This is a dangerous time for community engagement, support for the arts, and the liberal conscience. It is the coffee shop that sells free-trade organic coffee and hosts “Fracking Awareness” talks, but still pays its employees unlivable wages. It is the Whole-Foods-shopping tenured liberal arts professor that does not think to buy health insurance for her 40-hour-a-week BFA-holding nanny. It is the quarter million dollar light show/art project in a city where an entire generation of educated artists stretch the definition of “prior experience” to land jobs walking dogs and washing dishes.
We have misplaced our social conscience within its own empty projection. We buy into the mirage that things are changing for the better while below the surface and under our noses everything is staying exactly the same. “Hope” and “change” are now ideas that we can buy instead of earn. This comes at the expense of those individuals and causes nearest to us: the ones who could benefit most directly if we only cared more about actual engagement and less about looking engaged. After all, no one can see you establish a 401K for your employees but they definitely can see you shopping at the Farmer’s Market.
In a borrowing of rhetoric, I simply would like us to ensure that our engagement is sustainable. While frequenting Farmer’s Markets, listening to NPR, and supporting local business are all laudable practices, in order to effectively create real long term change in our failing economic and social system, we need to invest in all levels of proximity and visibility. Think globally, act locally, compensate familially. Without this holistic response we risk the erection of a far more insidious, brittle, and crushing system. A movement where social conscience is tied inexorably to corporate cycles and is ultimately as disposable as last year’s model. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A consumer in Tom’s Shoes.
In our last open forum we asked: What if we paid all the interns in Philadelphia for one year? The benefits would be obvious and painfully direct. There would be a more competitive, more diverse pool of candidates for every organization to choose from. These individuals would be highly motivated and clearly focused. They would infuse our arts system with new vigor and productivity. But the hopelessness of this idea in all of its un-sexy practicality struck me almost immediately. Instead, funding will continue to flow into high visibility, technology enabled, elitist projects. An iPhone app that changes the Barnes Foundation different colors.
This started as a letter about paying interns. It has concluded as a frustrated bark. It is a gesture as empty as the habits it admonishes; words that are effective as a butter knife; metaphors that have no effectiveness at all. My small hope is for all of it to be egregious, for it to be in complete error, and for you to write me and tell me so.
The Nicola Midnight St.Claire