New Orleans is the only city that loves you back.
While I was away slurping oysters and listening to the best music in the world in New Orleans, Chicago was hatching a new cultural plan. There were four town-hall-like meetings to plot out the trajectory of our cultural future. A Canadian company of creatives has it all figured out -- because what we rubes really want is a creative culture just like . . . Toronto.
Oh joy. Now I'll be able to sleep at night. The Canadians and the Department of Tourism are all over it. They are on it, like white on Richie Daley. What once was the Department of Cultural Affairs in the city of Chicago is now tucked up the ass of the Department of Tourism. Welcome to East Bum-Fuck!
Evidently, a tiny little burg like Chicago doesn't rate an autonomous Department of Cultural Affairs. Now, there are damn few things about which I would tell the city of Chicago to emulate the city of New Orleans in cultural practice, but a few years ago, the cultural revitalization of New Orleans -- post-Katrina -- began in earnest. And you know what? With a few bold strokes, it worked.
Which is not to say everything is hunky-dory in the Crescent City. There is plenty that is still woefully fucked up, but its cultural cachet -- its profile in the arts -- has come boldly forward and is still on the rise. There are more artists, writers, musicians and poets than there have ever been, and they keep coming.
There are a few reasons for this. First of all, while the city is definitely getting more expensive, it is still a bargain as far as rents go. New Orleans’ art scene has been on the rise since the success of Prospect:1, the New Orleans Biennial, which New York curator Dan Cameron opened three years after Katrina hit the gulf coast with about 30 times the force of the atom bomb.
Unlike other biennials in the world, Prospect:1 had no centralized “Pavilion.” Instead, the whole city of New Orleans was used. From the Lower Ninth Ward to St. Bernard, Jefferson, Faubourg Marigny, East Lakeview and Gentilly to the Bywater, every neighborhood was included, and it was a brilliant strategy. Cameron knew that anyone covering New Orleans' first biennial would have to traverse the whole city, and take measure of New Orleans while it recovered from disaster, dispossession and furious loss. They would also see a culture of no surrender and fierce pride.
In short, by taking measure of the city and its art, in its totality, even the most callous of critics would be seduced by the charming knot of contradictions that New Orleans is. Indeed, the reviews were ecstatic; the New York Times, the New Yorker and all the art rags fairly glowed with positive notices.
Now, imagine if Chicago tried this. There is yet another art fair coming here in September, even in the wake of the Merchandise Mart franchise Art Chicago going tits-up -- according to the company’s explanation, of its own volition. Boo-hoo. This may seem a bit churlish, but I am sick to fucking death of art fairs -- or art “trade shows,” is more like it.
Art fairs are a for-shit atmosphere to look at art in. The art itself is robbed of its definition, crammed together like velvet paintings in a Tijuana whorehouse. Wait, I take that back. Tijuana whorehouses are far more tasteful than most art fairs. Worst of all, an art fair is high school with money -- mostly a lot of wealthy hand-jobs deciding, by edict and Platinum Card, what “art” is.
The art fair logic is that dollar bills and brain cells are the same thing. You don't believe me? Take a walk around Miami Beach in early December, when the art-world clown car empties out and pitches its tent in South Beach. Welcome to the land of spray-on tans, Botox boutiques and cut-rate tit jobs -- and, oh, there's art, too.
It's prom night for the assholes. Artists get to stand around and get patted on the head by the rich folk. In this setting, we're the help -- so we may as well be wearing white gloves and passing out hors d’oeuvres or parking the cars. Does this sound like culture to you?
What if Chicago tried something like a biennial? What if it used the whole city to do so? As many neighborhoods as possible boasting a different kind of art station. What if we tied it in with an exhibition of the greatest architecture on the planet (which is what our city is)? In fact, lets throw in some celebrations of the finest theater in this country, too! I imagine that Steppenwolf, Lookinglass, Red Orchid, American Blues and too many other fine companies to mention are more than up to this task.
While we’re at it, we might want to flex those musical muscles as well. Pound for pound, our symphony smokes everyone else's, and we have some other great music too. Imagine a night of Wilco, Robbie Fulks, Kelly Hogan, Buddy Guy, The Waco Brothers. . . and if you're going to celebrate a city's art, celebrate all of it! Put the whole town on display, and you know what? You’d find out that “art” is a much bigger pursuit, and its practitioners cast much longer shadows than what can be housed on Navy Pier.
It's like the man said all of those years ago: Make no small plans.
Something happened to me while I was in New Orleans three years ago. I began to realize what art means to a place. Especially a place that had endured the deprivation and horror of something like Katrina. My friends down there were making work furiously, writing songs, writing poems, making paintings, drawings, sculptures -- often out of whatever they could lay hands on because money was scarce and a good many of the art supply stores just never reopened. It didn't matter. They found a way, and art found a way.
One woman I knew just went around making “bottle trees.” Meaning? She found small glass bottles and affixed them to the branches of the trees, sometimes as many as 200 bottles on one tree, and now when the breeze goes through them, they sound like chimes. She told me, "I only make them because the sound they make is beautiful, and the beauty will lift us above the sadness.”
It is a small thing. And there were a thousand small, beautiful things done by hand, paint and song to remind New Orleans of its essential and luminous place in our country and world.
The first day that the streetcar ran again, I was in New Orleans. I rode it uptown while thinking that the longest streetcar line in the world was once in Chicago, on Western Avenue. A few blocks after Robert E. Lee Circle, I saw a three-legged dog -- a typical New Orleans mutt of no discernible breed. He was wearing Mardi Gras beads around his neck, and I started to laugh my ass off.
This, after all, is what one cannot kill in New Orleans -- the joy.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.