Posted by <Erik Simkins> on 2021-04-12
Audio is available for this blog entry.
After a year of enduring various quarantine measures, forest fires, and national elections, my sense of reality is overstimulated. Throughout, various moralizing strategies have sought to animate my body in the fight against long-standing systemic issues. Indiscriminate calls for “white” “bodies” “to the front”.
Art production is an activity I use to unfurl the complexities of principled opposition to blind-faith behavior. Creativity, which I believe in many way precludes art, brings with it a spectrum of sloppy cringe-cope on one end and wistful over-hypedulgence on the other. My aim is to successfully balance these two; a place where art hides from the clutches of influencers. The same balance is one I seek to square with my relationship to protest or compulsive agitprop.
An absence of exhibition invitations, skepticism of social media, and shrill crowdfunding have compelled me to embrace new forms of organizing. During this transition, I’m focusing on expanding the scope of artistic practice so a wider segment of people can feel its ameliorative effects. As such, I’ve fallen into a webforum of extremely-online, politically-minded artists; we share the sensations I’ve described and feel they’re not only not unique, but also represent a heightened potential to mobilize class consciousness.
I’ve been a resident in Seattle for ten years. So my perspective is firmly rooted in the norms here. Our city is naturally sequestered by a national border, an ocean, and mountains. Not to mention all the odd intersections of land and water in Seattle (if you haven’t looked or been, google it). This geography makes increasing population density an expensive, politically charged mess. These conditions necessarily reflect our social arena, which is described as peculiar by those who’ve relocated from elsewhere. Despite a relative ignorance of other urban arts cultures, I agree.
Criticism more explicit than what I’ve offered comes with an implicit burden to design, produce, and scale an alternative for it to be dutifully considered as a legitimate grievance. Until then, social organizing around that criticism, however common it may be, is seen as threatening behavior.
Accommodating this paranoia as a precondition for expression weakens every argument’s motivation and imagination. So, few people care to engage with the process. Is this true everywhere, or just here?
That said, I will now be more explicit. Seattle arts culture is described with various undesirable traits: cold, petty, and arrogant. These assessments are mostly correct.
Artists (generally) are concentrated in the lowest two quintiles of income, and Washington is encumbered by the most regressive tax structure in the nation (ranked 50/50 for its burden on lowest-income residents). Our state also nears the bottom for civic arts funding per capita (ranked 45/50). Seattle’s art communities are a response to these conditions: connecting people with shared resources like housing and work. As such, artist communities resemble anarchistic mutual aid networks more than creative hubs. So, they also reflect rigid class strata as well. For lower-income workers, their aspirations may not appear aligned with lofty creative goals. It’s more about persistence. So yes, artists in Seattle are cold. It’s a reflection of their environment.
Negative public perception of art reinforces a lack of political will to alleviate makers’ conditions. It’s fueled by the contradiction between the time artists spend producing with “attention earned” by viewers.
As you know, for anyone to viscerally resonate with any given artwork is unlikely. Finding something that really strikes a chord, so to speak, is rare. Some people are driven mad by this; they come across art and all they see is waste. They struggle, wildly, to identify with artists at all. Compounded with impatience, these non-artists dish brash opinions over whether an artist’s life is worthy. Their artworks are meaningless (given their near-zero value in a marketplace), so only deficient people would choose to participate in unprofitable behavior; their struggle is self-imposed. This mindset shows in the callous critiques in support of policy which excludes artists from monetary-social support.
For some people, art is a tool of survival; finding it gives them life, but not a way to earn their living. They’re forced to either ignore the non-artists’ scorn, bend to its will, cease making, or make it a hobby. So yes, artists in Seattle are petty. It’s a reflection of these ignorant critics.
I’m curious how this period of COVID-quarantine incubation will affect the arts. The immediate effect has been disastrous, of course. Venues, a place of refuge, have been brutalized; many of their workers have been forced to relocate. Performers are being shed to make way for new skin. There are less of us to carry our project forward. Will gaps be filled by drop-shipped tech employees with cash to burn on drop-shipped hobbies? It’s impossible to know, but I’ll try to voice the undertones of our present moment for you to weigh against. A laborer of soft maintenance.