How ironic: Motorcity, the seeding ground of global motorization and air pollution was hit by a heat wave this summer 2017. Amongst its sweating population of new hipsters and old Detroiters was—escapist and connoisseur of beauty—our beloved Sanguinius. Living the life of a rolling stone (at least during the summer months), he experienced the challenging social, economic and ethnic borders between the “serious” engagement with music in institutional contexts and those forms you get to experience on the “streets”.
“Why are you traveling to Detroit?” I heard people ask most of the time, when I told my friends and random acquaintances about my plans to spend a couple of days in the old car-capital. —“I’m curious!”, I responded, “And I really need some exercise.”
Hardly any of my friends from the Midwest have visited Detroit since it fell into despair after the financial crisis in 2007. A lot has happened since then, and things are in constant change right now. I couldn’t stand the lethargy of suburban couch-culture with its barbecues, shopping malls and beauty salons, recreation areas and golf courts any longer. I needed to move my body and wanted to immerse in the urban flux.
I didn’t want to strain my hosts to drive me downtown past 8th mile. So I chose an alternative way of travel—the bus—and put all hope in my firm European belief that my feet will carry me to the desired destination.
Climate change was treating Michigan and the Great Lakes with two extra-hot weeks in late September. I was sweating like hell and cursed myself for not having kept to my diet lately. Admittedly, I did pig out at the splendid barbecues and couch-buffets with my suburb friends, yet not without expressing a line of critique towards America’s wasteful lifestyle—something I naturally felt obliged to. Anyway, because of overweight, my sight seeing plan was laid out according to a string of air-conditioned venues and edifices that I could easily reach; from DIA to Hop Cat, Wholefoods to MOCAD, and the Orchestra Hall to Starbucks. I was in town for art and music (and obviously food). Still, I looked forward to stroll the city that brought forth so many rhythms and riches to the upbeat era of American dreamers. Once upon a time, nobody could even imagine the chain of crises that haunted the city.
Today, the defeated metropolis reveals itself as a faint vision of a nearing hyper-capitalist and over-privatized future. The city equally inhibits dystopian and utopian spirits, yet strangely inverted. Private capital bought up the whole city center and supplements public structures like safety, public transport and a profitable loan-business that seems to have revived the real estate business, or at least speculating on it.
In the course of the crash and later transitions, culture, and particularly the city’s collection of fine arts was targeted straightforwardly by bill collectors. Private donators warded off the sell-out and bailed out the city’s growing dept. Vice versa, the city is paying its toll in power. Residents say that there is hardly a budget to buy staplers and pencils. So the city council now gives in to most dreams of its wealthy owners.
Surprisingly, the living arts thrive. They have always been and still are dependent on private funders. Ever since private capital grew, art and money are tied together. American tax politics make this liaison even more profitable. Yet, the higher the arts—the richer and pinker its stakeholders. This might be the reason why, in a city with a population of 90% Afro-Americans, a concert of modern compositions in Cagean tradition attracts a 99% pink audience. This is exactly what—pinky me—experienced on the first night of a 3-day marathon of contemporary music titled “Strange Beautiful Music”. No big surprise considering the fact that John Cage felt great unease with musics like rock and roll, free jazz or improv. He openly favored a pink Eurological canon (Lewis 1996).
Now, is Detroit a city at the cusp of dividing (again)?
DEFINITELY NOT! And this is precisely BECAUSE music plays such a significant role in its history. Who doesn’t recall their favorite Motown idols? Prince, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross? Detroit’s music history continued in House and Techno that expanded worldwide into underground clubs inviting millions of bodies and minds to immerse in a feeling of spiritual and communal ecstasy. This is surely a romanticist’s perspective, but one exhibition in Detroit did particularly tackle popular music’s genuine subversive powers and its political agency.
Until January 7th 2018, MOCAD is showing Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance—a historical and aesthetic analysis of in great parts excluded, truly serious art that touches public and social agendas. Reaching from Berry Gordy’s side label BLACK FORUM, through first Punk Rock movements, Hip Hop and House up to today’s abstract sound studies, the prominent art-jetsetter Jens Hoffman (currently suspended for alleged sexual harassment) and (co-?)curator Robin K. Williams, Ford Curatorial Fellow, put together a well-selected presentation of Detroit’s artistic movements that did not make it into the finely preserved and pinkishly polished institutional collections before. Chapeau! This exhibition proved my first impression of the United States of Trump-Dream-World wrong.
I definitely want to see more initiatives that research the cultural and artistic heritage of overheard and marginalized minorities. Private donors worldwide: Go for it! Help maintain the richness of ALL human intellect! Multi-colored hipster-tourists from the Global Village will appreciate your initiative! It seems uncertain whether publicly funded institutions will have the resources and genuine motivation to support and maintain much more but its pink cultural heritage and classify everything other in questionable ethnographic orders (hello Europe). Serious art includes more than the Eurological canon. Its time to over through some fixed ideas on the cultural hegemony of western narratives.