Art Criticism / Art History

On Art as Experience: “Saving” a City


This weekend is the run-time for the second coming of the Newburgh Illuminated Festival. A city-wide gathering of art, music, retrieved and lived history, and a co-mingling of different people on different cross-roads. It’s part of a move to recapture the history, the culture and context of Newburgh, the city that in the until the 1960s was the Jewel off the Hudson River, the Jewel of the Hudson Valley. In 1884 it was the 2nd city electrified and illuminated by Thomas Edison. Lucy and Desi started off their careers at the Ritz Theater in Newburgh. In the 1950s Newburgh was tagged the America’s Most Beautiful City.

For bringing the Illuminated Festival to light and life, I have to thank the wonderful people in Newburgh who have anchored the city in a kind of exploration that has now mapped art and life through this festival. So, I thank Michael Gabor, Gerardo Castro, Virginia Walsh and all those many others who have spent their time making your immediate world in the city more art-centric, richer, more embedded in practices that structure every rich art-based notion you’ve ever had.

But a lot of the conversation around the Illuminated Festival has turned on “saving” the city through the arts-in particular through the visual arts. I have a problem with that. The way this “saving” is supposed to go down is a bit murky and, to me, entirely nebulous, if not downright cynical.  This is a conversation you’ll hear between professionals and planners, typically those in leadership within formal institutions in the city. I’ve never heard this sort of conversation among the people I’ve named: Michael Gabor, Gerry Castro and Virginia Walsh understand the issues at stake; they are not the planners and shakers who’re hell-bent on redeveloping Shakin’ Street.

This is how “art savin’ a city” works: The arts are supposed to save a city by developing a rich cultural scene that either plays off, or turns on its head, the cultural heritage of the city. Artists create this renewed conversation/heritage, other more settled artists follow, and then service sector capos like doctors and lawyers follow and restaurants start popping up and so do pop galleries and all this yields to a rich property buying spree; city coffers get full-up from tax receipts and middle class people start doing well in a thriving cultural capital.  This is the premise of cultural revitalization programs.  (Never printed in the propositional account of those programs: Artists who headed the movement move on from the city that they revitalized ’cause it’s too damn expensive for them to rent or buy there. Artists: used and often abused.)

In this sense saving a city, if that’s the course applied, is no different than gentrifying a city through other means– say, banking and other models of vulture capitalism.

Instead, let me propose a more modest model of how art can “change” life in a city. Here, I’ve got in mind John Dewey’s brilliant account of art as experience, entitled Art as Experience. At the crux of his account, Dewey lays down the concept of “impulsion”. It’s the account that through certain contexts, certain constraints, and certain means and methods, artists make objects that function in ways that enmeshes and elevates audiences for a given time. Dewey’s account is intra-mondiale; it does not pertain to cause and effect of the world; it is a point of departure IN the world. (The great distinction between being of the world and being IN the world.)  Dewey calls all that an “experience”.

Now, take that account, one that turns on the new and recursive and, maybe the bold and disruptive, and allow that it might shake you out of your ordinary view. Well, what of that? What is the consequence of that? Potentially, nothing! At best, it might start up in you a view to starting up other things in new ways. Eating healthier, being a better friend, etc, etc. This is all to the good. But, in no way is there a direct relationship between cause and consequence, art and city saving. This is because there is no way to map individual preferences and/or accounts into a socially meaningful ordering of those accounts. The mediating variable between art and life is you as the one who had a certain kind of experience. Everything turns on you.

So, the way in which art saves anything at all is that it does so person to person who experiences the views renewed by art in the Deweyan account of the whole shebang.  Allow this is to be the means by which art transforms the world and then you allow that you can have meaningful experiences as art in the world any time you choose. You needn’t be involved in a festival. You needn’t market a city; you needn’t pay your way out of this function or that. You simply need to have an artful, arted, view of the world.

The rest of it, the real estate lot of it is simply a manufactured correlation that has nothing to do with art. Well, perhaps, with gullible artists who get enraptured in the ruin porn of broke down cities, downloaded for them by (real) estate agents. And that’s the road you’d take if you wanted a two-tiered city of the well-off haves (artists and their patrons and partners) and have nots (everyone else who until the artists came on board got along in fits and starts).

What Will Save Newburgh? A rich and varied life where people in the city can go about their business with dignity, in commerce and cooperation with everyone else. So, yes, we need more art galleries, like Ann Street Gallery, more successful businesses like Newburgh Art Supply–the only art supply store in Newburgh; artists can go in and be feted by the broad and deep knowledge in art and materiality fostered there by owners and artists Michael Gabor and Gerardo Castro. We need more restos like “Martha” a new bistro, just opened to the public. David and John, artists and owners, are all about organic food, amazingly well-made and priced modestly for a modestly weighted wallet. Let everyone chime in and go about their world without pricing anyone else out. Let businesses and other ventures invite the locals in the city before nigh-entire Brooklyn moves in and prices ’em the hell out. Let politics play out good policy; let’s insist on that. Let’s go about our lives in Newburgh taking in the weird/wonderful panoply of experiences there and look out over the Hudson River views and note that Beacon was so-named in supporting relation to Newburgh.

