Sunday, October 16, 2011

Art City in Name Only

To some this blog post might be a little too confrontational or controversial, especially if you are a resident of Asheville, like I am, and you hold on to some very unfounded ideas of what this city represents to artists, like I am, and you believe that that this city has carved itself a very nice and comfortable niche in the national artist community, which I wholeheartedly dispute. But since probably nobody pays attention or reads this blog anyway, I think that might as well justify my discontent with the situation present at this particular time, and that is the disconnect between the now almost mythological arts scene and the reality, which for the most of us is rather grim and not getting better.
Before I delve even deeper into this problem, let me qualify a few things in hopes that I might shed a light on what I am actually talking about in reference to “arts” and silence the possible criticism that may or may not be coming my way. By arts, I mean a subject and form of making and creating wholly separate from craft. Interestingly Ashevillians seem to disregard, or have forgotten that art and craft mean two totally different things. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same either. And as has been the norm and trend, the melding of art and craft has recently continued and effectively pushed real art toward the fringes. The emergence, or rather reemergence of decorative arts and rapid multiplication of design galleries in Asheville continues this trend to this day, more or less putting a knife into the wounds already perpetrated on the Asheville artist community. For those that have lived here long enough the situation seems eerily similar to what happened to the so called alternative community, which used to have its stronghold downtown on Lexington Avenue. Since the closing of Vincent’s Ear the gentrification of downtown became complete and the alternatives moved west, setting up shop downtown West Asheville and its neighborhoods. In the years that followed, even that downtown seems to be undergoing rapid change, possibly as unsustainable as the true downtown.
The river “arts” district fared no better. Once huge and affordable artist studios and alternative spaces, housing young and active emerging artists, gave way to weekend warrior landscape painters, encaustic and feel-good abstract hacks. Art with no ideas, no point or reference or content, but with lots of pseudo-emotion and “soul” took a high seat, partly because it could pay the ever rising rent, and displaced the original progressive thinking and challenging art coming from the young downtown bohemians. Conservatism seems to have found its place even in this artist community and continues to be propagated through a consortium of downtown gallery spaces.
To add insult to injury, a few months ago, the city attempted to ease some of the discontent that it started to perceive coming from the increasingly disenfranchised artist community by putting on a side show which they called the Creative Sector Summit. The name sounded great, but the truth was something far more insidious and telling of the situation on the streets. A friend of mine, who attended the summit, retold the experience in no uncertain terms. When he pressured some of the panelists on the issue of affordable studio space in Asheville he was told something to the effect of: “well, you’re creative people, I’m sure you can figure something out,” effectively kicking the can down the road and avoiding the challenge of a meaningful answer. The pattern of non-interest by those “at the top” mirrors in many ways that of the top 1% of Americans toward the bottom 99%. They have no problem taking from us what little we had, and when we ask for it back the response is a jaw-breaking yawn or downright hostility.
Many of us would probably like to gloss over this fact, but the sad truth is that in order to find challenging art, we have to go outside Asheville to get it. This would therefore be in keeping with another fact and that is that serious art magazines, publications and blogs do not cover our area, not for a lack of talent or sheer number of artists, but simply because the art on display here is utterly boring and categorical. And that is something that those at the top should really start thinking about. What does Atlanta have that Asheville does not? Or for that matter Charlotte? And how to implement those infrastructures they seem to posses? I was even more surprised that a cities like Knoxville , Greensboro, and Raleigh are more friendly to the young emerging artist than our supposedly hip town and give them more outlets and opportunities in forms of space and access to contemporary art. Ironically I left Raleigh in 2003 thinking I would get those here.
The problems seem widespread and maybe they are too far along for us to be able to affect any meaningful change. But maybe, just maybe I may be misreading the writing on the wall. Unfortunately I believe I’m right in reading the signs that Asheville hasn’t lived up to its name as an art city in which artists live and die by their swords. Most of them run away from battle, some choose to live a life of permanent destitution, or fold their weapons and join the ranks of the working class indentured servants or any combination thereof.