For the past ten years, at least since Richard Florida wrote his book The Rise of the Creative Class (reviewed here in the Chicago Reader), cities and their governments have taken it on faith that the best way to create urban prosperity is to be hospitable to “the arts”—I say on faith because the idea contains so many unexamined assumptions. These days, this cluster of wishes, dreams, and guesses goes by the term “vibrancy.”

Tom Frank of The Baffler recently wrote a piece called “Dead End on Shakin’ Street,” which disembowels the concept. He argues that the arts flower as a result of vibrancy. Frank's critique produced a flood of counter-critiques and counter-counter-critiques among artists and critics like me with too much time on our hands, and forced me to articulate my own view: What's wrong with planning for vibrancy through culture? I'm prepared to concede that “the arts” and artists may be the solution to some urban problems—just not the ones to which we should be paying the most attention. 

If you want a community that’s cleaner and greener and brighter and whiter than the one you have now, artists can certainly serve as catalysts to that transformation. That's because they are that most remarkable species of poor people: ones who attract rich people instead of repelling them. So if your goal is to remove regular poor people from your community, poor artists are just the thing.

And if you want to make your community an attractive place for well-educated, wealthy people to spend money, art galleries, theaters, and ancillary businesses that artists attract (coffee shops, restaurants) may well do the trick. At a certain point, these businesses will take off, producing feet on the street day and night, and thereby enhancing public safety. Some or all of this is what urban planners mean by vibrancy, and it's by no means a bad thing.

But if you want to help solve the problems of the community that is already there, fostering the arts is the long way ’round. The direct method of reducing the number and misery of poor people is to concentrate on providing them with jobs and affordable housing. So if a city like Chicago decides instead to advocate—as it does in the draft cultural plan now circulating—for “affordable live/work space for artists,” it’s trying to solve poverty on the cheap. (Chicago is not alone in this enthusiasm: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and other cities have endorsed and occasionally facilitated housing artists in decayed neighborhoods.) Either a city is genuinely concerned with alleviating artists’ poverty, in which case it is choosing to address the most easily solvable problem (“These poor people are educated; give them teaching jobs.”); or it’s interested in slapping a layer of glittery paint on poverty in general (“These poor people are educated; see, poverty is a choice.”) Either way, it’s an approach unworthy of any of the self-proclaimed “world-class cities” adopting it.

Full disclosure: I've been a vibrancy enthusiast myself. But it's always been clear to me that arts—no matter how central they are to those of us who've been privileged to learn to love them—are a secondary, rather than a primary, way to solve social problems. And that's as it should be. The distinguishing characteristic of a work of art is that it's not an instrument to accomplish something else but a phenomenon unto itself: ars gratia artis

If vibrancy is a successful rhetorical strategy to squeeze money for the arts out of tight-fisted public officials, fine. More often, though, it's a rhetorical strategy for not investing either in arts or in cities, and hoping that the former will somehow rescue the latter.