I have a British accent and currently live in the US, which means that each time I speak I sound foreign. I don’t mind, because it reminds me that, no matter how far across the world you move, the one place from which you can never escape is your own flesh and blood. Knees that crack, feet that ache, a belly that needs feeding, a mouth and tongue trained to form words in a certain way. Your brain is always housed in that same place, regardless of where your online presence may be broadcast. Limbs and organs can move from continent to continent, accompanied by whatever phone, laptop or other internet portal made from plastic and metal keeps you logged into your digital life, but those body parts can never take a holiday from each other. (Being white and male, I’m lucky that I can go to places that others can’t without abuse, hassles or restrictions.) Many phrases we use to describe belonging are spatial: ‘fitting in’, say, or ‘being in a good place’ emotionally. It comes back to having bodies that need physical places to inhabit.
Traditional art history has taught us to think that artworks can act in the same way that bodies do and, as they do, carry with them a sense of place. What could be more Dutch than the crisp light in a portrait by Johannes Vermeer? What could be more American than an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe? We believe that artworks can resonate with specific places: think US land art, for example, or the ancient Assyrian ruins in Nimrud in northern Iraq, which in March of this year were bulldozed by isis ideologues: grown men frightened of the history and cultural difference that place represented.
But it’s worth remembering that not all art travels well and, even in our highly networked age, many artworks are more comfortable staying at home. When I lived in London, there were British artists whose ubiquity in museums and galleries in the UK made their work seem key to contemporary conversations about art. On moving to New York, I discovered that only a handful of people had even heard of these artists, let alone cared what they made, and that references to them were only decipherable if you’d grown up in the UK. I soon discovered that the reverse was also true: that certain artists from Chicago, Los Angeles or New York meant a great deal in those places, but their influence stopped at the city limits. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as it doesn’t petrify into parochialism. Art that provides a sense of the local is profoundly valuable, and everyone should be concerned with what’s happening on their own street. To believe that art should be about Big Universal Themes Understood By All Humanity is to believe in a platitudinous monoculture.
So what is going on down the street? These days, if you ask, ‘What is art’s place in society?’ you also need to wonder where, physically, an artist can afford to live. If you’re a creative individual trying to make your way in cities such as London, New York or San Francisco, a sense of place is tied up with economics. (According to the housing-data group RealtyTrac, Brooklyn – exported to the world as New York’s most ‘creative’ enclave – is currently the most unaffordable place to buy a home in the US. With a median-priced house costing US $615,000 – GBP £415,000 – someone earning a median income would be required to spend 98 percent of it on the mortgage payments.) Soaring costs of living are making cities historically famous for their artistic energy less viable as places to live amongst people of diverse age and race. If the logic of the property market physically drives many of those involved in the arts further away from museums, galleries, concert halls, nightclubs, libraries and bookshops – if it erases affordable housing, schools, studios and modestly priced places to buy food – then city culture dies on the vine.
I’ve always liked the lyrics to the Talking Heads song ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ (1983): ‘Home, is where I want to be / But I guess I’m already there.’ ‘Home’, it suggests, is a multivalent idea. There’s the home you’re from: that sense of connection to place that’s bone-deep. Some people can’t wait to escape it, while others long to return. Then there’s the kind of home where you’ve spent some time: a town in which you’ve lived for a couple of years, got to know people, evolved a routine. And there’s the home that’s right here, right now, where you live and work: the daily starting point from which everything else follows. We all need a home in one sense or another but, unfortunately, for many today a sense of place is more accurately characterized as a sense of displacement – not by the economics of gentrification, but by politics, war, disease or climate change.
The word ‘nostalgia’ originally referred to an acute sense of homesickness, a desire to return to a particular place. Revisiting London, I often feel like The Ghost of Christmas Past from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). People I knew have moved on; familiar streets have changed. It can be unsettling but, for better or for worse, places rarely stay the same. ‘This must be the place.’ Must it? Maybe that imperative leads to unhealthy fixations, that only certain cities will do, that we must keep walking in the same old shoes even though the soles are falling off and we’ve got blistered heels. It’s people who make art – not places, not museum buildings and certainly not shops selling overpriced coffee – and people can always change how and where they organize themselves. As some writers have suggested, perhaps displacement from the historical artistic capitals of Europe and North America may lead to a rich new regionalism. Or, possibly, the wheels of economics and politics will turn again, and some oxygen will return to streets sucked empty of life by the vacuum of luxury property developments. Who knows? Home can be here, there and everywhere at once.