Do “gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people” (whatever that might mean)? And what does Jesus think and feel about that? Let’s mentalize about it.
The other day one of our pastors, Jonny Rashid, posted an interesting article on Facebook about which I have been thinking ever since. It was a potpourri of commentary on changing Eastern cities in reaction to the new mural Amtrak and the National Endowment of the Arts have commissioned Philadelphia’s famous Mural Arts program to oversee. They want to do something to beautify a bit of the ride from 30th St. Station to the usually-deserted North Philadelphia station. Sarah Kendzior labeled the whole project an example of The Peril of Hipster Economics and Aljazeera printed her thoughts. Her criticism was in direct response to a Wall Street Journal article called Fighting Urban Blight with Art by Jessica Dawson.
Among the many colorful and true things in Kendzior’s article was this incendiary gem: “Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.” She did not define the term aesthetics, which was probably a good idea, since people are having trouble doing that. The term generally refers to the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty. What she really meant to say, probably, was that “hipsters tend to see people in relation to their aesthetic.”
We are not doing too much fighting about the philosophy of aesthetics these days, since it was a very modern invention of German philosophers and we are pretty much post-modern, or heading there. But we are talking a lot about the ideas and feelings that characterize and guide artistic movements — their aesthetic. Everything has a design aesthetic (Apple being notorious for this). But since in consumer capitalism people are also commodities it becomes logical to decide what your personal aesthetic is, the “look” that fits your “brand.” “Hipsters” (do we still call people hipsters?) have their own sense of what is aesthetically pleasing. Even more, they, as individuals, have their own aesthetic. They have a “look” they are constrained to present. That’s the part of all of this that interests me. In this sense, we are all becoming hipsters and have our own personal aesthetic.
We should not be surprised that the great grandchildren of people who appeared on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour have multiplied into a society in which everyone can sing, dance and feel obligated to present themselves as a work of art, because America’s got talent! Everyone has a sense of how to present themselves according to their own aesthetic. We have TV shows devoted to our living rooms and wardrobes and the image-driven social media into which we are locked demands a certain art of self-definition. Critics will tell you if what you have done is “overworked” or over-designed because we are supposed to look like we don’t really fret over how we look! We are so generally narcissistic, as a society, that it might be possible, as Kendzior accuses, for people to see other people as elements, or not, of their aesthetic. Ethics may be in the process of quickly being reduced to aesthetics.
Is the new mural just more Disneyfication of the landscape? The Inquirer said, “Soon…droves of art-hungry tourists may be making” a “pilgrimage” to North Philly to see the strange experiment. Like the surreal Disney World carved out of the uninhabitable central Florida, a bit of unreality is creeping into North Philly. Like facades on Mainstreet USA, the artists can mask the reality of poverty and injustice behind their aesthetically-satisfying mural. Masking reality is the Disney specialty. Will the natives of North Philly dance for the tourists when they come to visit like “cast members” (that’s Disney employees are called) do in Florida? Will new North Philly trinkets be invented to sell as a memento of a tourist’s visit to the foreign country through which they have been speeding all these years?
Or is the new mural just a logical expression of the Facebookization of persons? Can we really even talk about differing communities talking to one another now (like Amtrak talking to North Philly), since relating is reduced to images connecting virtually so often? Everyone is required by the omnipresent social media engines to present themselves with some kind of aesthetic choice. How I decide to present my image is important, since most of our communication is reduced to images. Our lives tend to be captions to pictures, titles to images that represent our interests and accomplishments. We are reduced to gravatars and icons. We no longer even have to have someone take our picture; we’ve been reduced to selfies. Is it any surprise that so-called hipsters would be more interested in a neighborhood’s aesthetic than with the people in it? How it photographs is important to them.
The mural gives people still interested in ethics a perfect example of the insanity of how money is spent in Philly. $300,000 will be spent on a temporary mural while behind it people will keep scraping by and starving. It is an ethical nightmare — a Disney choice by Facebooked numbskulls, it would appear. But don’t blame it on the so-called hipsters, as if they actually clamoured for this mural or have some amazing influence on Amtrak! If anything, blame the one-percent who are decorating their infrastructure according to the aesthetic of conspicuous consumption. Hipsters ride the Megabus, not Amtrak! The hipsters are serving the one percent in their restaurants and trying to get a gig on the latest version of Ted Mack! The hipsters I know are much more likely to be a good neighbor than Amtrak. Like the people who claim North Philly as their native land, they are likely to be reduced to finding a rare, affordable place to live, not merely decorate.
I think it is important for Jesus-followers to argue the philosophies and unconscious actions that dominate our days. What Christians bring to the process is a demand for reconciliation: with God and with others. Then we can get somewhere with justice. Commenting on Jonny’s post, Marquita said: “The mural being made has a greater benefit to the city in hiding what should be its shameful failure to adequately provide jobs and educational for its citizens.” So true. Nick said: “Reconciliation is a process, and there’s room in the process for some redistribution to go along with the love. Now, how do we get the so-called ‘job creators’ to even join the process?” Great thought. Great question! I am a pretty optimistic guy and I think God is with me when I prophecy to the powers that be. But unbelievers are shameless and greedy (and plenty of believers are too!). My hope remains in the message of reconciliation delivered by authentic people of God acting in an alternative community. Otherwise Disney, Facebook and their inevitable successors are the future. There is another future already present in Christ; we know Him.