BIG CITY

20 05 2011

I’m from the Pacific Northwest, and I can definitely see how my view of the world—nay, the country—is affected by the specific vantage point from which I view it.  I think of pretty much anything East of the Rocky Mountains as “The East Coast,” and by “The East Coast,” I mean New York.  Added to that, I think of anything that is East of the Rockies and South of, I don’t know, Nebraska, as “The South.”  People tell me that Missouri and Kansas are The Midwest, but in my head that can’t be right.  It’s an erroneous view, to be sure, but its not necessarily a unique one.  I think most people have generalizations in their minds about regions of the country they are not entirely familiar with.

See? It's not just me. And this guy's from New York.

People in the US also have peculiarities concerning attitudes about their own cities.  I am currently visiting a friend in Chicago.  The people I’ve met in Chicago thus far have a pretty high opinion of where they live.  They think it’s pretty great.  Similarly, people from New York think New York is awesome—that it’s really the only city worth living in.  Portland, Oregon continues to grow in stature among the poets and artists I know.  I asked Portland’s slam master why he thought so many poets from other cities are moving to his town.  His response:  “Because it’s fucking PORTLAND!”

This is not the attitude most have concerning cities I’ve lived in.  At any given moment, you can find a rash of Boiseans with a strong desire to get out of town.  It’s not just young people.  It’s old women, it’s married couples in their late thirties, it’s young professionals, it’s many (many, many, many) artists and musicians.  The feeling among these municipal malcontents is that small cities like Boise or Spokane or Reno don’t have the cultural offerings of the larger cities—that the larger cities are more desirable because the people in them are more open to new experiences, more exciting, more liberal politically, etc.  They complain that “there’s nothing to do” in Boise, “There’s nothing to eat here.  There aren’t any good plays here.  People aren’t funny here.  Everyone here is beige.”  To them, Boise is a backwater town in the scrublands.  It’s nothing compared to the bright lights of Seattle or Portland or Chicago.

Perhaps there is a larger quantity of cultural offerings in larger cities.  There are more people.  More people are going to come together to do more things; to make more artworks; to start more restaurants.  But is more better?  With so many people, with so many art galleries, with so many stores, how easy is it to get lost in the wash?  How quickly does an artist or poet fade into the background noise of the swarm of the city the way the traffic noise does on Broadway or Michigan Avenue?  People in Chicago may not all be beige, but among two and a half million people it’s still difficult for one person to stand out.

And here, one can make arguments for quality in larger cities.  Because there are so many people making and doing so many things, it is hard to stand out.  Those that want to be exceptional must work that much harder and make work that is that much better to stand out above the din of mediocrity.  It’s easy for an artist to gain notoriety in Boise, because there are relatively few artists in Boise.  In New York, work is measured against that of tens of thousands all vying for the same space of attention in the eyes of the public.

But this argument doesn’t hold up, because quality is only part of the equation of fame.  “It’s not what you do, it’s who you know,” as the saying goes.  And, to gain fame in any environment, that “who you know” needs strong connections to money.  Matthew Barney spent time in Boise in high school, but made it big in New York and the worldwide art scene.  Of course, it helped that he had family ties to galleries in New York and ties to sources of funding for his artistic and cinematic undertakings.  Using high-speed HD cameras, Hollywood-quality makeup artists, the entire crew of a Japanese whaling vessel and dating Björk is great Avant-Garde cinema.  But if you can only afford a 3-chip mini-DV camera that you check out from the local public access station and a second-hand light kit, well, that’s YouTube.

This guy was also once a J. Crew model. (This is not a J. Crew ad, though.)

Connections are no less important for artists in smaller cities than they are for artists in large ones.  The audiences are smaller, but they are easier to find and easier (not to mention cheaper) connect with.  But because the audience is smaller, the work does not receive the same historicization that we’ve come to expect as legitimation for truly great art.  Artwork is “great” when it is in a history book, when it is presented in a survey class, when it is cited as “something you should look at” in a university art critique.  The height of Dada only lasted about six years and was pretty localized in terms of where the work was actually exhibited.  But, with the help of the canon that legitimized it, it is immensely influential.  What if Dada had been led by artists in Salina, Kansas instead of Zurich?  What if the artists didn’t know famous artists in New York and Paris?  What if Dada never made it to the canon?  Would that diminish the quality of the work?  The work has less of an impact, yes, but are we measuring quality by the size of the impact?

The question boils down to this:  what is the purpose of art?  If we re-assign art’s purpose from broad impact to a more singular impact, the legitimation provided by the canon disappears.  Legitimation is completely left to the individual viewer—the mediation provided by the apparatus of the canon (gallery shows lead to sales lead to high prices at auction lead to high-society collectors lead to donations to museums lead to entries in the new edition of The History of Art) is no longer necessary.  But the legitimation, like the impact, is no longer broad or long-lasting.  It is singular and momentary; it is ephemeral.

Ephemeral impact doesn’t need the infrastructure of historical legitimation.  If we abandon this idea, the frame of “art” isn’t as important in talking about what we make as artists.  What we do doesn’t require the physical infrastructure and population of a large city.  It’s less about being an artifact to be cataloged and more a conversation between an artist and a viewer.  That can take place anywhere—in Chicago, in Boise, in a gallery, on a playground, on a canvas, or in your mind.

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