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.