Saturday, September 19, 2009

community and art in America

Hi Everyone from Britta
(This is my post for the Goldbarb book, and a follow up from the call regarding the question Susan had about art in America.)
I have been silent here but processing so much after our last call! I was feeling very skeptical about the idea of "community" during our last call and raised the issue of whether the fact of a fully connected community was really possible. I also mentioned the alienated sense I have living where I do and in this type of "community" and wasn't sure if I liked it and could even call it a community. (I write this as I am sitting next to my window on the 4th floor looking down at rush-hour on 9th Avenue after the bars close in Midtown Manhattan! (FYI, I was not at the bars; I was asleep and am now awake for unknown reasons, perhaps just to write this...) For those of you who don't know, 9th Ave is a one-way street that is a main through street to get to the Lincoln Tunnel and to New Jersey and points West of NYC... I diverge...)

One thing I know about my process is that it is essential for me to speak and by doing so a transformation occurs. By my expressing my skepticism about the possibilities of community last call, I was actually able to highlight (in my own consciousness) the types of communities that I am involved in and that I am truly invested in, and therefore, going through my daily life I could encounter these community in a new way.

The communities of which I am a part are actually very real, very human, and possibly in need of artistic intervention. My communities include being a part of "the collective mommy"--this is my term for the community of mothers in and around my neighborhood. I coined it after my son was born 4 years ago and I was beginning to become part of the parenting and family aspect of my neighborhood. The Collective Mommy is everywhere! And, walking down the street, I know lots of parents and children, and so does my son.

I am also a member of our Community Garden. I have a sub-let this year after being on the waiting list for 7 years! This is a new level of engagement for me, though I have been going to the public section of the garden since I moved to this neighborhood.

I am a worker and a teacher and I teach Fashion Design and Sociology at an art school in downtown Manhattan. Now this is a for-profit corporation of an art school and I often have to remind myself that it is an art school and not just a "company." I have been there for 7 years and for the last 3 years I was the chapter leader of our teacher's union. When the economy was crashing last fall, we were in contract negotiations. There is much to say about this, but in brief, we didn't gain much and now we are working 20% more time for less pay. My workload is 5 classes each term; each class is 4 hours long; I teach 4 terms a year. I decided to become Chapter Leader three years ago because I felt I could make a difference, and I wanted to see some things change. I changed. I learned how institutions work and why things don't really change. But, I also got really close to a lot of people, which is what is great about community.

And now, Goddard. Thank you for Goddard. For my work, as I mentioned on the call, I am working on a memoir. Since last call, I have been able to process some intense family dynamics as one piece of the larger story. (again by speaking it, it got released and transformed. thank you.) But, what was also interesting was that I realized how I was not able to be *in* my own life because I was still holding on to another place and time, and people. So I am trying to make sense of it in a new way, both intellectually and creatively, leading me to take my work in a new direction as a result, which I am very excited about! more on this later.

In our last call, Susan asked about why art in America was so alienated and separated from the rest of society... or something like that, (please repeat the question if you remember it). Ju Pong answered that in part it was a result of the extreme emphasis on individuality in America. (Please forgive my paraphrasing). I used to teach a class called Art Worlds at NYU, where I did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Draper Program. In that class we traced the social relations of art in America. One of the books that was extremely interesting was a book by Neil Harris "The Artist in American Society: the formative years 1790-1860." In that book, Harris traces the development of art in America. Here is what I remember and can paraphrase now: Americans in general were rejecting the economic and social class structure of Europe. In Europe, art was/is revered and given high esteem, funded by monarchs in the past and governments in the present. In America, art was seen as a luxury. The Protestant Work Ethic (see Max Weber) in our subconscious and collective selves defines our lives around a basic fact: "waste of time is the deadliest sin." The Puritans who established the first colonies were really into this idea and wanted to stamp out of the "spontaneous enjoyment of life" instead channeling it all into a "calling" and making a profit/putting it back into good works/saving it, because, according to this belief system in a nutshell, this was the primary way to get to heaven.

(If you have never read Weber, it is difficult reading but well worth it. There is a nice excerpt in Andersen, Margaret; Kim Logio, and Howard Taylor. 2005. Understanding Society)

So if you see my point, the American relationship to art and artist is complicated. If art was "useful" then it could be accepted more easily. And, because of the dominant American habit of not wanting to acknowledge and really address differences in social/economic class divisions, but rather lay blame with the individual for his/her lot in life, then the wealthy are in a double-bind (as well as the rest of us) because they are supposed to work really hard, but never enjoy life, and certainly never ever show their wealth. Some people of course, being Americans, rebel against this, but then we get dichotomous dynamics where no one is at ease with themselves, people are not living right-sized, and no one is really taken care of, and this is in the extreme and general sense of the society. (Though, yes, there are many many individuals and individual moments and families, and even communities, where people do care and are balanced. But it needs to be said, that this Protestant Work Ethic still informs and colors much of our collective consciousness. Look at the Obamas: Their personal stories are all about hard work, personal responsibility, denial of self, and meritocracy. The American Dream!)

Oh there is so much more to say. But, I hope you can see the set of dynamics I have tried to illustrate here. Art is often seen as luxury or idleness. Meaning cannot be quantified and is therefore not valued as real, but real art is interested in making meaning. Art, if it is not seen as a commodity, is not seen as valuable by the dominant forces that be. Here is my new slogan: Make Meaning, Not Profit!

1 comment:

  1. "One thing I know about my process is that it is essential for me to speak and by doing so a transformation occurs."

    Brita I love this post and can really identify with your life as an urban artist mother teacher gardener...etc.

    Yes, I too, belong to several "groups". I think your comment about your needing a voice is essential to the understanding of why so many people often feel like "outsiders" in our culture: the lack of being able to speak, AND the lack of anyone on the other end to listen and to care. I am reminded of Martin Buber and his writings on the: "I and the Thou".

    It is a frightening aspect of our modern lives, especially here in NYC, that the voice of the individual can get so easily ignored.

    Thus the accompanying ability of the individual to have a meaningful human 'transformation' becomes null. Individuals become frightened and disenfranchised very easily this way.

    Then, the essentially anonymous corporate culture swoops in to fill our void, reminding us of how we can all feel better immediately if we jut acknowledge our NEED TO BUY BUY BUY SOMETHING (!)something to ease our pain. It can feel as though a trip to American Apparel is "fulfilling" and even "transforming" when, in fact, it is merely a drain on the wallet and soul.

    I am not an anthropologist so I do so much appreciate your wisdom and knowledge in this regard. Art is really an all-encompassing discipline after all, no?

    I wonder if all of our individual voices could be heard, and if we could access and experience our much needed human transformations, that the sales at Dunkin Donuts and Wallmart would not DECREASE? Does corporate America have a stake in the silencing of the individual voice? What does anthropology tell us about this if anything? triada

    Finally, it is quite obvious (to me) that having an art experience especially in one's community of choice, could be a powerful antidote to this void, would it not? And wouldn't it also cause mass human transformation if enough people participated?
    :) triada