A range of views from readers
Last month, I published a DigBoston editorial (“Why So Much Cultural Rehash?”) that proposed that the decades-long economic crisis for working people in American cities like Boston is leading to the production of art (music, etc.) that recycles old tropes rather than creating new ones. I then invited people interested in the Hub’s regional arts scene to send their thoughts on the matter to the Dig for publication. Thus far, we’ve received four responses—emails from Emily Bass, Don DiVecchio, and David Shaughnessy, and a Boston Hassle article by Tim Devin that he submitted as his comment—that we are presenting here for your consideration.
#1: EMAIL FROM EMILY BASS
I’m the former Boston Hassle arts editor, the gallery manager at Dorchester Art Project, and an editorial assistant at a regional arts publication I probably shouldn’t name on the record (my opinions are expressly my own and so on, the usual spiel).
I have to say, I have a different understanding of and response to the state of the arts and its apparent lack of movements in contemporary culture. I think the lack of movements in postmodern art is a wonderful thing that has broadened our perceptions of and access to highly varied works of art. The art that’s being made today could never fit into a movement or a box, and I don’t think that’s negative by any means. The beauty in contemporary art is the range of perspectives we now have access to. Artworks that resonate the most strongly with me blend the political with the personal, informed by a whole slew of individual experiences: concerning the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, informed by location, upbringing, culture, trauma, love, loss and the like.
I think movements are, intentionally or not, exclusive. Of course, there are several exceptions, but most of the notable movements widely accepted as canonical include a small group of likeminded people from similar backgrounds, at least to some degree. However, with any movement, there’s always valuable artists with perspectives or styles existing just outside the confines of that group. What about all the women and African Americans making art that was adjacent to Abstract Expressionism (and often created with more interesting political/personal themes in mind) that were ignored because they were pushed to the margins of the movement? What about all the postwar artists making deeply provocative work that had nothing to do with Abstract Expressionism, either, that we never talk about because every conversation we have about art in the 50s comes back to god-damn color field painting! Fuck color field painting!
Why are movements so intrinsic to our understanding and acceptance of art? Does fitting neatly within a cohesive trend inherently validate a work of art? I think getting away from the concept of movements is the best thing that’s happened to the art world. Let us broaden our horizons, let us see something new, something personal, something that doesn’t look like every other artwork we’ve collectively deemed worthy of praise. Mix it up for once.
Emily Bass is the gallery manager of the Dorchester Art Project.
#2: EMAIL FROM DAVID SHAUGHNESSY
Call it Cultural Neoliberalism.
We endure a culture that has devalued everything except wealth. Under the whip of neoliberalism, the federal government has slashed the economic safety net for working-class Americans, even as good jobs are increasingly rare. So artists—like the rest of the non-rich—live evermore precarious lives. This financial pressure on artists mandates conformity. Meanwhile, the federal government has withdrawn financial support for the arts, leaving artists and art itself to the whims of the marketplace. With the ever-increasing consolidation of corporate power, Big Money now controls arts venues and distribution, and Big Money does not support subversion, in the arts or anywhere else. This also compels conformity.
End Cultural Neoliberalism. Free artists and the arts. End the scourge of neoliberalism. Vote Bernie Sanders.
David Shaughnessy is a Boston resident and lawyer.
#3: SUBMISSION FROM TIM DEVIN
Grassroots Culture and Politics in 2019
Republished from the Boston Hassle with permission
2019 was a beautiful, horrible, wonderful, disgusting year. But over and over, local folks came through with energy, ideas, and magic to try to make our area code into a better place. These efforts ranged from grassroots political work to more creative forms. Here’s a roundup of some of the stuff that kept me up at night, or made things better the next day.
Locals responded to the climate meltdown.
Late in 2018, the UN floored everyone with its climate report. The findings were worse than anybody expected, and just giving up suddenly seemed like a valid response. After this burst of despair, it was great to see grassroots groups coming to the front—including a bunch around here.
