Originally published with Art21 Magazine (PBS) on July 16, 2012
Joe Louis Fist Statue.
A good novel is a mix of triumphs and tragedies. A simple narrative does not captivate people. Who would care if the novel’s hero comes in during the first couple of pages, saves the day, and then everyone lives happily ever after? People want heroes to fall again and again, and only then save the day.
Detroit’s story is a mix of triumphs and tragedies. Detroit as a community has fallen again and again. But it keeps getting back up.
It is difficult to get a picture of Detroit through headlines. The simple narrative of a once-great city that is now abandoned caters to our tendency toward Schadenfreude (a great German word for people that take pleasure in the misfortune of others). The simple narrative of a city that is being saved by the arts and artists caters to our tendency toward blind optimism. The stories that cater to these uncomplicated views of human behavior are perfect for blog posts, but not for an honest assessment of a community.
The stark contrasts between optimistic stories and pessimistic stories often follow the stark contrast in our rational and emotional natures. The pessimistic stories look at the visible material side of Detroit, the empty buildings, the municipal balance sheet, the failed and bailed-out companies, the old black-and-white photos of crowded streets. The optimistic stories often grab on to our emotional nature. That part of our nature that values art even though it does not feed us or shelter us. We value art and artists because art inspires us.
With Detroit, the optimistic stories focus on individuals. They focus on humanist ideals that inspire people individually and in groups to cause real and permanent change through their actions. So for my guest blogging stint, I will explore the people and institutions that look past empty buildings towards meaningful exchanges of ideas. These posts will explore what makes Detroit’s art scene thrive in the face of economic troubles. I will explore where Detroit is today, and the ideas for it to have a sustained growth through the arts.
Detroit matters because people matter. Our society is at its best when our emotional sides open up and we allow ourselves to be inspired. The people of Detroit are inspirational. Detroit is a complex novel that will pick you up and throw you down, but in the end it will tilt your perspective and inspire you with the capacity of others and yourself to change places and things.
Banksy piece at 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios.