What Value, Art?

A makeshift memorial.

Right now I should be researching how to get my site indexed on Google, or a million other things that deal with researching recipes and driving traffic to my site, but I can’t really focus today.

It’s not the horrible nights of sleep I have gotten the past three nights or the dog poop and pee that welcomed me downstairs this morning (although to be honest neither of those things help and they both make me want to kick the dog WHICH IS JUST WRONG I know but still. #Asshole).

It’s not the complete lack of holiday cheer outside of my home, or the fact that every single person in the world seems to have forgotten how to drive (I have been nearly T-boned three times in the last two days from people running red lights).

It’s art.

I am deeply troubled by the fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland. So many lives lost, so much creativity and spirit of Other-ness out there literally gone up in smoke.

And why?

It’s because we (America, in general), don’t value art.

We don’t value art beyond paintings to be hung over the sofa, tchotchkes for the mantle, and the occasional sculpture in the garden.

Moreover, we don’t value the creative life. We don’t value the people who have chosen to leave the daily grind in favor of living communally so that they can surround themselves with like-minded, creative people who really just want to make art and live a life that doesn’t conform to the norm.

We don’t value the outsiders, which can include anyone non-white, non-normative of gender or gender identity, or who just colors outside the lines in any other aspect of life.

They don’t want a new car every three years or a fancy house or the latest electronics or clothing with labels.

But here in America, that type of thinking doesn’t make money. So the same artists that suburban moms come into the city to ogle and feel cultured about cannot afford to live in the city that only has an actual real culture because of these artists.

Ya feel me?

When we talk about the loss of human life in the Ghost Ship and the recent eviction from The Bell Foundry here in Baltimore, we don’t talk about the fact that these artists cannot afford to live in the cities in which they make art. Some of them moved to the city to gain more acceptance than was available in their small towns; once here, the only affordable housing option is living cheek-to-jowl in unregulated warehouse spaces.

Now cities, fearing litigation, are cracking down, evicting artists with mere hours’ notice on fire code violations.

Don’t get me wrong: they should. No one should live or work in a space that is unsafe.

But these are basic human rights: food, safe housing, and clean water.

This should be available in every area of the country. Flint. Oakland. Baltimore. Appalachia.

Artists should not have to choose between a safe space to lay their head and practice their art or living in a small rural town with safe spaces but no access to acceptance or shows or support.

Why aren’t we talking about this?

Because America doesn’t give a shit about the creative life.

They don’t care about art that can’t be turned into a mug or a meme or a sweatshirt.

The people who practice art in these spaces are fighting to claim their right to exist in rapidly gentrifying cities that only welcome certain types of culture. If your art is transient or too wacky, it’s not really art.

If you are gay or trans or non-white or uneducated or poor, you don’t really belong in the neighborhoods filled with craft beer halls, restaurant incubators, and live/work community arrangements that favor only middle to upper-income residents who trend white, straight, and upwardly mobile.

Big secret: many of the workers in these places live in unregulated, unsafe spaces, too. Spaces that are increasingly rare and being bought up by investors who own property in a dozen cities across the country.

Pretty soon, helped along by corporate investors and communities that hang large-scale painting in elevators and coffee bars on the first floor of new high-rises, our acceptable artists will be so smoothed over and generic, our cities so same-same that we won’t even need identifying city names; we can simply say City 1 and City 2, just to differentiate where they are on the map. With Whole Foods, Lululemon, and megaplexes replacing small performance spaces and artist warehouses, the soul is rapidly draining from our country’s cities.

Oakland’s average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is around $2,400. The Ghost Ship residents paid around $700.

Baltimore’s average rent is about $1,500 for a one-bedroom apartment in the city. A 2015 ad on Reddit listed a Bell Foundry “rafter room” (unfinished) for rent at just $285.

You can see how an artist who just wants to create might choose cheaper rent to stay off the wheel of commerce.

You can see how a landlord with a shitty building and a muddy conscience might feel okay renting to “outcasts” who wouldn’t make much of a stink to keep rents low.

You can see how most of the country just shrugs and moves on when these same buildings burn down, taking lives and life works with them.

This is unrelated to the food that this blog generally focuses on, but I find it deeply troubling. I have chosen to close a school that I started and in which I worked 80-hour weeks to make it successful. I have chosen not to get a 40-hour a week job and even have the most tenuous of assorted jobs that one could perhaps cobble together (personal chef, writer, and yoga teacher).

That we are so far gone down the rabbit hole of More and Better, that we are gentrifying the core of our cities and funneling the Middle and Upper Classes into pre-approved art museums and other cultural arenas, that we don’t give a rat’s ass if out-of-the-norm people who make out-of-the-norm art live in dangerous buildings, matters.

Food, safe housing, and clean water.

This matters.

These are basic human rights.

Let’s all start there.

Oakland’s mayor has just announced a nearly $2 million initiative for safe artist space. That’s one step.

A GoFundMe page has been set up for the evicted artists of the Bell Foundry.

There are many resources for families, loved ones, and artists affected by the fire at the Ghost Ship.