The Afterlife: Art for Art’s Sake in the Experience Economy

Sometime in the last decade I was standing in the newly refurbished Rose Garden, tellingly, now, the Moda Center, no longer a name associated with location, but with a corporation. Dwarfed by a panoramic expanse of windows overlooking the Willamette River and downtown across it, our then mayor, Vera Katz, was flanked by kids from the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls, and various officials and business reps. I listened as she extolled the virtues of Richard Florida and expounded on the future of our city. Portland, she adamantly declared, would be driven by the creativity of artists and the worlds they create. And, withstanding any of my dislike for the policies of Vera Katz at the time, one had to figure that to some degree she would know. As the wife of Mel Katz, who, in 1971, was one of the founders of the radically artist-centric Portland Center for Visual Arts, Vera was well aware of what artists could pull together with hard work, creative engagement, communitarian spirit, and little else.  

At the moment when Vera took the stage Portland had yet to become the far western borderlands of Brooklyn. And, while even then highly critiqueable, her prediction seemed rosey and democratically optimistic. But what she didn’t work into her equation as she envisioned our shared future was that it was not 1971 and the world, the economy, and the political landscape as experienced at the grassroots, was startlingly different and would get drastically – devastatingly – different still. Likely with all good intention, the rallying cry from the mayor was that Portland, a town nearly infested with artists, was to thrive on the energy of a creative economy.

And here, some ten years later, depending on your vantage point, all of Vera’s predictions for Portland, Oregon have become a shiny reality. Her vision was accurate, but the outcomes of that vision have lead to a loss of political vitality and its capacity for agitation, a free market drive for growth at all costs, the decimation of the cultural history of the historically black center of the city and its people, and the exodus of thousands of artists from Portland who did not tow the party line of “creatives” following the directives of municipal and business interests. When I moved to Portland rent was so low that jobs were tactically irrelevant. You’d pick up a shift here and there, maybe head to the blood bank, or, if you were really adventurous, spend your summer working the canneries up in Alaska so that you could live richly down south throughout the rest of the year. For a long time I was a safety watcher for a radio tower repair company. That meant reading books hundreds of feet below the workers and calling my boss (who was also my landlord) if anyone happened to fall to their death. Now artists either work for one of countless advertising firms or, in a last ditch attempt sell their blood to pay for the bus ride out of town.

Let’s take a moment to consider the word “creatives” at the expense of other names for artists and their varying skills, such as weirdoes, freaks, or losers. My educated guess is that a creative is someone who doesn’t question their role within hierarchy and allows their skills to move them up a pre-existing ladder for the security of their own interest, oft-times at the expense of others. From my experience, to be a creative, as opposed to an artist, is to dissolve oneself of the core role of the latter. What are the effects of turning a verb into a noun? The process of taking action, energy, and friction out of something and retrofitting it into a stagnant object? A creative, as a designation, is the outcome of a process of control, and its role is to illustrate a space wherein control, or to be less piquant, a fast food like consistency, is the desired outcome. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to create space for questioning, a landscape wherein control is lost to the benefit of presence within the moment and one’s proximity to a growing public. The role of the creative is to fulfill the tasks set to them by others, to answer – however guardedly or incorrectly or hesitantly – the problems within the complex landscape that they inhabit with the desired narrative given to them by their employers.

Today artists, by varying degrees, are more and more being given the task of embodying the social and experience economies that prop up the free market and illustrate wealth where it doesn’t yet exist and, likely, only will in the future for a lucky few. They are tasked with being the vanguard for developers and business interests, governments, and non-profit’s funded by all three, to advance into situations wherein the veil of “creativity” acts as sleight of hand, a temporary distraction while the heavy lifting is being played out behind the scenes. Artists are brought in to present the future of neighborhoods and to illustrate the agendas of politicians devoid of the problems that business interests and elected officials must engage day-in and day-out. What artists today are not asked to do is create more problems. And therein lies our failing, in that what artists do best is create more problems.

I wouldn’t disagree that this all sounds so achingly sinister, but really it isn’t. Simply, it’s people doing their jobs. Or, at least some people. I’d argue it’s the artists who are not. It’s the artists who are doing someone else’s work. Some other occupation yet to be considered. Or, possibly, were we to draw a hard and fast divide between the work of creatives and the work of artists we’d begin to realize what’s at play and where we stand. We, as artists, could make the informed choice of whether that’s the type of work we want to do.

If artists are going to be asked to be at the center of the messy work of development, economic growth, and the sociopolitical landscape we, as artists, need to agitate not simply for a paycheck, but to be paid to access our skills for creating space for questioning, for revealing and highlighting complexity, not simply paving it over. If there is a real and sincere drive for artists to be at the center of economic development and the grassroots political process – and I do think there is in many situations – then artists need to be engaged, not as problem solvers, but in the best, most process oriented democratic manner, as problem makers; enlisted as the weirdoes, freaks, and losers that we really are, the ones who recognize and understand, as Grace Lee Boggs so eloquently declares, that “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.” This desire for artistic engagement at the social level by business and government interests needs to come with, and not without, all the baggage of art: more questions, more confusion, more space and time for delving into the complexities of what brings us together and drives us apart as citizens. This is a kind of growth far afield from the likes of Milton Friedman or Alan Greenspan, miles away from Common Core, a means of expansion that grows out to include and not exclude, that grows out and not up. It is a growth that takes apart and unpacks the oft-times cataclysmic outcomes of seemingly banal words like “neighborhood” and “development” when uttered by those not willing to get vulnerable or self-reflexive. Those not willing to get hurt when confronting the pain of others, or willing to empathize vigorously enough wherein that pain is, however much possible, a shared experience.

If there is an authentic future for artists collaborating with foundations, governments, and businesses in association with the day-to-day of people’s lives, both artists and their funders need to accept and celebrate the fact that artists break bricks. Neighbors – which is artists too – make neighborhoods.


This essay is a part of a larger ‘social response’ to Hand-in-Glove 2015.
Please read the full response here.

Image of “Henry” courtesy of Red76.

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  1. Bill Roseberry

    YES. If we as artists or as artist communities cannot speak to our own political non relevance and lack of viability in the current social reality then we have no business representing the marginalization of others – or to speak to the issues of any local cultures for that matter.

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