Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Insides of Things

The ceiling of The Detroit Institute of Arts

Last week I skipped writing a post. I felt like I wanted to take some more time to process my recent trip to Detroit before embarking on a new topic. However, instead of beating the trip to a synaptic pulp like I do with many topics, I found that the more I thought about it the more there was to think about, and that each avenue I explored branched off in another direction to the point where I almost had to force myself to stop thinking about the trip.

It didn't help that I read two books about the fallen city since returning, keeping it firmly on my mind. Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff, and Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli. The books, although written at about the same time (2013 and 2012, respectively) and about the same place, are very different in nature. LeDuff's account is largely cynical, and focuses on the crime, corruption, and blight of the city. Binelli's, on the other hand, is a bit more optimistic, focusing more on the potential for a renaissance and rejuvenation in the coming decades. 

Although I found Binelli's account to be more compelling, I thought it curious that two native Detroit-area residents had such different thoughts on a city they both grew up with. The point that I took from their two accounts is that, whether it be good or bad, everyone seems to have something to say about the Motor City these days. Detroit is perhaps the most fascinating and important city in the world at this moment in time, and as the word spreads about its tantalizing decay, more and more people are coming around to explore it. I just discovered the truth about it recently, and am by no means qualified to comment intelligently on any aspect of its downfall.

In my time spent processing the trip, however, I have developed an opinion on one aspect of the city that I find to be deeply disturbing, and also feel comfortable commenting on based on my interest in art, art history, and many kinds of other art that lie outside the institution.

Let me give you a vague idea of what the city of Detroit looks like today: A pale, blank canvas that has been utilized as any canvas would; graffiti splashed on almost every building, abandoned or otherwise, creating a sort of forced vibrancy in a truly dead town. It is eerily quiet except for the sounds of birds and the occasional car. If I had to assign an alternate sound to the city it would be something like a death rattle that fills the wide, empty boulevards as you wander through. From time to time some garbage blows across the street, making the place look like an industrial desert of mechanical tumbleweed. It is a truly shocking sight, one that I thought, stupidly, I was prepared to see, and one that I will probably never fully be able to comprehend.

This, of course, is only describing the outdoors. If you think about it, the city of Detroit exists almost entirely outdoors at this point. Because of the volume of abandoned and burned buildings there is actually much more of a "city" to be seen outside than there is inside. In fact, many of the sights on our trip were outdoors, and we only wandered inside when we wanted food, or were at our hostel, etc. One particular "inside" that I remember was The Detroit Institute of Arts, a building that, to this day, looks like it could belong to any major American city. Not to mention the stellar collection of art inside. It was an outstanding collection, I thought at the time. I base this opinion on the variety of art and artists represented.

Coincidentally, I happened to be listening to NPR the other day when the topic of the evening happened to be this very museum. As a small treatment for Detroit's bankruptcy, the city has considered selling some of the pieces in its collection. The ultimate conclusion of the program was that the collection at the DIA is the most valuable asset left to the city of Detroit. The most valuable. In the city that invented the American car, the only thing that remains is art.

If it weren't for all the obvious reasons, I almost want to scream, "Take THAT, Capitalism! Art prevails!" It is kind of a sick victory for art, I have to admit. But one that seems entirely unstable and fleeting as the fate of the collection teeters on an uncertain barter. The DIA houses, as follows:
Africa, Oceania and the Indigenous Americas
American Art
The Arts of Asia and the Islamic World
European Art
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
General Motors Center for African American Art
The James Pearson Duffy Department of Contemporary Art

We only had two hours in the museum. Barely enough time to scratch the surface. But we did manage to at least see, if not examine, most of it. I remember stopping my traveling companion in the African American Art section on our way out of the museum. I was curious. It seemed like a lot less of an afterthought than many other collections of this type. In fact, the museum even having this section at all was impressive to me. I remember stopping at this painting, a self-portrait by Benny Andrews:

Benny Andrews, Portrait of a Collagist, 1989

Andrews, of course, I knew absolutely nothing about. I looked him up later and discovered that he was born in Georgia during a time when it was still segregated. He came from a family of sharecroppers, but he himself served in the Air Force which eventually allowed him to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. He died in 2006, but before his death he was actively involved in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts involving art workshops with children. 

