Cultural Vibrancy

Thomas Frank wonders what’s so vibrant about cultural vibrancy, and posits that “vibrant” is the creative class’ code for urban gentrification.
By Thomas Frank, from The Baffler
March/April 2013
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In small towns, bored teenagers turn their eyes longingly to the exciting doings in the big cities, pining for urban amenities like hipster bars and farmers’ markets and indie-rock festivals. Like everyone else, they want the vibrant and they will not be denied.
Illustration By Shaw Nielsen
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My hometown is vibrant. Its status as such is certified, official, stamped on both sides. There was a time, though, when it wasn’t, when my friends and I would laugh at Kansas City’s blandness: its harmless theater productions, its pretentious suburbs, its private country clubs, its eternal taste for classic rock. We called it “Cupcake Land,” after a favorite Richard Rhodes essay from the ’80s. The city knew nothing of the bold ideas of our robust generation, we thought: it had virtually no music subculture; it was deaf to irony; hell, it actually tried to drive out of business the last surviving club from its jazz-age glory days.

Maybe that was the sort of criticism everybody made of their Midwestern hometowns back then. Well, those hometowns have certainly turned the tables on us today. Our enthusiasm for music is a dead thing now in these post-alternative decades, a mere record collection that we occasionally cue up after one Scotch too many to help remember the time when art seemed to matter.

But Kansas City doesn’t need any reminders. The place fairly quivers with vitality now. It is swarming with artists; its traffic islands are bedecked with the colorful products of their studios. It boasts a spectacular new performing arts center designed by one of those spectacular new celebrity architects. It even has an indie-rock festival to call its own. And while much of the city’s flowering has been organic and spontaneous, other parts of its renaissance were engineered by the very class of civic leaders we used to deride for their impotence and cluelessness. At that Kansas City indie-rock festival, for example, the mayor himself made a presentation this year, as did numerous local professionals and business leaders.

Besides, as everyone knows, cupcakes are cool nowadays, like yoga or something—the consummate expression of the baker’s artisanal vibrancy.

Your hometown is probably vibrant, too. Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon. The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful—isn’t even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being “vibrant.” Cultural vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.

This formulation sounded ridiculous to me when I first encountered it. Whatever the word meant, “vibrancy” was surely an outcome of civic prosperity, not its cause. Putting it the other way round was like reasoning that, since sidewalks get wet when it rains, we can encourage rainfall by wetting the sidewalks. But to others, the vibrancy mantra is profoundly persuasive. The pursuit of the vibrant seems to be the universal job description of the nation’s city planners nowadays. It is also part of the Obama administration’s economic recovery strategy for the nation. In the fall of 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts launched “ArtPlace,” a joint project with the nation’s largest banks and foundations, and ArtPlace immediately began generating a cloud of glowing euphemisms around the central, hallowed cliché:

ArtPlace is investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities. 

Specifically, vibrancy transforms communities by making them more prosperous. ArtPlace says its goal is not merely to promote the arts but to “transform economic development in America,” a project that is straightforward and obvious if you accept the organization’s slogan: “Art creates vibrancy and increases economic opportunity.”

And that, presumably, is why everyone is so damn vibrant these days. 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.”

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 vibrations are just as stimulating in the component parts of this exciting new civilization. The people of creative-land use vibrant apps to check their bank accounts, chew on vegetarian “vibrancy bars,” talk to one another on vibrant cellphones, and drive around in cars painted “vibrant white.”

Then there are the unfortunate places from which the big V is said to have receded, like the “once-vibrant” Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where remediation efforts are thankfully under way. Detroit has for years provided the nation’s thoughtful class with sobering lessons on what happens when the vibrant evaporates, and the fear that such a fate might befall other scenes and other communities still occasionally makes headlines. A looming “shortage of vibrancy” reportedly gave the Connecticut business community quite a scare in 2007, while the city fathers of Cleveland took a peep at all that was vibrating in Seattle back in 2002 and suspected that they were losing the race: “Without that vibrancy, Cleveland may decline.”

The real Sahara of the vibrant, though, is that part of America where lonely Midwestern farmers live among “crumbling reminders of more vibrant days.” This is a land from which vibrancy has withdrawn its blessings; the disastrous depopulation that has followed is, if we follow the guideposts of vibrancy theory, the unavoidable consequence. In small towns, bored teenagers turn their eyes longingly to the exciting doings in the big cities, pining for urban amenities like hipster bars and farmers’ markets and indie-rock festivals. Like everyone else, they want the vibrant and they will not be denied.

