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State of the Arts: Does Seattle have an arts aesthetic?

It's a throw-the-world-open kind of question, but that doesn't mean it can't be answered. Three traits that make Seattle arts, well, Seattle.
The Hideout, a Seattle arts gallery with a full bar.

The Hideout, a Seattle arts gallery with a full bar. Photo: The Hideout

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Is there a Seattle arts aesthetic? At first blush, the topic seems better fit for a late-night barstool debate than as a point of serious conversation among civic and economic leaders. But that would mean a missed opportunity for Seattle as a whole. Defining the character and values of our arts community is not just possible, but valuable. 

Proper articulation can help better allocate resources, define policy and direct visitors towards our best cultural assets, not just the most visible. Seattle’s very identity as a city of creativity requires that we properly know and support our local arts community on its own terms.

At first glance, a singular citywide aesthetic is nearly impossible to define. The style of our poets is different from our painters and different again from our performers. And even if we were to dive into each individual discipline, we would find little stylistic rigor within. 

In fact, Seattle seems to eschew the very idea of stylistic rigor, opting instead for a myriad of independent and equal voices. Non-conformity, irreverence and independence are common traits among our artists and artworks, and can be mistaken for a lack of continuity. But instead it points to our first characteristic:

Seattle’s artists are pioneering.

Just as the city itself is not long removed from its roots as a frontier outpost, Seattle’s artists are still but pioneers, opting to blaze trails in the aesthetic wilderness over walking the well-paved avenues of our sister cities to the East. Authenticity, earnestness, irreverence and do-it-yourself values drive the majority of our output. These are pioneer values.

Examples are found all over, but especially in the music scene, where local artists are driven continuously towards new and authentic personal voices that gain national attention. We saw it with the punk ethos of the seventies. We saw it with grunge in the 80s and 90s.  And today we see it with indie and hip-hop groups, including celebrated examples like Macklemore, Blue Scholars, The Head and the Heart, Modest Mouse and Band of Horses.

Seattle’s art is also enterprising. 

When looking for the brightest spots, our regional history seems alit by a constellation of sprawling business empires scaled up from humble origins.

Whether it was William Boeing constructing seaplanes in a boathouse, Bill Gates hacking up code on Lakeside School’s Teletype or the Starbucks founders scrambling about their small storefront in the market, Seattle’s best-known brands have simple beginnings and ambitious creators. 

The arts community is no different. A study last decade put Seattle at the top of the list for arts organizations per capita. Many (if not most) of these are founded by the artists themselves and have their origins in the same storefronts, basements, warehouses and garages that housed early Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks. 

Our artists, like our business leaders, are enterprising, innovative and entrepreneurial — as interested in the context of their work as in the work itself. 

There are big international examples like Dale Chihuly and Quincy Jones, who have remade their medium by turning their studios and their names into international production powerhouses.

More locally and more recently, artist entrepreneurs like Greg Lundgren (of Walden 3 and The Hideout) blur the lines between culture and commerce, combining restaurant and retail projects with more traditional art and performance installations.

Walden 3, a proposed Seattle arts center, would take over the building formerly occupied by the Lusty Lady. Concept photo: Olson Kundig Architects.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 7:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's a very young place, in terms of settler presence, and I return to Kenneth Rexroth's comment from 50 years ago: "...the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…" This factor is a key part of the success of people like Morris Graves. Add the indigenous influence (Coastal Salish art is one of the most accomplished regional gestures) and you have the beginnings of an understanding of the substrate of the Seattle art aesthetic. This investigation is part of what drives us to continue work on the Cascadia Poetry Festival and is at the core of my work as a poet with "A Time Before Slaughter" and "Pig War & Other Songs of Cascadia." That this discussion begins with Any Fife and Crosscut says a lot about their character. Thank you. That the place is young, in settler terms, we have an opportunity to shape it, which is exciting.

Splabman

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

First thing I noticed about Seattle when I started exploring it on my two trusted mules nearly 20 years ago was that this is a city without an eye, or maybe a city that it had lost it's eye early in its beginnings; for the original craftsmen and what I call turn of the 19th century commercial [Pioneer Square], generic as the latter is in the country as a whole, are scarcely lacking in visual attention. Then something appears to have happened here, perhaps it was the depression. The south side of Queen Anne Hill's nondescript mediocrity is my chief example of that. Modernism appears never to have taken, except as copy cats among the high rises. I recall looking vainly for one spot along the waterfront whence I might have a good perspective, and found it and marked! – vantage point! A general perspective of the housing along the waterfronts is reminiscent of, say, Trondheim, Nordic sparse.
Seattle had a lot of music 20 years ago which I, as the publisher of the first book on Punk in the U.S. in New York found to be rather mushy compared to the real hard stuff to which I had taken a liking.
Poets and writers – even the so-called New York School of poets cannot be said to have had a unifying aesthetic, although mutual support – the interaction of response and desire – may have played an important role. The newspapers hereabouts have never been much good, I came in at the tail end of the Weekly and learned quite a bit from folks like Mossback. The Stranger is lively for sure, but lacks a sufficiency of good critics.
This is chiefly a city of commerce and engineering and first rate hospitals. I have no sense that the arts are vital to it as they are to some extent to New York. And Mr. Fife’s language “Proper articulation can help better allocate resources, define policy and direct visitors towards our best cultural assets, not just the most visible. Seattle’s very identity as a city of creativity requires that we properly know and support our local arts community on its own terms” not just fails to make my heart sing but, rather, makes it sink.

