Texas is the best place in the world to be an artist right now and Houston is the sharpest edge of the cultural blade. There’s talk about Texas, Dallas and Houston in the art world: low but undeniable murmurs of art communities and economies that allow for the production of culture. But I think these discussions miss the larger point: America is over, and the last stand of our compromised, imperial American identity is being staged here at the bottom of the nation. Two centuries later and we’re back at the Alamo.
We’re the black heart of energy production in this country, where hard layers of tar lie just beneath carefully combed sand. Oil refineries pump massive corrosion into the sky all the way down I-45 to Galveston and I-10 to Port Arthur. To our east, on the Louisiana side of the gulf, we can see oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill drift lazily over the surface of the water. America’s war on humanity for the acquisition of fossil fuels has kept The Middle East on fire since the end of WWI, and a bandit in a cowboy hat with a gun has always been on the front lines.
Today the war is for oil, but with the entire state of California dry as desert bone and the last citizens of Detroit appealing to the UN, the next war will be for water. Texas is well-situated for that apocalypse. Thirty aquifers rest under our feet and the Edwards Aquifer is one of the most prolific in the world. It allowed the Alamo mission to be established in San Antonio. New Braunfels and San Marcos survive today because of it. Decades of withdrawals have dramatically reduced the potential supply, but you don’t have to imagine how easily oil rigging can and is being modified to plunge deeper into the earth in pursuit of water.
We’re at the shit end of the country in education and health care. The drive from my house at 290 and Tidwell to the galleries and museums where I make my living is a surreal tour through a flat landscape of black, brown and white poverty that ends in a valley of bizarre, wild wealth. I see in my daily drive the ways in which the creative class has abandoned an oppressed working class for more esoteric pursuits, pushing people without hope into the strong arms of gangsters who conjure the magic dust of Jesus Christ to release them from their bondage.
There’s always an enemy on which to project fear born of this desperation. Here in Texas, our fascist dandy Governor Rick Perry has given the disenfranchised plenty of sacrificial lambs: women, Mexicans, South Americans, sick children, and gay and transgender people. If they sound familiar they are, because fascists aren’t original — the scapegoats remain the same.
I recently made a trip to Maryland for a wedding that took place at the Strong Mansion, about an hour outside of Baltimore. Built by Gordon Strong, a Chicago businessman, at the height of the Great Depression, it is the platonic image of a southern mansion. As I wandered through its Neoclassical paintings, its framed, yellowed documents and its period furniture, I sensed in a tangible way that our country and its industry began there, in that part of North America. I imagined the laborers who built the impressive house. Maryland is beautiful and was home to many Native American tribes like the Yaocomico and Shawnee. We are a people built on a foundation of genocide.
Driving from that mansion back to Baltimore, where the economy is a war waged street by street, I think I understood for the first time in a visceral way that all civilizations fall. I had a sense that the battle for culture on the East Coast has already been fought and the humanists have lost. In twenty more years, poor artists won’t be able to live in New York. There will be no kids staging scenes. Jeff Koons won. His truly magnificent objects are emblems of the decimation of workers, the death of unions and rising poverty. They stand as monuments to a new social order in art in New York and the East. Koons has had his finger on the death rattle of this country since he floated his first basketball. He’s not our Warhol. He’s Warhol’s decaying Dorian Gray.
We pushed our way to the West Coast first for gold, then for land, killing whoever and whatever we needed to move forward. Those who made it to California built a utopian funhouse mirror reflection of what had already been lost in the colonies. We built Hollywood to create the image of ourselves that we needed to see and imagined ourselves as something we never were. Warhol’s first solo show couldn’t have happened anywhere but in Los Angeles. And it’s hard not to believe in prophecy when Rauschenberg, perhaps the greatest artist of our decline, the artist who showed us the corpse of Abstract Expressionism and the imperial promise it came to represent, came from the oil-drenched hellhole that is Port Arthur, Texas. He must have been born with it in his blood.
I’ve been making art just long enough to believe that great artists are either Jeremiahs or John the Baptists. They either rail against the decline or trumpet the promise. Here we are on the third and final coast: Texas artists. All the money seems to be coming here to rest at last. We pushed across the ocean and then we pushed across the country to the next ocean and now we’re sliding down into the gulf. There is no history in Houston. No crumbling brownstones, no art deco bungalows. We tear everything down and rebuild to the beat of the ebb and flow of the fossil-fuel market.
Here, where thick, swamp heat comes off black gulf water I see the sharp separation between poverty and immense wealth that we have helped to create in virtually every place on this very small planet. We live in the eye of this storm; a place every artist should want to live. So what do we do? What things should we make?
(Photo: Port Arthur, TX. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty)
also by Michael Bise
- Crossing Benjamin’s Border: Rereading “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” - June 15th, 2015
- Late Work: A Remembrance of Bill Steffy - May 28th, 2015
- Imitation Blues - March 29th, 2015
- The Palace - January 12th, 2015
- Dictators Looking at Art II - May 14th, 2014