Were we cynical, I wonder, when we made those social-utility arguments for the arts in the mid-00s? Did we only make them because we believed that our political opponents understood nothing but dollars and cents? Our position on 111 First Street was that the arts center was a public good, and an early driver of interest and investment in Jersey City, and was therefore entitled to special dispensation because of its singular value. As it turned out, of course, we could have saved our breath — the community decided that the Arts Center wasn’t worth the headache, and whatever it was that it was contributing to the commonwealth was inessential. The town would go on fine without it.
But the people who didn’t support the Arts Center weren’t just bean counters. Many of them were people with developed aesthetic sensibilities. They had a good idea of what they wanted the city to look like, and 111 First Street didn’t happen to fit with that vision. Property developers are, by nature, engaged in a creative project; in order for them to realize their commercial ambitions, they’re compelled to deal with artists all the time. Rich guys are good at appraising the commercial potential of artistic production — they might not always be able to put their criticism into words, but they do tend to know a decent investment when they see it. And 111 First Street, as we all probably should have realized, wasn’t it.
Artists frequently feel the need to justify their existence, which is a funny thing, because usually there’s nobody asking. When we go into a gallery, we may not connect with what we see; if we’re feeling extra uncharitable, we might make one of those my-grandkid-could-do-this assessments. But unless we’re total jerks, we don’t demand that the artist turn in his brushes. Society as a whole may not choose to validate the artist’s work by lavishing money on him, but in 2016, you could say the same for your corner attorney, or your local entrepreneur, or a property developer. In every field under the sun, commissions are hard to come by. It’s a risky, merciless, discouraging time in America, and the safety net isn’t there anymore for anybody but the most fortunate (and even then, God help you if you screw up.)
Nevertheless, modern artists often do puff up their self-worth by making the case that they’re in the business of moral correction, or guidance or edutainment, or the upliftment of the human spirit, or “giving back.” I like to believe that my own work is thought-provoking, even as I realize there’s nothing noble or vital about jamming weird ideas into somebody else’s head. Many populists even make a social-utility argument on behalf of bands with huge audiences because unlike you, self-indulgent psych-rocker, they’re spreading joy to the masses. This all speaks well of us; artists do tend to view themselves as stewards of the world’s good vibes, and on the whole, I think we believe we ought to be interesting, broad-minded, hospitable people. Artists tend to offer more rewarding fellowship than financiers do, which is why there’s a long history of financiers patronizing artists and retaining them at their summer chateaus.
But as a resident of a neighborhood where public discourse is dictated by the developers who, for all intents and purposes, run this place, I think we ought to cut it out with the social-utility stuff. The presence of a certain kind of art will indeed make property values go up, and increase the cache of our town, and help with the destination marketing effort and all the rest of it — but the vast majority of artistic endeavors won’t, and there’s nothing illegitimate about that. When we link what we’re doing to the fiduciary health of our town, we subordinate the arts. We make it just another part of somebody’s branding strategy.
In Jersey City, everything else has long been secondary to the project of rebuilding land value. While that’s been grueling at times, there have been benefits to our monomania, too. Some artists have gone out of their way to contribute; some of us haven’t bothered. But just as the community doesn’t owe the artist anything, the artist doesn’t owe the community anything, either. The artist’s only responsibility is to have a vision and express it. That’s it. The artist is the conduit for that vision. If what she expresses is beautiful and uplifting and adds to the cache of her community, that’s wonderful. If it’s depraved and menacing, it might not bump up the aggregate Zillow rating of Harsimus Cove, but it was something that, once seen by the artist, demanded to be reflected in the art.
My own music is an expression of anxiety. It’s lots of other things, too, I hope, but fundamentally it’s a burst of acceleration and turbulence, destabilization, and paranoia about the present dimensions of public culture. Suck it may, but that can’t be the grounds on which it sucks. My task as a writer is to manifest what I’m seeing through my own eyes — for myself first, and after that, for anybody who wants to sneak a peek. If I ever implied that I was a participant in a public health project, or a soldier for justice, or that I had anything to contribute to the commonwealth besides a friendly smile, I’d like to take that back. For all I know, it’s just noise pollution. Any redeeming social value to anything I happen to sing is there by coincidence alone. I *do* have a personal responsibility to be a good citizen, and to treat everybody I meet with respect, and to engage in discourse about the direction of my community. All of that is separate from the responsibility I have to my writing. I reserve for art a status far above consciousness-raising, or community wellness, or urban renewal. And if I ever implied anything otherwise, I was worse than a traitor to the cause: I was a lousy artist.