2 thoughts on “On Art as Experience: “Saving” a City

  1. Exactly! You captured my thoughts in your words, and with your style of eloquence made my points for me, perhaps as well I could have, perhaps better at times. “And as an afterthought, this too must be told: Some people have taken pure bullshit and turned it into gold.” Neil Young wrote that- and as to the ‘saving’ Newburgh slogan, mantra, mission I say its spot on!

    In one aspect- the blaring contrast of ethnic division- there are people in power here, who, despite what they emphatically assert in public, want this city to be what it once was – a small, urban paradise for middle class ‘white’ folks. They are not racists per se, for they do happily accept your brown-skinned university graduated ilk in neckties, khakis, and blazers, etc etc – but they see the majority of our dark skinned brothers and sisters who choose to walk a different path (in fashion sense and in social linguistic usage) as less than and as harboring the crime element. Thus, these middle class white folks with titles and heritage based entitlement bullshit think this city needs to be saved from their others: these new waves of immigrants and interlopers – that have only come here as once did the ancestors of those same middle class white folks. How conveniently they forget the old Irish and Italian hoodlums that ran dangerous rackets here. Newburgh does not need to be saved, at least not by middle class white folks.. For it was middle and upper class white folks who corrupted its government and destroyed its social fabric in the first place with their greed (factories move out for cheaper labor elsewhere, large homes are chopped up into apartments, the impoverished are welcomed with unopen arms- all creating ghettoization.) “Woopsy Daisy!!” to quote the Bill the Butcher character from Gangs of New York as he stands a perfect personification of the anti-them sentiment I described.

    Getting to your point about art with more acute focus, again I to refer to my main man, Neil Young who said, “I think that the time when music could change the world is past. I think it would be very naive to think that in this day and age. I think the world today is a different place, and that it’s time for science and physics and spirituality to make a difference in this world and to try to save the planet.” I get what he meant. Applying it here: music is an art, so art as a changing force in Newburgh is bullshit that people are spinning into gold.

    On one level, we have seen (or maybe not) horrid gentrification failures in the very places where the recent deluge of wretched articles claim we must look for inspiration, models and saviors- Beacon and Brooklyn. Sure Beacon’s narrow, navigable by pedestrian tourist traffic Main Street is happening, but it has the the train station and Dia, and its flat. But once we venture a couple blocks away from it, the facade disappears. If Brooklyn is so great, why would people want to move here from there? If it’s bad, why would we want what happened there to happen here?
    And if we are to look to an NYC borough for transplanted residents, etc, let us look to Manhattan instead. Let’s get folks who are being priced out of that place up here, people who will buy the abandoned factories and create a sustainable full time, manufacturing employment based community here. That is the Newburgh of old we need to resurrect: the place that proudly made the textiles which Manhattan shoppers and Brooklynites bought, that place which JP Morgan paid Edison to electrify because it was vital to NYC commerce. Newburgh needs to be a place of blue collar workers who live and eat where we work, earning the pay that buys our food and pays our bills. We will respect this place and care for it to a much higher degree if our livelihood depends on its cleanliness and safety. We will not allow the drug gangs that we now allow to operate here. At the current status quo, the gangs do not threaten our way to a better life, so we join them where and when we can- our children join them because they have no better alternative. If we effect change so that our kids do have better alternatives in their view, see how quickly they gangs will go away.

    On another level, as you said, art only has a certain functionality, set within a parameter of subjectivity. While the Lightbulb Project is a success, while many, myself included laud it and love it, it is not going to save or even change Newburgh unless its inspirational purpose is transformed into grassroots ethnic division healing actions based on scientific methodologies, academic research IN the REAL world, and successful paradigm shifts realized through basic common sense and step-by-step hard work. And that is what Mr. Young meant. We can play all the music we want, dance all we want, sing, paint, sculpt, photograph, inspire, workshop, teach, etc until we are blue in the face. Unless those artful experiences fuel tangible, pragmatic machinations beyond themselves, unless they create a sustainable real time actionable energy of thoughts-words-deeds that warrants the building of actual armature here, art and its self-fulfilling glory is a damned waste of our time.
    We can claim we are Newburgh and that we are illuminated every day and night, but that claim is hollow without us actually being the Newburgh we wish to see. Being that better Newburgh means releasing the ego based fears of reportedly bad neighborhoods, releasing the all too common self-righteous indignation against the reality of our multifaceted purpose driven lives, and then releasing the self-serving agendas of look at me, hear me roar individualism masked in a guise of Barnes and Noble self-help section based community service flirtations that even the best of us employ to get through other people’s doors of perception skepticism. Being that better Newburgh means deeply understanding the children who live and play here so we can work with them to help them discover their realistic positive progressive destiny. And above all, being that better Newburgh means thinking, feeling and living this phrase coined by the band U2: No ‘Them’

    • Jeysis, Richie! That’s a helluva response!! I’d like to invite you to come join and write about Newburgh in my other more collaborative blog: It’s a thing I’ve set up with my friends, colleagues and collaborators, Nai and Chris–Nai’s writing about his views on Glasgow; Chris on Chicago. I’m doing my thaing on Newburgh, though I thaink I’ll extend that to the broader Hudson Valley. But I’d love to have you come join. And, Michael Gabor, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s