That flow of creativity pirouetting into the Rust Belt—it isn’t just about cheap space. Or the fact our cities have the feel of a Tom Waits song. It’s also the realness, particularly the prevalence of conflict. There’s conflict in the person trying to make do. And there’s conflict in the post-industrial landscape.
Imagine for a moment: there is a spot not far from where I live. It was the stockyards. It had money and movement; now it has shells of buildings and gaps in the street line. What’s still there are scrapyards. Into these scrapyards go people’s collections of junk metal. They are getting paid a pittance from the metallic crumbs that represent touchable symbols of their own economic demise. That, folks, is conflict.
Now what do scrapyards and junk metal and the consequences of post-industrialization have to do with attracting creative types? To answer that we step back to a more basic question: what does conflict have to do with creativity? Here was John Dewey’s answer to that:
“Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.”
Yes, conflict can kill. But it can also ignite production—and less like the paper-pusher and more like the artist or entrepreneur. And conflict stirs creation one of two ways—from within and from without.
Within. Life is wild. So is inner-life. We are presented with dichotomies from childhood (e.g., be a kid but act like an adult) to adulthood (e.g., be happy but be very afraid), and these paradoxes create pressure. The pressure needs to be navigated or suppressed. Creativity is one main tool for those willing to transgress the mountain of life’s messes.
For example, in thinker Arthur Koestler’s creativity theory he coined the term “bisociation”, which means to join conflictual information in a new way, usually through a blend of intuition, feeling, and novel thought. This is akin to creative destruction in economics. This does not mean creativity solves the conflict per se, as that leads to stasis, the antithesis of creativity. Rather it means “graduating” into the new insight or challenge, always, then, a constant flow of conflict—insight—and creative repair.
Perhaps that’s why creativity is so hard, because it is much easier to coast than it is to being aware of the struggles settling inside. It’s much easier to bury the conflict in conformity, and to join the crowd of those pointing fingers at those who don’t engage in that Puritan wholesomeness of counting beans. From a recent Salon article titled No Sympathy for the Creative Class, artist Peter Plagens described this kind of societal stigmatization thus:
“There’s always this sense that art is just play. Art is what children do and what retired people do. Your mom puts your work up on the refrigerator. Or the way Dwight Eisenhower said, ‘Now that I’ve fought my battles, I can put my easel up outside.’”
Of course many just say fuck it. Life is much more interesting in between the lines. And there’s perhaps no more of an ambiguous and conflicting geography than the Rust Belt.
Without. Paradigm breakers are reaching the factory coast. Why here? Well, there’s that canvas in vacancy metaphor—and cheap rent—and this overall sentiment to start a wave instead of hopping on Seattle’s or Miami’s or New York’s crest, but there’s something more, as the region is the fault line to coastal tectonic plates. And what’s broke is being pushed up into the breaks of the post-industrial aesthetic. It’s in our cereal, on our TV. Conflict lives here like the sun. And those who practice life by sublimating struggles through creativity are coming here to feed off the energy like old folks feeding off the Sarasota silence and heat.
In fact, people don’t live in a vacuum. The things we see and smell, the objects we touch, the conversations we have–they all drive into us like a force that is released by how we feel and behave. By what drives or placates us. By what we confront and what seeps into us. And so the Rust Belt is becoming a center of confronters. Because we live not so much in the heart of darkness as in the heart of reality.
All across the country people are fleeing their illusions freely. Many are coming here to live in so-called death. What they are finding is freedom to accept life as it is. And with that comes creative powers that may point us in a direction of where life needs to be.
The future of the Rust Belt is in its conflict. Call it the agglomeration of the conflict economy.