British-born Extinction Rebellion probably made the biggest splash locally; the Mass. chapter landed in early 2019, and is now organizing events every few days—ranging from documentary screenings, to group meditations, to protests and more protests. They’re a beautiful ball of energy, and always looking for more volunteers.
There were a number of local-born groups, too. A few people I know joined neighborhood discussion groups that focus on our changing climate—and how they can adapt their lives and outlooks in a bleaker future. Other groups created forums for people to share what they are doing to address environmental destruction; one org in Somerville, for instance, hosted a tour of homes that are exploring alternatives, including heating systems that use less energy.
Zero waste gained some steam this year when Cleenland opened in Cambridge. It joined a handful of other stores, like Neighborhood Produce in Somerville, that offer packaging-free products. (Find out more by reading the Compass’s “Trash Is Tragic” column.)
There were also some interesting creative responses. For instance, Great Small Works teamed up with Marji Gere and Dan Sedgwick to offer a really entertaining puppet-and-music show called “We love trees” that looked at the importance of trees in relation to the climate—and how the powers that be just don’t seem to care.
These are great examples of how energetic our local culture can be—even in the face of climate collapse. And, honestly, since our leaders are incapable of addressing the issue, people power is probably the only way to go.
Boston’s radical community had some milestones, and some setbacks.
Nothing sums up grassroots action better than Boston’s radical community. And there was some interesting stuff going on here this year.
Lucy Parsons, the anarchist community center in JP, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. (50th!?!) If you haven’t been there, you should stop by. Their comfortable space in Hyde Square has shelves full of political books, and is run by a bunch of really welcoming volunteers. They also host a number of political and community events—including a new documentary film series. Be sure to check it out.
Food Not Bombs is celebrating their 40th anniversary. The collective gathers food each week, cooks it all up in a borrowed kitchen, and then sets up tables in Central Square to feed those who need it. Unlike some other local groups that offer free food, FNB doesn’t require any proof of hardship—they hand out food regardless of anyone’s income or home status. FNB started in Cambridge, and the collective has since inspired countless other chapters worldwide. (Seriously. I saw something online about a group in Thailand recently.)
Those are two symbolic wins—but radical folks experienced a big setback in November when the annual Boston Anarchist Bookfair lost its space just two days before the event was scheduled to take place. The host, Boston University, apparently decided that the fair should pay for an expensive security detail—probably because neo-nazis had marched through the event last year, chanting horrible things before being run out by counter-chanters. The fair’s organizers were able to cobble together some space here and there at the last minute—but it definitely was a blow to their goal of gathering like-minded folks in one place.
The area’s small publications renaissance gained steam.
Speaking of books. … Boston was well-known for self-publishing and zines back in the 80s and 90s—Pagan Kennedy! the Small Press Alliance! the original Quimby’s Bookstore!—and it really seems like that magic is coming back lately.
In addition to a handful of fairly-new events like the Boston Art Book Fair and the New Zineland fair, 2019 saw a number of new pop-up events from Fathom Library—and Tufts even had a large exhibit about small books and zines.
This year had more than its fair share of amazing, locally-produced small publications. Mooneaters, GRLSQUASH, and Paper Napkin are getting a lot well-deserved attention, but just to show the range of work that’s out there, here’s a few others:
- Katie Gourley’s “How do we make a new economy” took a look at local feminist economics, and interviewed local women business owners about why they do what they do.
- Pat Falco’s “Mock” reprinted some images from his installation about gentrification—and features some really fun drawings in his signature style.
- Cooper Lee Bombardier’s “Economy of nostalgia” is a poetic essay on flea markets. It’s put out by Boston’s own Greying Ghost—which means it’s beautifully designed, printed on quality paper, and somehow still super affordable.
All this, when there are so few stores that carry local small publications. There’s Aviary, Hub Comics, Million Year Picnic, and Magpie, to name a few—but come on. Stores, get on this. People want these types of publications. Hopefully, next year, we’ll see more places carrying zines and local self-published books.
