by Mark W. Scala/ May 2016
Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Head for the water. This is the advice to newly emerging artists that renowned critic Dave Hickey offered during a talk here a few years ago. Go to L.A. or New York. These coastal metropoles are where the market is—the critical apparatus and large numbers of artists, galleries, and museums that can spur you to excel, and maybe even to buck the odds and have a financially and critically successful career without having to teach or wait tables. As important, such cities are places of great dynamism, where people have come from all around the world to live, to influence, to inspire, and to compete with one another. Without this cultural meshing, you risk provincialism, insularity, and being away from the pulse.
As someone who hopes our area artists, collectors, art dealers, and indeed any art lover will feel invested in the growth of our own cultural community, I had to wince a bit at Hickey’s call to migrate, however statistically justifiable it may be. But while the economics will not change, the path to success and happiness as an artist is not entirely one-way. Many creative people still move to New York, and their struggle to survive while making art is frankly inspiring; it is a measure of seriousness and ambition. I often encourage young artists of a certain fire to throw themselves into the big mix.
Yet terrific artists are leaving Brooklyn and L.A., escaping the daily pressures and looking for a balanced life. Being out of the cauldron allows them to see that the art world is a useful construct, but one that only touches on the broader dimensions of reality that might fruitfully define one’s place in the wider world. In an age of increased access through artist websites and international art fairs, in which galleries from across the globe present artists from far-flung cities and countries, it is a little easier now to reach the marketplace than it once was, although it still takes single-mindedness and effort to distinguish oneself from a million others.
So what do I mean by touching on broader dimensions of reality? I have no assured idea, but have recently been trying to understand this in terms of what philosophers call the “social imaginary.” This is the intersection of language and law, family and group identity and customs, physical needs and psychological expressions, religious belief, and science and technology—all those invisible things that shape individual bodies into a social organism; in short, the “creative and symbolic dimension of the social world.”1 To me the social imaginary constitutes reality precisely because it is unfixed: the seemingly solid things of the world delude us about the ephemeral nature of existence.
My effort at understanding is complicated by the realization that social imaginaries today overlap in place and time. With global communications yielding a universe of conflicting information, vast migrations causing cultural collisions, and incompatibilities leading to religious and political tension, we may sense only chaos as we try to link these imaginaries into a master narrative. These forces are just so big, deep, and amorphous. They are like an ocean, even less fathomable than the watery one, which has come to us, in Nashville and around the world. This heaving formlessness makes many people seasick, and they yearn for that illusory solid ground. Others see endless horizons.
As artists, authors, musicians, and poets seek to add to the symbolism that becomes a part of the social imaginary, the ones who may be the most attuned to reality are those who strive to give poetic form to its inchoate fluidity. The best they can do, in Nashville as well as anywhere, is to employ their talents, hearts, and minds to respond to aspects of this human-made ocean that provide the greatest inspiration or consternation. To create the most mysterious, troubling, or beautiful things that we would not otherwise see.