Andrews, it proved, would be the stuff of my tortured thoughts almost two weeks after I returned from Detroit. While I was first impressed with the museum, I became slightly disgusted. Detroit as a city is now 85% black. In fact, as I walked around the city, race was flip flopped on me and my friend as we became minorities. For the first time inside the US, I was very aware of the color of my skin, and almost wished for some type of camouflage so I could wander the city less conspicuously. This was not the case inside the museum. Like I said, once I stepped inside its doors, it could have been a museum in any city, anywhere, filled with young, white, hip looking people. 

In a city that is now predominantly black, how come this museum was still SO white? The African American section, in hindsight, felt conspicuously small.

Not to mention, outside the museum walls, there is no lack of art to see if one wanted to come to Detroit to see art. Some of that aforementioned graffiti was done by internationally known artists (can you say Banksy?). Other artists have come to the city as well. The prolific Matthew Barney filmed sections of one of his most recent films, Khu, inside of an abandoned Detroit warehouse, bringing along a posse that included his longtime partner Bjork and actor James Franco. 

On a grassroots level, there are artists who were born and raised in Detroit who are making art on an equally grandiose scale. Take Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project, for example. Described on the website as "Open-Air Art," it is an art installation that takes up about three city blocks of an impoverished Detroit neighborhood. The bulk of the exhibit is made from abandoned debris that was rescued from the city. Another example is artist Olayami Dabls, whose African Bead Museum is actually less of a museum and more of an outdoor art installation. When we arrived we were eager to see the African beads, but Dabl himself directed us to the backyard where he said the "real" art was.

Painted house at the Heidelberg Project

Section of Dabl's outdoor art installation

In thinking about these outdoor art environments I can't help but think about the future of Detroit and some of the proposed plans for the city. Binelli's book Detroit City gives several ideas for the future: Demolish it and start over. Turn it in a bio urban hub; the only city in the world that is entirely self sustaining. Make room for the "creative class" and turn it into a new Brooklyn or Berlin. In fact the creative class has already moved in, the proof being the Banksys and Matthew Barneys who have already art-capitalized on the city's failed capitalism. 

I myself would rather see the city demolished than see it turned into a Brooklyn. Ironically, if Detroit wouldn't have gone through its suffering to turn into what it is today, it probably wouldn't be a city that I would even be remotely interested in visiting. I don't want to go to New York. New York is boring to me. It's too predictable, and too popular. And, as awesome as it is that freakin' Matthew Barney came to Detroit, I almost want to yell at him to stay the hell out. Barney lives in New York. Maybe he should stay there. 

As much as I love art, art is often a sign and a symptom of gentrification, leading to things such as sterile museums and "African American Art" sections. This kind of wording is so polite. And yet so rude. And so...Detroit, let's face it. The major difference between Barney and artists like Dabl and Guyton is that the latter two are native Detroit artists who never abandoned their city like the thousands and thousands of people (ahem, white people) that fled to the suburbs. They stayed and planted their artistic roots in the slowly deteriorating heart of the city, surrounded by the other horrors that were happening as their city fell: Fires. Murders. Robberies. Disease.

All of this happened- not inside the museum walls untouched by time- but outside, in the neighborhoods where time changed everything into a crippled ghetto. 

In fact, my friend and I noticed as we walked around that in contrast to the deserted streets, the insides of the things- the few existing restaurants, cafes, and the museum- were packed. It was like people were hiding from the terror of the city. This was not the case at the sites of the two mentioned art environments. Around the Heidelberg Project and the African Bead Gallery we saw the most people roaming outdoors, even more so than at Belle Isle Park. My friend Kari asked me at one point what these kinds of places were actually doing for the good of the city. I gave some bullshit answer about bringing more money by turning it into a destination. I realize now it's not about money. It's about bringing people together. It was segregation and separation that brought Detroit down in the first place. If you ask me, sell some of that white people stuff inside the DIA. I don't see any white people. And that shit's getting old. If Detroit is truly a canvas, there are many, many more colors to add to the palette before the final masterpiece is revealed. 

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