Art, Money, and the Apocalypse: Lots of Questions, A Few Solutions

This post is part of the series, Future of the Field: Cross-Sector Creative Placemaking Series.

Part 1: Who Will Fund the Revolution?

Will it be the Ford Foundation? The National Endowment of the Arts? WIll it be the Austin Department of Arts and Culture? Will it be the Marguerite Casey Foundation? Who is actually going to put resources behind dismantling the structures of oppression that are so ingrained into the fabric of our existence, that even those who want liberation oftentimes can’t tell where their own thoughts end and the thoughts of the colonizers begin? Who is going to examine their own self-interest while risking their own self implosion?

Who is going to be motivated to dismantle capitalism? Who is going to create a financial and cultural infrastructure that will redistribute land to Indigenous people? Who is going to sponsor the (art?) project that liberates all prisoners from detention and gives immigrants the right to vote? Who is going to feed the people organizing to defund the fossil industry? Who is going to artfully provide bond for the water protectors arrested during protest? Who is going to give the microphone to the Amazon forest so we can hear her screams? Will it be you?

What will that look like? How will you move those resources? Will you donate $50 to someone’s cash ap? Will you say you don’t have the money? Will you say your hands are tied because all the money is already budgeted for the year? How many times will you say that? Will you say that when people in Ethiopia are dying of hunger because of economic collapse during a climate induced global pandemic (as they are now)? Will you say it when people in the neighborhood abutting yours are displaced by fires? Will you feel differently if you encounter one of these neighbors on the street panhandling? Would you feel differently if you found your neighbor dead? At what point would you say “I thought my hands were tied but now it is time to untie them.”? At what point will you think differently about the problem, instead of thinking about what you can’t do but knowing what you need to do?

Part 2: What is Art in the Apocalypse?

What is the artwork that is going to stop George Floyd from being killed? What is the artwork that undoes the horrors of Wounded Knee? What is the artwork that is going to breathe life back into the greyscale coral reefs?

More importantly what is the art that is in alignment with the future we want to all build and is going to help us all get there? How will we know it will help us get there? Because it helped us to pass a law? Because 240 people attended the opening? Because it checked off six of the seven values listed in how art can make change? Because it reached 200k shares within hours of its launch on TikTok? How will we know?

And will the people who made it have called it art? Was Rosa Parks taking a seat in the front of the bus a work of art? It was performative. It was socially engaged. It was gestural. It had a long-standing impact. But would Parks have called it art?

Would the people who painted serpents with spots down their back onto the desert caves of the Peruvian Andes call these depictions art? They were paintings. Cave paintings tell us some of the most important and fundamental things about our species. Are they art? Did the painters think of themselves as artists? Would they have had a portfolio? Which ones would have gotten funding? Who were the “best” cave painters? By what standards? Which cave painters would not have gotten funding? Are their paintings any less or more important to understanding humanity? Which is more important: art or the values, stories, and cosmovisions of our earliest ancestors? Is there a difference? Was there a difference then? Is there a difference now?

Was the Ghost Dance art? It was dance. Arguably the most important dance to have happened within the nation-state recognized as the United States. But was it art? Would it be art that was funded? What if you couldn’t record it, you couldn’t document it, you couldn’t speak about it. What if it was a sacred healing ceremony which could only be known through direct participation? Would it still be art? Would it make it through the grant applications for art calls that transform systems of racial inequity?

And more to the point, who even cares? What is the utility of the framing of art? There is a limited number of calories that I can burn in a day. There is a limit to my energetic output. So, if I am trying to convince you that something is art, that is energy that I am not spending making the work. Why is that a fight that I should worry about?

The doomsday clock is the closest it has been to midnight since its inception. What art is relevant when we are 100 seconds away from the end of all humanity? Will it be enough to make an artwork that gestures to welcoming immigrants at the border? When will that be enough? When it welcomes six immigrants? When it integrates those six immigrants into the workforce over a period of five years? When it feeds lunch to 300 immigrants for one day after 10,000 people were displaced from their town due to climate induced flooding?

What makes a better work of art in the apocalypse: A work of art that feeds people or a work of art that is painted about feeding people? If it is the former, why not just make a project to feed people? What elements does a project that feeds people need in order to be classified as a work of art and not strictly social service? If it is the latter, what should be the style of that painting?

Part 3: What We Need

Creative Placemaking is a problem-solving field that looks at the utility of art. The sector is founded on the idea of making a case for art, showing why it is useful, and then how it can be applied. The findings of the creative placemaking research are important because they put language to some of the intangibles of art, some of its more ethereal qualities in a way that helps other sectors to understand its value. The reader, however, should not overly depend on this tool, because it runs the danger of oversimplifying arts impact and then becoming a space for instrumentalization or justification in omission.

