A guest post by Kevin Buist, an artist, curator and critic and the exhibitions director of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A version of this piece originally appeared on his blog.
The theme for this year’s Creative Time Summit, held at NYU last week, was Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st Century City. The two-day conference featured keynotes, panels, short films, and on-stage interviews. With any event like this, there’s an odd paradox: a feeling of information overload, on the one hand, and a persistent sense that the presentations are too short, on the other. There’s never quite enough of the interesting stuff but, at the same time, there’s too much of everything to fully process.
Another feature of a forum like this is that the speakers use a shared shorthand for some pretty complex concepts. Partly, they do so out of necessity, due to short time slots, but those taken-for-granted references can also feel lazy. It’s a way of playing to the crowd, if you know your listeners are likely sympathetic to a certain idea or line of reasoning, and it’s easy to lean on those assumptions too heavily without bothering to justify them.
One of these shorthand terms stood out to me at the Creative Time Summit: a number of speakers referred to “capital” as if it were some diabolical, autonomous force. “Capital wants this,” “capital destroys that.” “We must resist the influence of capital,” and on and on. (Neil Brenner’s keynote is a good example of what I’m talking about.) This is a pretty typical way of speaking in left-leaning communities of socially-engaged artists, and I don’t normally have a problem with it. I was well aware of the political positions and goals of many of these projects, and of Creative Time as a whole, well before I decided to attend the conference. I get it. And I (usually) agree with what these projects are trying to achieve. But something about the way the word “capital” was used again and again by speakers at the Summit — with such an ominous tone — bugged me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.
One of the highlights of the conference, for me, was seeing the on-stage conversation between Creative Time’s chief curator Nato Thompson and Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses. Project Row Houses is a community art initiative in Houston that has combined artist residencies and affordable housing for 20 years. Their conversation was frank, funny, and provocative in all the right ways. One line that has stuck with me came up when Lowe was speaking critically about creative placemaking, the umbrella term that seems to have usurped the older and less sexy lexicon of “community art.”
He said, “It’s easy to go to the place. It’s harder to go to the people.”
This same sentiment was echoed later, in Lucy Lippard’s keynote, where she made the point that “place” as a concept has been cheapened. If you want to do a project that engages place in a meaningful way, she said, it requires more than just loving the place. Meaningful engagement requires immersion. I take this to mean that it’s only when you’re immersed in a community that you begin to truly understand a place, that real engagement must be mediated through genuine relationships with the people who make a place what it is. It’s an idea I find both inspiring and challenging. For those of us working to cultivate new ways for art to occupy cities, Lowe and Lippard are giving a reminder that this is difficult, complicated stuff we’re aiming to do.
I think this idea also taps into a much deeper truth, one that goes way beyond issues of creative placemaking and social art projects. The warning implicit here is that people are always more important and complex than ideas. We can have wonderful ideas, but if the implementation isn’t responsive to people, even lofty objectives probably won’t amount to much.
Then it dawned on me, why the tendency to speak about “capital” as some community-destroying bogeyman has been bothering me so much. That shorthand for moneyed interests effectively replaces a complex constituency of people with a simple idea. Characterizing “capital” as a unified force glosses over the fact that businesses are run by actual people. And the people who run businesses have diverse, nuanced, and sometimes conflicting motivations — just like artists, activists, and everyone else. Some businesses really are predatory and awful, but others genuinely want to make their communities a better place. And there are plenty who fall somewhere in between.
To echo Rick Lowe’s statement, it’s easy to demonize businesses. It’s harder to demonize the people who run them.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m speaking in defense of bank CEOs, brutish condo developers, and architects of the subprime lending crisis. I’m not. What I’m against is the tendency to lump bad actors together with honest, hardworking people who run commercial ventures. This more nuanced approach to talking about how money works in our arts communities is not just a semantic exercise. If we’re serious about the goals presented throughout the Creative Time Summit — creating places that are just, equitable, and inclusive — we’ll do a much better job if we work alongside businesspeople who share common interests than if we demonize everyone who’s trying to make money.
Kevin Buist has exhibited artwork in solo and group exhibitions in New York City and Grand Rapids, and has been featured in numerous print and online publications including the Art:21 blog, where he was a blogger-in-residence, as well as Solace Magazine, Art Hack, and SpoutBlog. At ArtPrize, Buist oversees exhibitions and cultural programming. He programs a world-class speaker series that coincides with the event, that has included lively and provocative lectures by John Waters, Jerry Saltz, and Theaster Gates, among others. He also directs the ArtPrize juried awards, including the selection of jurors.