Ending the Debate Over Art Scenes

An artist friend shared an article questioning whether or not Columbus has an art scene. If you know me at all, you can easily imagine the several reactions I had to just the headline. Knowing I read the article, you may further envisage several other reactions I had. For those that don’t know me, I will tell you that I found it generally exasperating.

The question as to whether or not Columbus* has an art scene should be an automatic red flag. As presented, the query is either obtuse (in which “art” only refers to the visual arts), reductionist (in which “art” lumps all public artistic expressions the city may contain into one “scene”), or uninformed (in which “art” only refers to the art scenes that the speaker is aware of). The first two typically fall under the purview of artists and organizers ranging philosophically from bitter to dismissive, but the last could be said to cover almost everyone who makes the argument against the existence of such a thing. The question is an automatic fail for me because it either fails to recognize or chooses to dismiss what they’re referring to as a collective art scene is better described as some of the founding elements of culture, and as such is comprised of numerous art scenes. Now, I’m focusing on scenes here, not culture, but I want to come out the gate making clear that the terms are not interchangeable and culture requires way more work to realize and codify than whether or not an art scene exists.

Many people who answer the question in the negative tend to be vague on a couple of key elements, most notably how they define “scene,” and how they define the success of such a thing if it might exist (which, to them, doesn’t exist if it doesn’t generate successes). They keep answering the question of whether or not Columbus has an art scene based on singular, frequently self-referential definitions. “Well, I did a show and no one supported it, so the city doesn’t support X art form” or “I never hear about any Y type of shows.”

The list of ways in which they define whether or not a scene exists isn’t short in just the responses I’ve gathered in response to this article alone. Most don’t debate whether Columbus art exists, but focus instead on things like access, or the quality of the art, or how much support art receives, or whether or not artists are able to live off of what support exists, or if there is more than one offering of the art, or if mentorship opportunities exists (which when you read between the lines is referenced frequently as “ego”), and more. That’s just from this morning, but I have heard these responses for years from hundreds of people. And I’m sorry, but hundreds of people are wrong when they apply these standards to the question.

Once the art exists, a scene exists. If the scene only consists of a handful of poetry readings or only has one femme-centric art gallery, that doesn’t mean a scene doesn’t exist. You can debate the merits of these scenes but you cannot deny their existence; debate their viability and ability to engage audiences or sustain the lives of artists, but not the presence of actual, you know, art.

If I am honest, my first reaction to this article was to chalk the entire presentation up to white people shenanigans. If you want to know if your city has an art scene, look to its oppressed. Art is one of the primary expressions of a people, particularly people who otherwise lack access and means to participate in the benefits of a larger society. That’s how you got gospel, the blues, jazz, and hip hop: people who weren’t allowed to do certain things or go certain places but had something to express had to do so where they were. That’s as true today and in Columbus as it is anywhere else, and anyone who is remotely aware of just what black artists alone have been doing in this city for the last thirty to forty years would confirm it. You may not like the art, or you may think it isn’t very good, but you cannot deny that it exists. It is no coincidence that some of the best examples of the art that this city has to provide comes out of people from those communities. That didn’t happen in a vacuum, and most of them didn’t finish or even go to college to learn their craft. In those quarters we are a city brimming with powerful catalog of autodidacts. There are numerous, if not yet flourishing art scenes in just that neck of the art woods here. If you didn’t know that and you were just looking for an answer to the question of art scenes in Columbus, you can stop reading now because I just answered the thesis for you with math (and a socio-political chaser).

There are better questions about art scenes that we should be interrogating: Can an art scene exist and not be good? Is it valid if no one can live off of what it produces? How do we define success in art? Is the scene launching new movements or ideas? Does it have key or known institutions? Are dope shows enough? Who gets to decide if art scenes are working? What responsibility do institutions have in the generation and maintenance of art, and how are they faring from the perspective of artists? How might a Columbus art scene differ from a coastal art scene, and why? How do we navigate legacy? How many art scenes does Columbus have, anyway?

But let’s all agree to stop acting as if there aren’t art scenes here. To answer the last question in the previous paragraph, Columbus has dozens of art scenes. The question as evidenced by the aforementioned article is banal, and any answer that pretends that it is a valid inquiry in 2017 is irresponsible. This is the kind of question I expect from marketers or developers looking to sell the city to gentrifiers. It should not be the question that people are asking while standing at an art exhibit, looking at actual art likely submitted by more than one local or regional artists, that probably isn’t at the Columbus Museum of Art, in a city that has a dozen concurrent art shows in any given month. It isn’t up for debate in a city that has poetry five nights a week, a couple dozen community festivals at which art is a primary draw, and artists who receive national acclaim across disciplines. It is a ridiculous question in a city that has so much local art that none of its press can even begin to capture it in its full breadth. What Columbus offers artistically isn’t a scene question; it’s a culture/community/education/resource question.

But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

– – –

* = This information will be Columbus-centric but obviously will apply to almost any place where more than 50 people live.

Photo by Ruth Tonachel, from Roadside America.

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