“New Orleans is the only city that loves you back.”– Michael Domenici, DJ and program host on WWOZ New Orleans, Louisiana
While I was away slurping oysters and listening to the best music in the world in New Orleans, Chicago was hatching a new “cultural plan.” There were four town hall-like meetings to plot out the trajectory of our cultural future. A Canadian company of creatives has it all figured out, because what we rubes really want is a creative culture just like. . .Toronto.
Oh, joy. Now I’ll be able to sleep at night. The Canadians and the Department of Tourism are all over it. They are on it like white on Richie Daley. What once was the Department of Cultural Affairs in the city of Chicago is now tucked up the ass of the Department of Tourism. Welcome to East Bumfuck! Evidently, a tiny little burg like Chicago doesn’t rate an autonomous Department of Cultural Affairs.
Now there are damn few things about which I would tell the City of Chicago to emulate the City of New Orleans in cultural practice, but a few years ago, the cultural revitalization of New Orleans–post Katrina–began in earnest. And you know what? With a few bold strokes, it worked. Which is not to say everything is hunky-dory in the Crescent City. There is plenty that is still woefully fucked -up, but their cultural cachet, their profile in the arts, has come boldly forward and is still on the rise. There are more artists, writers, musicians and poets than there have ever been. And they keep coming.
There are a few reasons for this. While it is getting more expensive, New Orleans is still a bargain as far as rents go. Their art scene is growing since the success of Prospect 1, the New Orleans Biennial. Three years after Katrina hit the gulf coast with about thirty times the force of the atom bomb, New York curator, Dan Cameron opened Prospect 1. Unlike other biennials in the world, there was no centralized “pavilion.” The whole city of New Orleans was used. From the Lower Ninth Ward to St. Bernard, Jefferson, St. Roq, the Foubourg Marigny, East Lakeview, Gentilly, to the Bywater, every part of the city was included and it was a brilliant strategy. Cameron knew that anyone covering New Orleans’ first biennial would have to traverse the whole city and take measure of New Orleans while it recovered from disaster, dispossession and furious loss. They would also see a culture of no surrender and fierce pride. In short, by taking measure of the city and its art in its totality, even the most callous of critics would be seduced by the charming knot of contradictions that New Orleans is.
The reviews were ecstatic. The New York Times, The New Yorker, the art rags fairly glowed with positive notices. Imagine if Chicago tried this? There is yet another art fair coming here in September. This, in the wake of the Merchandise Mart franchise, “Art Chicago” going tits-up by their explanation of their own volition.
This may seem a bit churlish, but I am sick to fucking death of art fairs or “art trade shows,” is more like it. They are a for-shit atmosphere in which to look at art. The art itself is robbed of its definition; crammed together like velvet paintings in a Tijuana whorehouse. I take that back. Tijuana whorehouses are far more tasteful than most art fairs.
Worst of all, it is high school with money; mostly a lot of wealthy hand jobs deciding, by edict and platinum card, what “art” is. The art fair-logic is that dollar bills and brain cells are the same thing. You don’t believe me? Take a walk around Miami Beach in early December when the art world clown car empties out and pitches its tent in South Beach. Welcome to the land of spray-on tans, Botox boutiques and cut-rate tit-jobs. And oh, there’s art.
It’s prom night for the assholes. Artists get to stand around and get patted on the head by de’ rich folk. In this setting, we’re the help. We may as well be wearing white gloves and passing out hors’ dourves or parking the cars. Does this sound like culture to you?
What if Chicago tried something like a Biennial? What if it used the whole city to do so, with as many neighborhoods as possible boasting a different kind of art station? What if we tied it in with an exhibition of the greatest architectural exhibition on the planet (which is what our city IS)? In fact, let’s throw in some celebrations of the finest theater in this country. I imagine Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, Red Orchid, American Blues and too many other fine companies to mention are more than up to this task.
While were at it, we might want to flex those musical muscles as well. Pound for pound, our symphony smokes everyone else’s. We also have some other great music as well. Imagine a night of Wilco, Robbie Fulks, Kelly Hogan, Buddy Guy, The Waco Brothers. . .
If you’re going to celebrate a city’s art, celebrate ALL of it. Put the whole town on display and you know what? You find out that art is a much bigger pursuit and its practitioners cast much longer shadows than what can be housed on Navy Pier.
It’s like the man said all of those years ago. “Make no small plans.”
Something happened to me while I was in New Orleans three years ago. I began to realize what art meant to a place. Especially a place that had endured the privation and horror of something like Katrina. My friends down there were making work furiously; writing songs, writing poems, making paintings, drawings, sculptures, often of whatever they could lay hands on because money was scarce and a good many of the art supply stores just never reopened. It didn’t matter–they found a way, and art found a way.
One woman I knew just went around making bottle-trees, meaning she found small glass bottles and affixed them to the branches of the trees–sometimes as many as 200 bottles on one tree–and when the breeze goes through them, they sound like chimes.
She told me, “I only make them because the sound they make is beautiful. . .and the beauty will lift us above the sadness.”
It is a small thing and there were a thousand small, beautiful things done by hand, paint, and song to remind New Orleans of its essential and luminous place in our country and world. The first day that the streetcar ran again, I was in New Orleans. I rode it Uptown while thinking that the longest streetcar line in the world was once in Chicago, on Western Avenue. A few blocks after Robert E. Lee Circle, I see a three-legged dog, a typical New Orleans mutt of no discernible breed. He’s wearing Mardi Gras beads around his neck, and I laugh my ass off.
This is what one cannot kill in New Orleans–the joy.