December 05, 2012
Consider Akron, Ohio, which was recently the subject of a conference bearing the thrilling name “Greater Akron: This Is What Vibrant Looks Like.” Or Boise, Idaho, whose citizens, according to the city’s Department of Arts and History, are “fortunate to live in a vibrant community in which creativity flourishes in every season.” Or Cincinnati, which is the home of a nonprofit called “Go Vibrant” as well as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which hands out “Cultural Vibrancy” grants, guided by the knowledge that “Cultural Vibrancy is vital to a thriving community.”Thomas Frank in The Baffler.
Is Rockford, Illinois, vibrant? Oh my god yes: according to a local news outlet, the city’s “Mayor’s Arts Award nominees make Rockford vibrant.” The Quad Cities? Check: As their tourism website explains, the four hamlets are “a vibrant community of cities sharing the Mississippi River in both Iowa and Illinois.” Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Need you even ask? Pittsburgh is a sort of Athens of the vibrant; a city where dance parties and rock concerts enjoy the vigorous boosting of an outfit called “Vibrant Pittsburgh”; a place that draws young people from across the nation to frolic in its “numerous hip and vibrant neighborhoods,” according to a blog maintained by a consortium of Pittsburgh business organizations.
The federal programs of the thirties produced “art for the millions” and aimed to improve both cities and rural settlements, to make them more livable for everyone. Today, however, we have a different audience in mind. Vibrancy is a sort of performance that artists or musicians are expected to put on, either directly or indirectly, for the corporate class. These are the ones we aim to reassure of our city’s vibrancy, so that they never choose to move their millions (of dollars) to some more vibrant burg. An artist who keeps to herself, who works in her room all day, who wears unremarkable clothes and goes without tattoos— by definition she brings almost nothing to this project, adds little to the economic prospects of a given area. She inspires no one. She offers no lessons in creativity. She is not vibrant, not remunerative, not investment-grade.
Vibrancy theory reveres the artist, but it also insults those who would take artistic production seriously. Think of the purblind art that this philosophy would guarantee us, were we to take it to heart and follow its directions to the letter. The public art of the thirties was often heavy-handed, close to propaganda even, but it was also critical of capitalist institutions and intensely concerned with the lives of ordinary people. The vibrant, on the other hand, would separate the artist from such boring souls. The creative ones are to be ghettoized in a “scene” which it is their job to make “vibrant,” thereby pumping up real estate prices and inspiring creative-class onlookers. But what of the people no one is interested in attracting and retaining? Millions of Americans go through their lives in places that aren’t vibrant, in areas that don’t have a “scene,” in jobs that aren’t rewarding, in industries that aren’t creative; and their experiences are, almost by definition, off limits for artistic contemplation.