Art in the city

Today on the front page of the Sunday Oklahoma there was a profile of Wayne Coyne of the “neo-psychedelic” band The Flaming Lips, which has a worldwide cult following, but until about two years ago, was virtually unknown, and certainly unappreciated, in Oklahoma.

Recognizing and honoring Coyne and the Lips has now become a symbol of hipness for the Oklahoma City business community, and imagining the meetings where those discussions took place just cracks me up.

Unless you've been living in a cave this past year, you know that the city renamed an alley in Bricktown “Flaming Lips Alley” and apparently half the Chamber went into cardiac arrest over it. I've never heard the band, since I'm not into music, but I enjoyed watching the ultra-straight TV reporters try to cover this news story.

Anyway, all this new-found warm fuzziness for creative diversity is just lovely, but I'll believe it when Coyne's new BFFs start giving a crap about the artists in their midst who haven't yet sold a few million records or whose paintings have political overtones.

Which brings me to an article in the El Reno paper today, about two women working to revive an arts council in Canadian County. (Link not yet available, the paper posts the Sunday content to their web site on Monday or Tuesday.)

They are still in the idea phase of this, and I support their cause. It would be great to have more creative programs and events in this area, because we aren't all into football or horses or church.

But they are talking about the positive economic impact of bringing in the artists, and that's when my skin starts to crawl. I'm just a little leery, because I've kind of seen this movie before.

Here's how it goes:

Small urban areas get the idea that making their community into an artists' Mecca will spark the economy (that's always the first thing they want). And they are all gung ho on this plan, up until real artists show up and, well, start acting like artists. Wanting freedom of expression and stuff.

Here's how the movie frequently goes:

When the artists start creating challenging art, i.e. dealing with religion, politics, injustice, etc. in their work, the community leaders have a hissy fit because they “had no idea that this is what artists would do” (which is true, they have no idea what artists “do”) and pull their financial support. The artists move on, one by one, and pretty soon, the town's art-themed urban renewal project is forgotten.

Most small towns just don't have the political sophistication to manage any kind of art endeavor capable of transforming its economy in any significant way, because before you can transform an economy that way, you have to transform the culture. No small community I've ever been in has allowed that to happen.

Now, if you really want the epic version of the movie, the one I played a bit part in, here's what happens:

Once the artists have alarmed the community leaders and/or church ladies, then the “Sunday painters” show up and sell their souls services to the local chamber, to replace the “bad” artists.

But in the final reel, the artists decide to have an kick ass exhibit to give voice to their anger. The local media has a field day when the cops show up to close the show because an art gallery dared to hang a nude, and/or visually convey discomfort about the war (whichever one we're fighting at the moment).

Then the artists go back to the city and continue their struggle for honesty and self-expression.


Now, it's possible that Oklahoma City is going to pull this off. Its population is large enough, and growing diverse culturally and politically. It's a slow process, and some pockets of OKC are getting there. But there's a 100th monkey element to it to — a tipping point when things change dramatically. Whether that point will occur here depends on a lot of independently volatile factors. Art develops alongside politics, education, etc.

I don't have enough history in this area, nor am I involved in the artistic community, like I was when in Florida, so I'm in no position to predict anything, but I wouldn't rule it out. It would be great if it did. But it still won't happen with out full-out battles over the art, which I'm telling you, is political kerosene.