Culture Wars, Ruin Porn, and Re-enchantment

Culture Wars, Ruin Porn, and Re-enchantment

I was sitting at a picnic table in Sam’s Club the other day waiting for my boyfriend. I love going with him to Sam’s Club; everything you ever dreamed of in bulk quantities fit for a giant’s pantry at low prices, and lots of free samples too. It draws an interesting crowd, Sam’s Club. College students, blue collar families, old ladies in big-shouldered couture. It appeals to almost everybody. And everybody sits, shoulder to shoulder at the ridiculously petite red and white plastic picnic tables, eating pizza and sundaes, catching a breather from the gauntlet beyond the check out lanes. Sam’s Club is surely evil for many reasons, taking business from small retailers, squashing culture. I expected to find a lot of rants about that online, and strangely found nothing. Sam’s Club was founded in Midwest City, Oklahoma. It’s mid-western down to the bone. Being there fills me with pleasure, the kind of solid pleasure that bulk product stokes in the heart of every American. The world where I study and make art and the world happening at Sam’s Club seem to me to be different planets. It made me think about the culture wars, and the unworkable, unresolvable distance that seems to stand between us and a position of real relevance to our countrymen who don’t make art. But then, when Dennis Barrie, the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center in 1989, was arrested and indicted on obscenity charges for exhibiting an NEA funded Mapplethorpe retrospective, it was a jury of the people who acquitted him. Unlike their political and religious leaders, the jury was able to grasp Mapplethorpe’s work enough to understand that it is not pornography. That it was like pornography, but finer; a beautiful dream of pornography.

I attended a panel discussion during Art X Detroit last month, “Art of the Commons: A Discussion About Contemporary Art in Detroit.” Led by the learned and astute Vince Carducci, the panel consisted of a group of young artists who are using different tools to ostensibly bring art to the people, and I say ostensibly because I came away uncertain as to what their true intentions are, or what the outcome of their efforts will be. The focus of “Art of the Commons” was civic art, work that explores the space between public and private, and ideally creates a sense of community in so doing. The work of Design 99, represented at the discussion by Mitch Cope is certainly civic, and admirably so, though it may not be art. Aside from their work in interior design providing good services to people in all income brackets (their price for an in-store consultation is Ninety-nine cents a minute) they have a bunch of projects going in some of Detroit’s most blighted neighborhoods. We were shown slides of “The Powerhouse,” a fixer upper bought by Design 99 and redone to be powered entirely “off the grid” with solar panels and wind turbines. It’s accessorized by a little vehicle painted in cheery pastel stripes to match the house and called “The Neighborhood Machine.” Another community art project offered by Design 99 to the citizens of Brightmoor is “The Talking Fence,” a regular chain-link number equipped with a microphone into which residents are encouraged to tell their stories. Design 99 threw a barbeque for the neighborhood to expand upon this theme, of which many pictures were shown. Cope explained that folks were encouraged to share their stories there too, but the tone of the whole thing was brought down because not many people had positive stories to tell. Likewise, an indoor hockey game in an abandoned building set up by panelist Scott Hocking was ruined by the discovery of a dead body on the premises. These are telling reminders of the chasm that lies between the commons and the young intellectuals trying to bring art to them; we see beauty in the ugliness of this Rustbelt landscape we have grown up viewing as picturesque and grand in its distance. The people who have lived their lives up to their asses in it (and as much a part of it, to outsider’s eyes, as the shattered glass and rusted car hulks) view it in a less whimsical light.

People like me who grew up in Detroit in relative comfort in decent neighborhoods gazed, awestruck, at these modern ruins and waste-strewn wild places while scooting safely past them in our parent’s cars. Our experience of the city is different; our fierce love for it is contingent on us not having to live in its worst parts. I believe that very strongly. That’s a mis-communication that, in the re-infiltration of artists and young professionals into urban Detroit with the conscious intent of resurrecting it, must be navigated carefully.

That’s why I wasn’t quite convinced by Scott Hocking’s defense of his urban art works, many of which are beautiful and need no defense. Hocking is sort of an Andy Goldsworthy of urban decay, setting up fragile structures in abandoned factories and photographing them. For his piece “Ziggurat,” he used loose bricks found in the old Packard Plant to build a massive, stepped pyramid that stands mute and majestic in that cavernous, silent space. His descriptions of growing up in Detroit, of seeing a rare, ruinous beauty in the crumbling landscape, and spending his life sculpting and glorifying that beauty resonated with me, and made me squirm. Then I heard the term “ruin porn” for the first time and understood why I ‘d been squirming. An audience member accused Hocking of dealing in same, pointing out that the aesthetic that is making Detroit and the Rustbelt famous is the very detritus of economic and cultural ruin that has poisoned our city for generations. The poor people who live with these ruins are disadvantaged by them, and we artists come in and play with what essentially are the tools of their torture, attempting to weave magic into them. From that angle, it’s a pretty reprehensible thing to do. And yet- Detroit is beautiful. It’s a lush jungle, a battered blue collar temple, and an outlaw’s paradise. There’s a largeness, a freedom that prevails here; the good with the bad. Ruins seem to be both our main draw and our most abundant resource. Why not use them to reflect our experience? Then again, maybe Design 99 has the right idea, and the best thing to do is board up and tear down the old places and make new, better ones.

In his intro to the panel discussion, Vince Carducci spoke of the “re-enchantment” of Detroit through the efforts of Design 99, Scott Hocking, Detroit Soup, and others. I feel what he’s talking about, but I’m not sure things such as urban decay and the chaos and violence underneath deserve to be re-enchanted. I’ve often heard it said that art doesn’t change the world, it only changes itself, disrupting society in small ways. The young folks of Design 99 are attempting to change the world through art, to make it relevant in the day to day of people’s lives. Artists like Scott Hocking and Tyree Guyton are determined to make the world understand Detroit’s merit as a dark, but wonderful place with it’s own unique culture. I wonder; is there any historical precedent for this? A community of creative people united in making art to save a city? Can art change the world? If it can, Detroit is the place for it. After all, all we’ve got now  is our talent- and our ruins.

- Clara DeGalan