Arts and culture most certainly do all the things that are outlined in this research. That is important. But is art the best tool for making issues compelling? There are many ways to make issues compelling. You can scare people, you can make up lies, you can pit people against one another, etcetera. Art is not necessarily the best tool to make COVID-19 vaccines compelling, so I hesitate to place too much emphasis into an analysis of this sort. I don’t know if it is actually making the case for why capitalism should pay for art.

The fact of the matter is that art, and creative placemaking, are products of capitalism and I don’t know if we can ever make a compelling case for meaningful art within a capitalist logic. Art is never going to be the best tool to build the cheapest low-income housing units in a rapidly flooding region. There are ways to solve that problem that may involve artful thinking, but hiring a person who is traditionally trained as an artist is not going to be the most cost-effective solution. And ultimately, that is the sort of problem that creative placemaking, the field of arts and our entire existence is up against. It is going to cost more of your time to fight the lobbyists who want to prevent your local electric company from using renewables. If we think about our own personal economies - how we spend our time and money - the vast majority of the time, the most just solutions are not going to pay out in our lifetime, so we need a different logic. Otherwise, everything is just going to be too little, too late: $2.5 million dollars for 15 Latinx artists over five years will not do anything to structurally change the most pressing socio-political problems of our time. Our challenges require a vast epistemological restructuring of how we consider culture and capital.

Part 4: Restructuring Culture and Capital

Right now, we need everyone to be an artist and we need all artists to be innovators for the work of collective liberation. The field needs to re-evaluate:

  1. How it accesses the aesthetics of artwork
  2. How it accesses the impact of artwork
  3. What research is done and why
  4. How to liberate the maximum amount of money to the maximum amount of people doing liberatory work, whether that work goes by art, organizing or another name

In the last five years I have seen an increased trend in research in the arts. This is distinct from Arts Based Research. It is also distinct from Indigenous (and culturally holistic research) research. Research in the arts means people trained in western, colonial values are translating art impact to other people who think through Western Colonial lenses of value and meaning-making. In other words, people who are not artists are justifying its existence to other non-artists. Anthropologist Barbra Tedlock speaks to this type of social science problem in her book Time and the Mayan Highland. She notes that in order to truly understand and represent the field she was trying to describe, she had to learn to practice it. Tedlock could not understand Timekeeping without becoming a Timekeeper.

Similarly, many musical ethnographers are required by their work to learn the instruments of the cultures they study because you simply cannot understand the instrument nor the implications of playing it without embodying the practice.

I consider these wisdoms as our work has been researched by various people with PhDs, but not by another artist nor by another Indigenous person. This disparity does not indicate a lack of interest from artists or Indigenous people, it indicates a lack of understanding from large institutions to diversify epistemologies as valued ways of knowing. Said another way, large institutions are placing emphasis in translating art into the colonial thought systems of the empirical institutions that many artists are trying to disrupt. These institutions are trying to prove that art has meaning within the systems of meaning making that they have created.

If we are indeed to disrupt the structure of culture making in a meaningful way, it will require the institutions themselves to fundamentally reconsider how they make meaning. That would mean developing audits to determine “Can your institution actually live up to the values of liberation or is it better to dissolve/exit it?” This question is incredibly difficult to consider because it requires an honest look at the structures that determine decision making. Will you always have a board that is contrary to the values of liberation? Will your president always be more concerned with grant report metrics than intangible community impacts?

The future will also require new innovation at the hyperlocal level, meaning that city managers, baristas, and sophomores in high school will all need to think of themselves as disruptors and agents of change. Each of us has access to a particular audience and a special scope of power. Funding arts, innovation, and the future of justice does not need to fall solely in the hands of foundations. Put aside $200 so that you can stage a bake sale commenting on the hyper-cultivation of corn and the international lobby of the sugar industry. Build a costume out of corn husks on the weekend and turn the experience into an expressive dance. Interview your neighbors on their thoughts on corn, and then research how Indigenous cultures throughout the world have been relation to corn. Then make a TikTok video, and start a series of workshops on sustainable agriculture.

Give $50 a month to a local tribal entity to support their language and ceremony programs. Organize a neighborhood reparations program that supports Black and Indigenous women and queer people. Activate your own power and agency. Ask yourself what more can you be doing to support liberation? We can’t wait for the rest of the studies to prove that art does things. We can’t wait for the XYZ foundation to fund the revolution. Look at the person to your right and the person to your left and ask what the three of you can do together, right now.