I know a little bit about theater, and my experience has been progressively more depressing. There were beginning it appears in the 70s through the early 90s, but back to chestnut time it is. All around provinciality rules, the not overly impressive propagators in the field are not really to blame, or not for too long, you cannot hold the tide, it is too strong, it is too fundamentally ingrained. Besides, there is television, and sports. Seattle is not a real sports town, but perhaps something worse – a wanna-be-sports-town!

Considering its beginning and the people that stocked it, Seattle is not doing all that badly. Mr. Fife lists some of them - although I don't believe that the marriage of art and social activism makes for good art, it makes for more enjoyable activisim for sure. One other commenter here, Slabman, makes a good point - which needs to be rethought in terms of whether the great nativist aesthetic of the once indigenous that developed over many centuries has any other but an arts and crafts relationship to the present. Seattle has possibilities, there are sufficient seedlings around. Give it another hundred years, a higher proportion of Mexicans and Jews and intermarriage with the trolls…and who knows

mikerol

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 4:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Mexicans and Jews? Trolls? I dunno. I'm not sure what a "unifying aesthetic" is. We had the bubbleator and Jakk Korsaw and Emmett Watson. Now we get Dale Chihuly and 1% for the arts and mikerol. Maybe Nellie Cornish had a unifying aesthetic. Or Orie Nobles. The hospitals are pretty good, and they all seem to buy lots of paintings. I imagine the Italian futurists might have liked it here: Jet City. Or we once were. And don't forget the hydroplanes, aesthetically unified by Alisons and Rolls Royces, now gone the way of live theater. Trondheim's so flat, although it shares that Leif Ericson statue with us. That's sort of unifying.

gabowker

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 5:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Its not everyday or even every year that you hear some one mention Jakk Korsaw........I do love the hospitals buying Arts perspective...swedish has a nicecollection.

chapala21

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

While the famous are great to note, I really love to see programs for youth that are noted in this article. I also love the plethora of people and experienced based creativity. A few examples: the Zombie walk, protest based song, Folk life, poetry slam, Parking Day. The CD is going to have an almost 2-mile hopscotch experience this summer. Neoghbors are invited to show off their blocks, with games or lemonade stands or other means of expression.

Don't forget the arts taught in many venues in Seattle. Besides the formal institutions, we have a lot of music schools, community centers, projects like Coyote and Steward Park.

Also of note, unlike almost every other city, the Seattle Design Center is open to the public.

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 5:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Have you read: Green Gothic by Matthew Offenbacher?
I think it captures an aesthetic that is uniquely northwest.
http://www.helloari.com/~matt/green_gothic.htm
Also see the Hedreen Gallery and Amanda Manitach's exhibition on this theme.

vdewolf

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 5:28 p.m. Inappropriate

last year I was having dinner with a board member of one of Seattle prominent arts organization and it was mentioned in passing that I had not submitted anything for this years arts auction. I replied that I had been out of the county, let me see if I can still get in to the auction, donate a piece as they generally bring good money, over a $1,000 at least. Anyway I did the dance and submitted via e-mail and a week or so later got a reply that stated sorry the board reviewed my donation and rejected it. But not to feel bad MORE THAN 1400 ARTISTS HAD SUBMITTED WORKS but only 200+ were accepted. Are you kidding me 1400 artists signing up for anything?! My mind was blown by what that number means. One thing is for sure if Seattle leads the nation in number of arts organizations per capita its not a good thing. Good art needs critically thinking independent artists, not those raised like farmed salmon expecting pressed pellets (grants) for their survival.

Additionally its access to studio space that defines the arts, not the number of galleries or arts organizations. Time to rethink the programs designed to fund artists and instead invest that money into studio space for the arts. And the location of said artists space should be state wide thereby bringing the arts to locations normally overlooked while stabilizing the various communities that have an excess of usable space but no one to rent them. Month-to-month, 1 year, 3 year or 5 year leases would percolate the art scene and ensure that Seattle and PNW remains one of North Americas independent arts voices.

chapala21

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 6:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Always an interesting exercise and one to provoke responses. However, it is really a non-question. As the author points out there are multiple art forms at work, yet each is a discrete unit of our culture. Our artists come from many places and bring their aesthetic backgrounds with them. In the dance, theater and contemporary music worlds over the last decade there have been many currents and "fads" at work. Influential figures that young artists emulate come and go over time. And the culture of our region changes over time; certainly artists now have access to more global information than ever before. This is not to say that there aren't some trends and influences that arts disciplines might share, but Seattle and contiguous areas are not monolithic. Our local culture, and our artists, are ethnically and racially diverse, elements that can transcend a "shared" aesthetic, something Mr. Fife does not address. And percent for the arts is old school, as is CCA and many of the artists named. "Collective Memory" in the arts can take us only so far. The new doesn't necessarily remember the old, or is influenced by it. More powerful contemporary forces can be at work that mitigate the influence of the past. We should be thankful we have the diversity of the arts that we possess and not be concerned as to what they mean collectively or how they relate to each other.

Posted Wed, Apr 3, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

"Seattle's a very young place, in terms of settler presence.." Splabman
Okay, please all of you start over, and recognize that this place is not populated solely by white people. This is the smiling racism that continually lists "the usual suspects" when it comes to art, and they always turn out to be all white. The article itself although well intentioned, seems to proceed from that premise. This leads to the set of assumptions we find in the comments section. As an Indigenous person I am really amused at the presumption in your statement, Splabman. Speak for yourself Kemosabe!
The white privilege conference is coming up in Seattle, may I kindly suggest that you check it out? It will do wonders for your worldview and consciousness of others.

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