We went down to Artscape last summer, as we have every summer since its invention. The gods decree that it will be held on the hottest and most humid weekend of July and that at some point a Jakarta-like thunderstorm will drench the displays, leaving everything sodden and sorry.
There’s not much actual art at Artscape. Last year, the most amazing creation we could find was something called “the giant smoked Cajun turkey leg.” Many Baltimorons were gnawing on Cajun turkey legs. Maybe it was a kind of performance art.
In fairness, most of the stuff on display consists of art of the craft family- macrame, tie-dyed things, weird jewelry, bits of broken mirrors or carpet remnants glued to an old Ford Falcon. Many blasphemous representations of Jesus Christ, his Mom and God Almighty, too. The whole scene smells like Polock Johnny’s in the old days, but the prices are higher. The lemonade is as expensive as Veuve Clicquot.
We love the weird stuff. The pale, skinny girls in black yowling strange over-amplified music of their own devising. The four Gorilla Grrrllls, or whatever they called themselves, wearing jackboots and peddling a homemade angry lesbian magazine. They weren’t that angry. We had a very pleasant chat with them and bought one of their magazines, but it got wet when the thunderstorm started.
We heard a lot of really bad poetry. We saw a guy dressed in a suit made entirely of zippers. The smell of patchouli could have choked an asthmatic.
Indeed, Artscape reminds me less of an art exhibition than of the heydays of the old City Fair- a venue where one could see Baltimore at its best, black and white together. The live music has a lot to do with it. One summer we heard Aretha Franklin sing. It was a classic Artscape night- sweltering and still- but the audience was captivated. Many of Miss Franklin’s fans were African-American women of a certain age who sang along with every song. It was spellbinding and I am not easily spellbound.
Another year we heard Emmylou Harris. She had the crowd transfixed. One of her songs was sung a cappella, a sad lament by Stephen Foster called “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The song is 150 years old, but it could be our city’s theme song.
Lately there’s been talk of making every day Artscape in Baltimore, so to speak. The impetus for this is Richard Florida’s 2002 book called “The Rise of the Creative Class,” a hot tome that argues that hard times will come again no more if we cultivate artistic centers in our dying cities. Artists will come and the boom will follow.
Critics think it’s cuckoo but the book’s supporters say that artists will pave the road to the New Jerusalem. I don’t want to be a naysayer, an opponent of this visionary way of thinking, a “squelcher.” But frankly, I have some reservations about betting the farm on art, especially based on the variety found at Artscape. Our social and economic problems might be too much for macrame to vanquish. Can the giant smoked Cajun turkey leg be our juggernaut- the thing that finally reduces our city’s drug addiction and murder rates, heals our failing schools?
Too, my greatest fear is that New York- the cloaca maxima of art in America- will take more of a shine to Baltimore once we actively try to attract the Creative Class. I don’t think I can stand another earnest dispatch in The New York Times about the glory that is Hampden- “It’s so blue collar. It’s so quirky.” Sure, the price of rowhouses has skyrocketed in Hampden but it’s still not Greenwich Village in the 1920s. More like Paw Paw, W.Va., in the 1950s.
It’s true that Baltimore contains more empty loft space than any city in Christendom. We’ve got dark, satanic mills aplenty. William Blake would be impressed. But God help us if we start getting artistic immigrants down here. I have no problem with illegal aliens or undocumented workers; my own grandparents came here in steerage. But if they bring artists down from New York we’ll fight house to house.
What are we going to do with the artists who come here and fail? Face it, one man’s artist is another man’s barista or video store clerk. Everybody is not Van Gogh. Hell, Van Gogh wasn’t Van Gogh when he was alive, poor devil.
Our modest dining and entertainment scene can only absorb so many sullen waiters. Paper Moon Diner, Donna’s and the Charles Theatre can only employ so many. Kinko’s might implode! We could be shaking hands with the devil. We need to think about this.
Look, I drink too much coffee as it is. But if it’ll help the economy- and provide jobs for Baltimore’s new population of starving artists- well, caution and my blood pressure be damned, I’ll have another Red Eye for the sake of art and the tax base, too.
I don’t look good in macrame, but I am willing to make sacrifices. I’m even willing to eat a giant Cajun turkey leg if it’ll help. Or drive a Ford Falcon with carpet remnants glued to it. I’m ready to stop and smell the patchouli. I’m ready for when every day is Artscape.