We lost a number of cultural spaces.
You can’t have local culture without supportive spaces, so it was sad to see a number of those spaces close this year.
Somerville lost Third Life Studio, which was known for its adventurous music programming. It also lost a huge music practice space called Jamspot, and the deeply weird Museum of Bad Art, which showcased thrift store finds. Cambridge lost Green Street (a dance studio) and Practice Space (a feminist event space & store). And Boston’s legendary music store, Skippy Whites, announced it was closing in early 2020—after having served the area since the 60s.
These are just a few of the dreams that died this year, but they seem pretty important to me.
Local culture had some big new boosters.
Local communities need to support their creative neighbors, and they need to learn from their own past—so it was great to see three new initiatives that did just that.
DJ, writer, and impresario Brian Coleman’s latest project, “Buy me Boston,” looked at local culture in the 60s through the early 90s. It all started with a book that reprinted newspaper ads, showcasing long-gone clubs and businesses that provided a window into Boston’s daily life. He then began a series of events showing videos of local live music from the same time period; many of these events also included short talks by the musicians themselves! The event I saw featured one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, and one of Billy Ruane’s videographers. Keep an eye out for more of these events. They’re amazing!
Boston’s Cultures of Soul Records put out a phenomenal CD/booklet, “Take us home,” which features songs from the reggae scene that flourished in Boston in the 70s and 80s. Culture of Soul had put out an equally phenomenal CD and book about Boston’s avant-garde jazz (“Boston creative jazz scene”) a couple years back, so this is a welcome follow-up.
Last up: Neil Horsky’s “Women in community arts” cards profiled local community-minded artists in a fun and accessible way. The format seems to say: local creators should be as famous and well-respected as sports stars.
Wouldn’t it be great if we all thought that way? Seems like a good new year’s resolution to me. Let’s get on it!
Tim Devin is an artist and proud self-publisher, and is the author of Mapping Out Utopia: 1970s Boston-Area Counterculture.
#4: EMAIL FROM DON DIVECCHIO
Your “Cultural Rehash” article is right on target about a number of issues relating to the arts (I’ve been talking about it for years). There are a few more points, so I’d like to fill in the gaps. In fact, I’m writing a book about it. As a Boston area activist/artist of the 70s, I think I may have a few more insights.
The old Boston/Cambridge property owners of the 60s/70s had survived the Great Depression. They understood struggle and hardship, which made them more empathetic and supportive of young people’s search for self expression and social change. These property owners were often Arts friendly, some were even socialists. The rents were very low. Almost all the old buildings (store fronts) in Central Square Cambridge rented for almost nothing. New York and the West Coast experienced a similar cultural/social evolution.
So what was the end result of low rents? Cambridge/Somerville/Boston had become a thriving, counter-cultural arts mecca. Street theatre was everywhere; artists sold their paintings on sidewalks in Harvard Square; music was in the streets and in flourishing coffeehouses; churches were places of socially meaningful theatre plays. There were alternative bookstores, food co-ops, dance collectives, artist co-ops, radio stations and small movie houses (4 from Central Square to Harvard Sq.), as well as worker owned small businesses. It was an amazing time. Low rents fostered more time for creative self exploration and social/political organizing; i.e. (the women’s movement, men’s consciousness-raising, gay rights, and protest against the Vietnam War). All this was happening at a multi-generational level. All ages, all classes, all ethnic groups. Protesting the Vietnam War brought a lot of people together.
As the old property owners died off, their properties were passed onto their children. Each generation began to lose sight of their parent’s struggle to survive and their compassion and empathy for others. Profit, greed and affluent lifestyles replaced creative self expression and artistic conscience. Someone once said: “Without Art, we have no conscience.” People of my generation (I’m 70) after protesting the Vietnam War, sadly became more like their parents, settling into middle class life. With some exceptions, they became property owners, status seekers, and the Status Quo. In short, many of the 70s lefties became the “Establishment” and much worse; embracing the “high tech” boom of the 80s, 90s and beyond. All the while, rents would rise dramatically.
