Tuesday, November 12, 2013

People Art Culture's Value

Dum.  Dum.  Dum.

The macabre drumbeat of devolution continues from Detroit.

This time, it's a suspicious fire that destroyed part of the city's Heidelberg Project, an eclectic display of old junk alongside abandoned houses that, since its inception in 1986, has managed to cultivate a loyal following of dystopia fans.

Ostensibly, the Heidelberg Project consists of "interactive sculptures" recapturing elements of decay from within the urban fabric and rehabilitating them to serve a more honorable purpose.  In addition to abandoned homes, folk artist Tyree Guyton has repurposed abandoned cars, stuffed toys, broken furniture, shopping carts, and other detritus of his defunct city in a colorful jumble along Heidelberg Street that, to the uninformed, may look more like an organized garbage dump than Postmodern art.

But in an unfortunate twist for the Heidelberg Project, one person's trash not only has become another person's treasure, but yet another person's target.

Early this morning, Detroit's beleaguered firefighters were called to the scene of a blaze burning through what was called the "House of Soul," one of the abandoned houses along Heidelberg Street Guyton had reclaimed as one of his interactive sculptures.  For the House of Soul, also called the "Record House," its interactivity occurred when Guyton had nailed old vinyl records onto it, creating a look as if the house had a severe acne problem.

Wealthy suburbanites have the venerable, stately Detroit Museum of Art, whose revered billion-dollar collection could be raided any day now to help pay off the city's creditors.  Meanwhile, Detroit's inner-city residents have a street painted with multi-colored polka dots and lined by abandoned buildings against which junk has been stacked and tacked.  Although lawyers and judges may still pick apart the DMA, two previous mayoral administrations have already tried to tear down Guyton's claim to fame, bulldozing several of the early homes he'd decorated, in a sign that not even all Detroiters see his Heidelberg Project positively.

Indeed, it's so tempting for those of us mystified by the unconventional infatuations of new-age cultural expressionism to scoff at what seem to be mere contrivances in the name of "art."  What's the difference between a bunch of desperate new urbanists branding the Heidelberg Project a legitimate expression of civic angst and social creativity, and arsonists seeing just a pile of expired kindling to burn?

Guyton's website says that visitors have come from all over the world to marvel at his kitschy creations, and he hosts workshops and other events to help inner-city kids develop their creative sides.  I'm not quite sure how encouraging ten-year-old boys to paint colorful dots on porches translates into, say, eliminating graffiti vandalism, but apparently this is what a lot of people call progress in a part of town that has seen little of it in any variety.

Although, having said that, I must admit that Guyton's whimsical "Dotty-Wotty" House, also called the "New White House," whose entire two-story exterior is completely covered in colorful dots, is itself oddly fascinating.  If I were a bit more open-minded about such things, I might be persuaded to concede that at least some of the components of the Heidelberg Project, taken individually, could have more merit than the sum of their whole, which appears unable to sustain an impression of purpose.

As it is, as of this morning, there's even less of that whole than there used to be, with the burning of the House of Soul.

Fire officials have labeled today's fire suspicious, and it follows another fire in October that destroyed another building in the Heidelberg Project, and three other smaller fires this year.  Frankly, I'd heard about the other fires, since I've begun to follow - like a gawker at a train wreck - the increasingly bizarre news streaming out of crumbling Detroit.  I've already seen the photos from previous fires in the Heidelberg Project of burned-out houses lined with singed dolls, warped plastic, and blackened scrap metal, but they never really caught my interest, until today, when the piecemeal destruction of Guyton's dreams became more pronounced.

It's becoming ruin porn for ruin porn.  Poor Detroit.

But still, is it art?  Will curators from New York's prestigious Metropolitan Museum or France's Louvre now rush to Detroit to salvage what's left of the Heidelberg Project before it succumbs to what appears to be an arsonist's torch?  It's pretty much just been a collection of self-appointed ambassadors of the bohemian urban grunge scene who've made an avant-garde fuss over a project most other people would call "too little too late."  Labeling the Heidelberg Project as art probably doesn't do any disservice to Detroit, for obvious reasons, but does the term "art" get abused by applying it to such exhibits?