Defining Cultural Vibrancy

As with other clichés, describing a city as “vibrant” was once a fairly innovative thing to do. Before 1950, the adjective was used mainly to describe colors and sound—the latter of which, after all, is transmitted through the air with vibrations. People’s voices were often said to be “vibrant.” As were, say, notes played on an oboe. To apply the adjective to a “community” or a “scene,” on the other hand, was extremely unusual back then. In fact, the word “vibrant” does not seem to appear at all in the 1961 urban classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, even though that book is often remembered as the very manifesto of vibrancy theory. How the expression made the leap from novelty to gold-plated bureaucratic buzzword is anyone’s guess.

It is a cliché that I personally associate with NPR—not merely because announcers on that network tend to hymn the vibrant with complete indifference to the word’s exhaustion, but because they always seem to believe they are saying something really fresh and profound about a place or a “scene” when they tag it thus. But the real force behind our mania for the vibrant is the nation’s charitable foundations. For organized philanthropy, “vibrant” seems to have become the one-stop solution for all that ails the American polis. A decade ago there were other obsessions: multiculturalism, or public-private synergy, or leadership programs. But now, it’s Get southern Illinois some vibrancy, and its troubles are over.

“A vibrant arts community strengthens our region,” declares the website of the Seattle Foundation, describing art as a way of attracting and retaining awesome corporate employers. The New England Foundation for the Arts spends its substance “to nurture a vibrant ecology for dance.” The Kresge Foundation “seek[s] to build strong, vibrant communities—enlivened by the presence of healthy cultural organizations and well-resourced artists.” The S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation says it’s “dedicated to advancing a productive, vibrant, and sustainable California.” The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation hands out “Vibrant Community” grants to local nonprofits, while the “Vibrant Communities” program of Montreal’s J. W. McConnell Family Foundation seems to be a sort of anti-poverty initiative.

But while everyone agrees that “vibrancy” is the ultimate desideratum of urban life, no one seems to be exactly sure what cultural vibrancy is. In fact, the Municipal Art Society of New York recently held a panel discussion—excuse me, a “convening”—of foundation people to talk about “Measuring Vibrancy” (it seems “the impact of arts and cultural investments on neighborhoods ... is hard to quantify”). In retrospect, it would have been far better to convene such a gathering before all those foundation people persuaded the cities of the nation to blow millions setting up gallery districts and street fairs.

Even ArtPlace, the big vibrancy project of the NEA, the banks, and the foundations, is not entirely sure that vibrancy can be observed or quantified. That’s why the group is developing what it calls “Vibrancy Indicators”: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly,” the group’s website admits, “we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within cities.”

What are those measures? Unfortunately, at press time, they had not yet been announced. But a presentation of preliminary work on the “Vibrancy Indicators” did include this helpful directive: “Inform leaders of the connection between vibrancy and prosperity.”

Got that? We aren’t sure what vibrancy is or whether or not it works, but part of the project is nevertheless “informing” people that it does. The meaninglessness of the phrase, like the absence of proof, does not deter the committed friend of the vibrant: if you know it’s the great good thing, you simply push ahead, moving all before you with your millions.

This is not the place to try to gauge the enormous, unaccountable power that foundations wield over American life—their agenda-setting clout in urban planning debates, for example, or the influence they hold over cashstrapped universities, or their symbiosis with public broadcasters NPR and PBS. Nor is this the forum to salute them for their many positive contributions to society.

My target here is not their power, but their vacuity. Our leadership class looks out over the trashed and looted landscape of the American city, and they solemnly declare that salvation lies in an almost meaningless buzzword—that if we chant that buzzword loud enough and often enough, our troubles are over.

The Baffler has mocked, analyzed, and derided money’s cultivation of hipness since our earliest days in print. Just think of all the permutations of urban hipness that have flickered by since we undertook that mission: Rollerblading near water. “Potemkin bohemias” like Chicago’s Wicker Park. Richard Florida’s “creative class.” And while each in turn drew the cheers of the bystanders, utilities were privatized to disastrous effect, the New Economy came and went, the real estate bubble grew and burst, the banks got ever bigger, state governments declared war on public workers, and the economy went off a cliff.

