Can Art Save Detroit?

If you haven’t heard that Detroit is imploding in on itself, sometimes with the help of the very people elected to govern the post-industrial wasteland, you probably also haven’t seen the new Röyksopp music video set in the Michigan city:

Röyksopp – The Drug from thatgo on Vimeo.

Besides being perfectly cast and full of homage, this clip raises interesting questions about the future of Detroit: can art bring the crumbling American city back from the precipice? The team that made this video is based in New York, flying into Detroit just to film this. (Full disclosure: I know one the video’s directors, but that does not compel me to laud these efforts. It’s perfect aesthetic and visual propulsion, however, does.)

In 2007, I heard Andrei Codrescu, NPR commentator and New Orleans Ninth Ward dweller, speak about how there was a massive resurgence of artistic endeavor after Hurricane Katrina. As tragedy befell the Louisiana city, artists descended upon NoLo to gain inspiration and spike the economy. As one example, I wrote an article for CityArts this summer on a public theater troupe that performed Waiting For Godot for a month straight in a public street theater.

But it seems the magnitude of Detroit’s blight far eclipses that of Louisiana’s. The wreckage shown in this video is only that of one now-abandoned auto plant, that of the former automotive giant Packard – Detroit’s wreckage stretches for miles. In truth, it’s the exodus of the city’s artists that may carve the Motor City’s epithet. For one, Brad Kelly is a young Detroit native who just released a book of short stories called Under Fluorescent Light (Full disclosure: I line-edited the book at one stage of its development.) Each story is imbued with the aesthetic of rot, says Kelly. He is working on his debut novel, Learn To Forget, Detroit as a prestigious Michener Fellow at the University of Austin, Texas. When posed the question that titles this post, Kelly responded to me:

Detroit as a paragon of the American Dream is irretrievable. But as an idea, an example of what happens on the other side of the precipice . . . art may be all that Detroit has left.

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