Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Patterns of Our Future

As someone who lived through the 1960s as a teenager, I sense an eerie similarity between that tumultuous decade and the current state of affairs. History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes, and the times, as a famous folk balladeer put it, they are a'changin'.
The essence of the sixties lay in the crumbling of authority, the break-up of long-established patterns, from segregation in the South, to gender roles, to the conduct of war in Southeast Asia. Socio-political factors—i.e., human beings, individually and en masse, in the streets—seriously challenged the impersonal forces of technology, economics and bureaucracy. There was a lot of fear, a lot of hope. Not coincidently, the sixties were a period of unusually rich creative ferment in the arts.
Today, that rumble you hear in the background is the sound of idols crashing, from Washington to Wall Street. Despite the happy talk of the corporate consumer culture, the reassurances coming from the White House and the Fed—institutions are "sound," the problems are "contained"—the voices of authority sound increasingly shrill and, well, unbelievable. The levees have broken; old, established patterns are eroding; in the words of W. B. Yeats, "the center does not hold..."
Not surprisingly, we are also experiencing a resurgence of activity in the arts, both among the young and among the aging boomer generation who've gained a "second wind." The stimulus, I think, comes from the primordial, shamanic role of the artist as a pattern-recognizer and pattern-organizer. The construction of a poem, a dance, a song, a painting, a film, involves the organization of experience into a pattern that is emotionally meaningful and satisfying. The creation of beauty—for the artist it is really a moment of discovery—is a profound, multi-layered ordering of experience that rings true.
In the old days, when established patterns broke down—when, for example, game animals inexplicably disappeared from ancient migratory routes to follow some new, unknown pathway—hunting groups turned not to their political and military leaders for guidance, but to their shamans, who journeyed within themselves to discover the new patterns of survival. It didn't always work; no doubt some groups starved. But enough endured that successful shamans—good artists—conferred a selective advantage to their groups, which passed on the genetic impulse for art-making to modern humans.
Now, when professional arts advocates assert the value of the arts for education and the revitalization of our cities, they are really talking about a sort of selective advantage. The arts aren't frills or window-dressing, and the difference between communities that actively support creative artists and those that only pretend to, is like the difference between the flush of life, and make-up on a corpse.
I'm not a professional arts advocate; I'm an artist who left his studio—rather reluctantly—to get involved in my community, Allentown, because I sense that our world is changing. The old patterns, the old life-ways, are breaking down; in particular the late-20th-century American lifestyle predicated on abundant supplies of cheap oil and global military power is no longer supportable. In fact it is bankrupting the country.
The new pattern has yet to emerge. We have arrived within Dante's "dark wood where the straight way was lost." A number of shadowy paths lie ahead, and only a few things seem clear: first, the "authorities" are probably wrong; second, as in the sixties, socio-political factors—human relationships—will prevail over techno-economic fixes; third, the cities are key. As suburban escapism becomes unachievable for the majority, we will have to face long-ignored urban challenges; we will have to learn to live with one another, to feel secure in ourselves in the midst of diversity.
We are lucky in Allentown right now to have a mayor, a city council and an economic development team who really understand the selective advantage to the city of having a vital arts community here. As we proceed with a new arts development strategy, I personally would like to see most of our limited public resources for the arts devoted to expanding opportunities for emerging creative artists.
Museums and art schools are wonderful amenities, but we can actually get more bang for the public buck by investing in artists rather than institutions. Artists are masters of making much out of little. They know how to build with creativity and imagination and not just with machinery and money. And their creations, while often physically fragile, can work uncommon magic on a community's pride and spirit. We need to get artists into the neighborhoods, into the schools. Most of all, we need to allow young artists to risk the creative inner journey, to dream the patterns of our future.


Anonymous said...

It would be great for an arts community to really grow in Allentown. It's sad to me that there are next to no galleries in a city this size. The only one I've seen recently is the Art N Soul tattoo shop and gallery on Hamilton. It's a great idea to combine the tattoo (creative) business with art on display since it's often so expensive to keep a place like that open.

I enjoy your blog and look forward to reading more about the arts. It's inspiring. I also have a blog at lehighlexicon.blogspot.com
Feel free to check it out. I already put a link on there to yours and other blogs. Hope you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the encouraging comment you made on my blog. I didn't get your email address, though. Is it on your blog page?

I'm glad there are other people hanging in there in center city! I look forward to reading more about the arts.

Mrs. Dottie said...

Hi Joe,

I tried contacting artist Gregory Coates regarding the get-together at House of Chen on April 25th. I posted a comment at his blog, but could not find his e-mail. I spoke with Ro Geseck, who gave me Dave Malloy's phone number, and he told me he would contact Gregory. So, if you are in contact with Gregory please pass the word along. So far over 20 people have responded, and I would like to give Jenny at House of Chen enough notice if there will be more than 25 people attending. This should be fun, re-connecting with old friends and meeting new ones!