at re-focusing existing economic activity away from isolating strip malls and back into the hearts of our streets and towns.
Will Missouri ever be considered cool? Not if you ask a New Yorker. There’s a big difference between Manhattan, Kanasas and Manhattan, Manhattan, and Jefferson City will never look hip when viewed from 5th Avenue. Maybe we should be ask instead, what’s the worth of a “vibrant arts community”? That will be found on main streets across the country. Blindly following Frank’s suggestion of spending money on “highways and bridges” is far more likely to incentivize Ponzi development and bix-box sprawl than resurrect the Middle West. Instead, we need to re-value what we already have. We need to spend our ever-diminshing resources on fixing up, maintaining, and re-investing in the abandoned towns, cities, and main streets. Who is going to do that without artists?
If the arts aren’t going to save the Midwest, then I fear that nothing is. Frank’s list of political poultices is laudable – universal health care, fair trade policies, ending corporate agriculture – but even paving our streets with back issues of The Baffler would be unlikely to move us toward those goals. If Frank doesn’t think that art can be political, he’s been going to the wrong galleries. Sure there’s a lot of meaningless public art plopped onto pedestals and plazas, but there are also a great many artists making vibrant political connections. I’d bet that the seeds of change that Frank desires will sprout not from a literary garden, but from well-heeled street corner. And, yes, it will be vibrant.