Even if you do want to call it art, however, would you want to live next to it?  And even if you think you would, plenty of other people wouldn't.  That's not to say that a democratic majority gets to decide what's art and what isn't, but sometimes, junk stacked against an abandoned house is simply junk stacked against an abandoned house.  And since we live in an approximation of a free country, if you still want to call that art, you can't make me agree with you that it is.

Which brings us to value judgments, which makes some people look at the Heidelberg Project as too important to burn.  And then there are people like me.  Yes, I feel sorry for Guyton and his supporters, because I don't think somebody should just be able to come along and torch something.  But I still don't think what Guyton and his supporters have is the same caliber of art as what's sitting, awaiting its fate, over at the DMA.

Who's right?

This is a question about the value of cultures, isn't it?  So often, we like to pay lip service to the idea that all cultures have equal validity, and that we should respect people who do things differently than the way we do things, because that's the way their culture tells them to do those things.

Sometimes, in cases like the Heidelberg Project, it doesn't really matter which cultural perspective is the correct one, or the superior one.  But many times, it does.  Yet we prefer to avoid the question by cloaking it in an admirable diplomacy.  If we don't like the way other people do things, it's because we don't understand their culture, and we don't appreciate their culture.  Not that - just maybe - either culture simply does things in an inferior, or superior, way.

My point is this:  not all cultures are the same.  We don't all see things the same way all the time.  Forget about debating the merits of the Heidelberg Project for a moment, and consider what the overall debate regarding those merits represents.  Culture itself can be arbitrary.  Particular cultures can't automatically have equal value, can they?  The values celebrated by particular cultures don't derive their validity from their very existence as a cultural value.

In this case, I don't find much appeal in what the Heidelberg Project has created, and I can't see the connection between what they've created and how that's supposed to translate into the sustainable urban renewal they claim it could.  But I can't say what they're doing is sinful, or wrong, or immoral, or wasteful, or corrupting.  I'm not sure about all of Guyton's motives, or the motives of his supporters, or the reasons for why they're apparently flocking to this one street in Detroit to take in the spectacle.  But I'm going to make a value call, and say that if it came down between the masterpieces at the DMA, and the polka dots at the Heidelberg Project, I think the city should try and protect the DMA's collection first.

Some might say that's economics talking.  At a billion dollars, the DMA's masterpieces are known to be worth far more than Guyton's efforts.  So in a way, the art world has already decided which culture is more valuable.  See?  These types of value judgments are made every day, and civilization as we know it hasn't fallen apart - yet.  That's because even though we say all cultures have value, we know they really don't.

What has value in these cultures are the people within these cultures.  That's why I say that I feel sorry for Guyton as arsonists are targeting his Heidelberg Project.  I don't really like it, but I sympathize for its creator, because while he's trying to make a positive statement about some pretty depressing circumstances in his city, at least one of his fellow residents appears to care not one iota about that.

By the way, what's that arsonist's culture like?  The ghetto culture of crime, mayhem, drugs, and nihilism?  How valuable is that?

Do you see how the acquiescence to cultural diversity is itself an ethereal pretense?  It's an impossibility.  What we should be striving for is the respect of people for their humanity, regardless of their culture.  After all, what is culture, but a social fabrication that likely has as much negatives in it as positives?

It may seem like splitting hairs, since so many of us are hardened products of our culture, and what we do and how we do it are literal extensions of our socialization.  Sometimes, the distinctions can seem trivial, such as with the different mindsets that ascribe value to art.  But enshrining culture can lead us to accepting norms and practices that may not be helpful.  So why persist with the fallacy?

Of all the lessons Detroit's downfall has taught us, and continues to teach us, learning to differentiate between things that are helpful and detrimental to cultures remains one of the most crucial.

We all have equal value as people, but the cultures in which we live do not.

Update:  Yet another home burned Thursday, November 21, at the Heidelberg Project.  This time, it was the Penny House, and once again, officials suspect arson.

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