Thomas Frank: Why Does Everything Have to be Shiny and "Vibrant"?
The following article first appeared in the current issue of The Baffler.
My hometown is vibrant. Its status as such is certified, official, stamped on both sides.
There was a time, though, when it wasn’t, when my friends and I would laugh at Kansas City’s blandness: its harmless theater productions, its pretentious suburbs, its private country clubs, its eternal taste for classic rock. We called it “Cupcake Land,” after a favorite Richard Rhodes essay from the eighties. The city knew nothing of the bold ideas of our robust generation, we thought: it had virtually no music subculture; it was deaf to irony; hell, it actually tried to drive out of business the last surviving club from its jazz-age glory days.
Maybe that was the sort of criticism everybody made of their Midwestern hometowns back then. Well, those hometowns have certainly turned the tables on us today. Our enthusiasm for music is a dead thing now in these post-alternative decades, a mere record collection that we occasionally cue up after one Scotch too many to help remember the time when art seemed to matter.
But Kansas City doesn’t need any reminders. The place fairly quivers with vitality now. It is swarming with artists; its traffic islands are bedecked with the colorful products of their studios. It boasts a spectacular new performing arts center designed by one of those spectacular new celebrity architects. It even has an indie-rock festival to call its own. And while much of the city’s flowering has been organic and spontaneous, other parts of its renaissance were engineered by the very class of civic leaders we used to deride for their impotence and cluelessness. At that Kansas City indie-rock festival, for example, the mayor himself made a presentation this year, as did numerous local professionals and business leaders.
Besides, as everyone knows, cupcakes are cool nowadays, like yoga or something—the consummate expression of the baker’s artisanal vibrancy.
Your hometown is probably vibrant, too. Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to attain vibrancy soon. The reason is simple: a city isn’t successful— isn’t even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being “vibrant.” Vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.
The pursuit of the vibrant seems to be the universal job description of the nation’s city planners nowadays. It is also part of the Obama administration’s economic recovery strategy for the nation. In the fall of 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts launched “ArtPlace,” a joint project with the nation’s largest banks and foundations, and ArtPlace immediately began generating a cloud of glowing euphemisms around the central, hallowed clichÃ©:
ArtPlace is investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities.
Specifically, vibrancy transforms communities by making them more prosperous. Art- Place says its goal is not merely to promote the arts but to “transform economic development in America,” a project that is straightforward and obvious if you accept the organization’s slogan: “Art creates vibrancy and increases economic opportunity.”
And that, presumably, is why everyone is so damn vibrant these days. Consider Akron, Ohio, which was recently the subject of a conference bearing the thrilling name “Greater Akron: This Is What Vibrant Looks Like.” Or Boise, Idaho, whose citizens, according to the city’s Department of Arts and History, are “fortunate to live in a vibrant community in which creativity flourishes in every season.” Or Cincinnati, which is the home of a nonprofit called “Go Vibrant” as well as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which hands out “Cultural Vibrancy” grants, guided by the knowledge that “Cultural Vibrancy is vital to a thriving community.”
Is Rockford, Illinois, vibrant? Oh my god yes: according to a local news outlet, the city’s “Mayor’s Arts Award nominees make Rockford vibrant.” The Quad Cities? Check: As their tourism website explains, the four hamlets are “a vibrant community of cities sharing the Mississippi River in both Iowa and Illinois.” Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Need you even ask? Pittsburgh is a sort of Athens of the vibrant; a city where dance parties and rock concerts enjoy the vigorous boosting of an outfit called “Vibrant Pittsburgh”; a place that draws young people from across the nation to frolic in its “numerous hip and vibrant neighborhoods,” according to a blog maintained by a consortium of Pittsburgh business organizations.
The vibrations are just as stimulating in the component parts of this exciting new civilization. The people of creative-land use vibrant apps to check their bank accounts, chew on vegetarian “vibrancy bars,” talk to one another on vibrant cellphones, and drive around in cars painted “vibrant white.”
Then there are the unfortunate places from which the big V is said to have receded, like the “once-vibrant” Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where remediation efforts are thankfully under way. Detroit has for years provided the nation’s thoughtful class with sobering lessons on what happens when the vibrant evaporates, and the fear that such a fate might befall other scenes and other communities still occasionally makes headlines. A looming “shortage of vibrancy” reportedly gave the Connecticut business community quite a scare in 2007, while the city fathers of Cleveland took a peep at all that was vibrating in Seattle back in 2002 and suspected that they were losing the race: “Without that vibrancy, Cleveland may decline.”
The real Sahara of the vibrant, though, is that part of America where lonely Midwestern farmers live among “crumbling reminders of more vibrant days.” This is a land from which vibrancy has withdrawn its blessings; the disastrous depopulation that has followed is, if we follow the guideposts of vibrancy theory, the unavoidable consequence. In small towns, bored teenagers turn their eyes longingly to the exciting doings in the big cities, pining for urban amenities like hipster bars and farmers’ markets and indie-rock festivals. Like everyone else, they want the vibrant and they will not be denied.
But while everyone agrees that “vibrancy” is the ultimate desideratum of urban life, no one seems to be exactly sure what vibrancy is. In fact, the Municipal Art Society of New York recently held a panel discussion—excuse me, a “convening”—of foundation people to talk about “Measuring Vibrancy” (it seems “the impact of arts and cultural investments on neighborhoods . . . is hard to quantify”). In retrospect, it would have been far better to convene such a gathering before all those foundation people persuaded the cities of the nation to blow millions setting up gallery districts and street fairs.
Even ArtPlace, the big vibrancy project of the NEA, the banks, and the foundations, is not entirely sure that vibrancy can be observed or quantified. That’s why the group is developing what it calls “Vibrancy Indicators”: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly,” the group’s website admits, “we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within cities.”
What are those measures? Unfortunately, at press time, they had not yet been announced. But a presentation of preliminary work on the “Vibrancy Indicators” did include this helpful directive: “Inform leaders of the connection between vibrancy and prosperity.”
Got that? We aren’t sure what vibrancy is or whether or not it works, but part of the project is nevertheless “informing” people that it does. The meaninglessness of the phrase, like the absence of proof, does not deter the committed friend of the vibrant: if you know it’s the great good thing, you simply push ahead, moving all before you with your millions.
It is time to acknowledge the truth: that our leaders have nothing to say, really, about any of this. They have nothing to suggest, really, to Cairo, Illinois, or St. Joseph, Missouri. They have no comment to make, really, about the depopulation of the countryside or the deindustrialization of the Midwest. They have nothing to offer, really, but the same suggestions as before, gussied up with a new set of clichÃ©s. They have no idea what to do for places or people that aren’t already successful or that have no prospects of ever becoming cool.
And so the dull bureaucrat lusts passionately for the lifestyle of the creative artist, but beneath it all is the harsh fact that foundations have been selling the vibrant, under one label or another, for decades; all they’ve done this time is repackage it as a sort of prosperity gospel for Ivy League art students. As the name of a suburban St. Louis street festival puts it, without the smallest detectable trace of irony, “Let them eat art.”
To read the rest of this article, visit thebaffler.com
Contributor ID: Thomas Frank is founding editor of The Baffler and author of Pity the Billionaire, the paperback edition of which will be published this fall.