It is time to acknowledge the truth: that our leaders have nothing to say, really, about any of this. They have nothing to suggest, really, to Cairo, Illinois, or St. Joseph, Missouri. They have no comment to make, really, about the depopulation of the countryside or the deindustrialization of the Midwest. They have nothing to offer, really, but the same suggestions as before, gussied up with a new set of clichés. They have no idea what to do for places or people that aren’t already successful or that have no prospects of ever becoming cool.

And so the dull bureaucrat lusts passionately for the lifestyle of the creative artist, but beneath it all is the harsh fact that foundations have been selling the vibrant, under one label or another, for decades; all they’ve done this time is repackage it as a sort of prosperity gospel for Ivy League art students. As the name of a suburban St. Louis street festival puts it, without the smallest detectable trace of irony, “Let them eat art.”

In the face of this deafening silence, let us propose a working hypothesis of what makes up the vibrant. Putting aside such outliers as the foundation that thinks vibrancy equals poverty-remediation and the car rental company that believes it means having lots of parks, it’s easy to figure out what the foundations believe the vibrant to be. Vibrant is a quality you find in cities or neighborhoods where there is an arts or music “scene,” lots of restaurants and food markets of a certain highbrow type, trophy architecture to memorialize the scene’s otherwise transient life, and an audience of prosperous people who are interested in all these things.

Indeed, art production is supposed to be linked, through the black box of “cultural vibrancy,” to prosperity itself. This is something so simple that one proponent has illustrated it with a flowchart; it is something so obvious that just about everyone concerned agrees on it. “Corporations see a vibrant cultural landscape as a magnet for talent,” goes the thinking behind Kansas City’s vibrancy, according to one report; it’s “almost as vital for drawing good workers as more-traditional benefits like retirement plans and health insurance.” (Did you catch that, reader? Art is literally a substitute for compensating people properly. “Let them eat art,” indeed.) And so when the Cincinnati foundation known as ArtsWave informs the world that “the arts create vibrant neighborhoods and contribute to a thriving economy,” they are voicing a sentiment so commonplace in foundation-land that it is almost not worth remarking on.

“How does art do these amazing things?” you might ask. Reasoning backwards from the ultimate object of all civic planning—attracting and retaining top talent, of course—the ArtPlace website pronounces thusly:

The ability to attract and retain talent depends, in part, on quality of place. And the best proxy for quality of place is vibrancy. 

Others have spelled this out in detail. We build prosperity by mobilizing art-people as vibrancy shock troops and counting on them to ... well ... gentrify formerly bedraggled parts of town. Once that mission is accomplished, then other vibrancy multipliers kick in. The presence of hipsters is said to be inspirational to businesses; their doings make cities interesting and attractive to the class of professionals that everyone wants; their colorful japes help companies to hire quality employees, and so on. All a city really needs to prosper is a group of art-school grads, some lofts for them to live in, and a couple of thrift stores to supply them with the ironic clothes they crave. Then we just step back and watch them work their magic.

This, then, is how far it’s gone. The vibrant is the public art of today. It is Official. Our leaders think it will solve the problems of the cities large and small. Our leaders believe it will help to pull us out of our persistent economic slump.

In this respect, we are counting on our artists for considerably more than we did during the country’s last experience with economic breakdown, but also—in other respects—considerably less. In the ’30s, the federal government launched a number of programs directly subsidizing artists. Painters got jobs making murals for the walls of post offices and public buildings; theater troupes staged plays; writers collected folklore; photographers combed the South documenting the lives of sharecroppers. But no one expected those artists to pull us out of the Depression by some occult process of entrepreneurship-kindling. Instead, government supported them mainly because they were unemployed. In other words, government then did precisely the opposite of what government does today: in the ’30s, we protected artists from the market while today we expose them to it, imagining them as the stokers on the hurtling job-creation locomotive.

Both then and now we heard much about “scenes.” The public art of the ’30s was, famously, concerned with “the American scene,” via the style known as “regionalism.” Thomas Hart Benton painted Missouri scenes, John Steuart Curry painted Kansas scenes, and unemployed authors assembled tour guides to every state in the union. In today’s more vibrant version, though, the artist himself is the spectacle, the subject of the tour guide. His primary job is not really to produce art but to participate in a “scene”—in an act that is put on for well-heeled spectators. Indeed, this act is essential to the vibrant: in order to bring the economic effects that “the arts” are being counted upon to bring—attracting and retaining top talent for a city’s corporations, remember—the artist himself must be highly visible. He must run a gallery, patronize cool coffee shops and restaurants, or rehab rundown buildings. In short, where the WPA helped bankroll the work of William Gropper and Orson Welles, today’s vibrancy elite has let a thousand artisanal “third spaces” bloom.