The dignity of living as a “human right” in one’s own home or a very affordable apartment, had become a thing of the past. Housing rentals and commercial properties have now become a means of speculation, garnishing huge profits. Food co-ops closed; collectives, and Ma and Pa stores closed; alternative theatres closed, and artistic spaces closed. Store fronts had become too expensive to rent.
The ending of rent control led to gentrification. Landlords began to court only the “highest income” people, which severely diminished cultural diversity. Rent controlled apartments became condos; condos became housing developments. Along comes speculation by LLCs (foreign investors) buying up residential and commercial properties with no transparency and no regard for neighborhoods and communities, displacing hundreds of residents for their profits. All this adds to enormously high rents. This is happening all over the country. Boston area is the canary in the coal mine. Boston is in fact, the third most expensive city to live in.
So presently, what does all this have to do with the arts? Everything of course. With less cultural diversity, artistic expression is limited. With no affordable creative spaces, artists are marginalized. Any remaining community art galleries will more likely look at only “Recognized” artists. Who can afford the risks? Small independent theatres have collapsed. The few that remain, will only produce plays from nationally recognized playwrights; usually from New York. A struggling community theatre will not take a risk on an unknown playwright. In the Boston area, the theatre spaces that remain, seem to be connected to colleges and universities. Unfortunately, you have to be a student, to access those spaces.
What we see is a pacification of the arts. Only a very few “Nationally Recognized” artists need apply. Art has been dying in America for a long time. So, what is to be done? There is much work to do. As artists, we have to cooperate with each other, form groups, and organize surrounding communities at the grassroots level. This means reaching out to tech folks, to academics, to working and retired people as well as teens… Essentially to all classes, all ethnic groups and all ages/genders to share with folks, the importance of having a vibrant artistic community (accessible to everyone) as well the dangers of having very limited or no Art. We need “free” artistic meeting spaces. On this level, perhaps there needs to be some “cultural shaming.” For example: As an individual playwright, I approached several local churches that displayed “Black Lives Matter” signs, with the idea of doing a “reading” of a play I wrote on racism. I was either rebuffed or completely ignored. Hypocrisy? Of course. If there was an activist, artist support group that challenged them, maybe their apathy would have changed.
So too with Harvard University, who advertise that the Smith Center (a great public space in Holyoke Center) is community inclusive. When in fact, they allow only one small group (an affiliate) to perform. Harvard has a large number of small theatre spaces around the campus as does MIT. So too with Emerson College, who would constantly advertise on how “community inclusive” they are, when in fact, they sanction only a few (non-arts related) nonprofits dealing with teens… The Verizon building on Ware St. in Cambridge has a huge donated first floor space called “The Alley,” an entrepreneurial think tank environment. “The Alley” also reached out to the surrounding neighborhood, implying that they would be open to community interests and the Arts. It has not fulfilled this promise… And so it goes. If artists, writers, musicians, collaborated with tech people and local entrepreneurs to help produce Arts events, who knows what amazing performances would come out of that collaboration.
Two more points of interest: 1) There is no such thing as affordable housing in Cambridge. Developers are lying to residents and the City Council. The average price range for a studio is $1,500-1,800. A small one bedroom is $1,800-2,300. This is not affordable. The City Council needs to be confronted on that issue as well as the rampant speculation by the LLCs. 2) It would be great if the Weekly Dig could advertise listings of free or low cost cultural events in the Boston area. The Improper Bostonian is no longer with us.
Don DiVecchio is a social activist, feminist and playwright and in the 70s, a founder of the Boston area men’s consciousness raising movement. He is currently co-founder of Rising Earth Productions. risingearth.org. He has been a Boston area resident for over 50 years, and a casualty of rent control ending in Cambridge.