ELEMENTAL The 2010 Iron Pour at Steel Yard. [Photo by Greg Cook]
In 2004, the Stinktank at AS220, Providence’s amazing alternative art empire, published a paper titled “Compost and the Arts.” It argued that though this art-making thing can seem mysterious, there are practical ways of incubating exciting creative communities. Key among them is offering shared workspaces, bulletin boards, galleries, and hangouts like cafes and bars. Because places where people meet and ideas get shared are vital to creativity.
Theaters, music halls, galleries, and newspapers like our dear departing Providence Phoenix — the spark for these thoughts today — are machines for seeding ideas into our communities.
And I think these mechanics were on the mind of John Adams, the second American president, when he became the principal author of the constitution for that state to the north of here, Massachusetts — the joint that the great founders of Providence were smart enough to get thrown out of.
But Massachusetts got this thing right. In the fine art world, there’s lots of dreary talk about how the creative economy will give people jobs or bring moolah to restaurants and souvenir shops, or something. Instead I’m inspired that Adams and friends made it the legal “duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth” to promote the arts.
Why is this the duty of the Massachusetts government? Because the arts help spread “wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue.” And that fostering these qualities is “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”
In other words, Adams and friends are telling us that we need the arts because they help us think better. And we need to think better to be successful in our roles in maintaining a healthy democracy.
For me, writing about art is about community-building in another way — to encourage more art-making here and to create a more wondrous and meaningful community for all of us who live around these parts. Which is part of why I prefer to do it at a free newspaper like the Phoenix, to make the art we feature accessible to more folks.
The arts aren’t just nutritional supplements, of course. As an art person, I often feel like I don’t fit right in the normal world. Much as I try, it’s like I’m coming at it sideways or upside down. Like I’m doing it wrong. Perhaps you come to the arts because you feel this way too.
Whatever the reason, it feels like I end up doing projects in many places where I feel tolerated, rather than embraced or encouraged. The Phoenix has been one of the rare places in my life where I’ve felt at home — a big, public institution for the freaks and activists, the radicals and the rascals. Losing it, for me, is like the death of a close friend. The loss is physical, in my belly.