The federal programs of the ’30s 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 cultural 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 ’30s 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.

Instead of all that, the aesthetic of the vibrant proposes a kind of tail-chasing reverence for creativity itself, the awesome creativity that is supposed to inspire the businessman-spectator and lead him or her to conjure up bold and outside-the-box thoughts. Consider the trophy buildings that are, inevitably, the greatest expression of vibrancy theory—the assorted Frank Gehry and pseudo-Gehry buildings that every city council seems to believe it must build as a sort of welcome mat to the creative class. Regardless of the particular shape that each structure’s fluttering and swooping exterior takes, the point of the buildings is, in a general sense, to flaunt their eccentricity, to conspicuously defy the straight lines and cheap construction materials of the conventional buildings that surround them.

On the one hand, vibrancy theory treats the artist as a sort of glorified social worker, whose role is to please children and stimulate businessmen and somehow support the community. But the means by which the community is to be supported is always some species of vanguardism or conspicuous creativity. The whole point of the vibrant is to build prosperous communities; and yet prosperous communities, with their Babbitt-like complacency and their straight lines and their conventional building materials, are precisely what we expect artists to flout and defy.

A second problem: the monuments to creativity that we are constructing all across America these days are supposed to be a reaction against the top-down city planning that once caused soulless public housing towers to be built all across the land. How different is it, though, to tear down entire city blocks in order to build, say, a vast performing arts center whose lines aren’t strictly rectilinear?

For that matter, why is it any better to pander to the “creative class” than it is to pander to the traditional business class? Yes, one strategy uses “incentives” and tax cuts to get companies to move from one state to another, while the other advises us to emphasize music festivals and art galleries when we make our appeal to that exalted cohort. But neither approach imagines a future arising from something other than government abasing itself before the wealthy.

 

Let’s say that the foundations successfully persuade Akron to enter into a vibrancy arms race with Indianapolis. Let’s say both cities blow millions on building cool neighborhoods and encouraging private art galleries. But let’s say Akron wins. Somehow its planned vibrancy catches on and, thanks to a particularly piquant theater group, it is able to steal away Indianapolis’s businesses. Akron “attracts and retains”; it becomes a creative class Paris. It leaves Indianapolis an empty hulk on the prairie.

What then? Is the nation better served now that those businesses are located in Akron rather than in Indianapolis? Or would it have been more productive to spend those millions on bridges, railroads, highways—hell, on lobbyists to demand better oversight for banks?

History is more than a conflict between bogue millionaires and cool millionaires, however, and once you grasp this, you realize that it doesn’t take a whole lot of “creativity” to come up with real answers to the big problems. You just need to change the questions slightly. How about, instead of serving some targeted fraction of the master class, we chose to give an entirely different group of Americans what they wanted? Even if those Americans weren’t cool? What would that look like?

A while ago I was talking about rural depopulation with an officer of a Kansas farmers’ organization; as it happened, he had thought about the problem a great deal. Using arts festivals to make small towns appear “vibrant” was not one of his suggestions, however. Instead, he proposed universal health coverage, since independent farmers find it difficult to get insurance nowadays and are often driven to seek corporate employment by this brute fact of rural life.

Other solutions to the problem of rural depopulation are just as easy to come up with. Outlaw corporate agriculture, which would encourage not only small farms but food diversity as well. Use zoning rules to restrict big-box stores, thereby saving small town merchants. Make college excellent and affordable, so that graduates aren’t forced by the weight of student debt to seek corporate employment. Rewrite NAFTA and take other steps to stop the decline of manufacturing.

For any of this to happen, though, the cultural vibrancy Ponzi scheme first has to bottom out. The bombed-out heartland must learn to resist the urgings of the foundation grandees and fix its gaze instead on the far less beguiling reverie of durable, productive enterprise.

Some places, however, have gone so far down the vibrant brick road that there appears to be nothing to do but patiently await the final Götterdämmerung of the creative class. So hop to it, Akron: convert your very last rubber factory to an artist’s loft, bring on the indie-rock festivals and have Santiago Calatrava design you a sweeping new titanium City Hall. Go vibrant—and go for broke.

Thomas Frank is the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Pity the Billionaire, and other books, and is the co-founder and former Editor in Chief of The Baffler, a journal of art and criticism published in March, June, and October by MIT Press. This piece was reprinted from Issue No. 20. 


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