This is not a mutiny 

For Philly arts to sur­vive beyond 2020, we need some pos­i­tive pessimism

5 minute read
The Ralph Brooks Park Project by Steve Powers, a Mural Arts project, feels especially timely. (Photo by Kyle V. Hiller.)
The Ralph Brooks Park Project by Steve Powers, a Mural Arts project, feels especially timely. (Photo by Kyle V. Hiller.)

I warned everyone before the 2016 election what was most likely going to happen. People laughed. Some even misinterpreted what I was saying, as if I were going to vote one way over the other. Others shrugged with confidence that read like arrogance. “We’ve got this,” many affirmed. And on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, everything changed.

To which I responded, “Great, because we need a kick in the butt. We’ve gotten too comfortable, too complacent. Our positivity has become toxic and arrogant and it’s narrowed our perspectives.” Bad things happen, and if we aren’t prepared, we panic.

Last week, in response to a massive budget shortfall created by the pandemic, Mayor Kenney proposed defunding Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE). It’s another reason to panic. But instead, it has me thinking more about how to employ the sort of perspective I had four years ago, which I call positive pessimism.

Positively disenchanted

In 2016, I was weary from everyone’s toxic positivity, especially online. It came in like a wrecking ball, installing itself like a digital oligarch at a time of vulnerability. Advice, quotes, memes, and mantras disguised in bright, hopeful colors and fonts poured into the Internet. This wasn’t new, though. This is just the way America is. We eat you-can-do-its for breakfast!

I’m disenchanted by this kind of positivity, but I’m a positive person. I’m the resolute empath who cheers as hard as Jerry Harris. I’ve been practicing positive pessimism for years now. The last two months have me scaling up my discipline, but last week’s OACCE news rattled my balance.

I was placidly on the brink. How was positive pessimism going to rescue me, reenergize my efforts and my faith in survival?

Take a deep breath

When people ask me how I am these days, I tell them “I’m good.” That doesn’t mean I’m having a blast, blissfully choosing ignorance. If anything, I’m exhausted and devastated. I’m worried about what’s going to happen next. The feeling swells daily, and last week, my anxiety billowed. How are we going to survive as artists with these budget cuts? This would be a massive step backward, and it may be the first of many setbacks soon to follow. How much bandwidth do the arts have left?

Positive pessimism will be necessary for the arts to survive in the economy post-aftermath. But first, let’s take a deep breath.

Positive pessimism is a practice that can broaden perspectives on how much we need the arts. (Photo by Kyle V. Hiller.)
Positive pessimism is a practice that can broaden perspectives on how much we need the arts. (Photo by Kyle V. Hiller.)

Pessimism and optimism are not opposites. Julie K. Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, describes them as “being right angles to each other” instead of being two points on a straight line. Further, Norem doesn’t allocate confidence because of your capacity to dodge and ignore dangers, but because you “acknowledge and respect them.” Because you’ve thought of them, you’re better prepared.

This is why I called for people to think more deeply about the possibility of a Trump presidency. As farfetched as it seemed the summer before, I recognized it as a potential danger where I think many of my peers did not. So, when it happened, I was ready (sort of).

“Just think positive!”

Positive pessimism, though, can be misread and piss people off. Positivity is so engrained in American culture that, if you challenge it, it’s like mutiny. It’s knocking someone’s faith, something I don’t do. But sometimes, you have to push buttons to open doors—or in this case, to open and expand perspective.

I’m not denouncing positivity as a pure evil. There is no apostasy happening here. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that “just thinking positive” is as effective as thoughts and prayers. Take last week’s Navy Blue Angels salute to honor healthcare workers, which soared over the city just before the announcement of the modified 2021 budget. Here, positivity populates forbearance and duplicity. Grand gestures are tropes that are useless in actual problem solving. “Everything is going to be all right” is insufficient and it’s apocryphal. Everything is not going to be all right, and we have to be responsible for it.

That’s how positive pessimism works. This shit sucks; what can we do about it? Y’all, we’ve been here before. We’re already prepared for this.

Positive pessimism is a practice that can broaden perspectives on how much we need the arts. (Photo by Kyle V. Hiller.)
Positive pessimism is a practice that can broaden perspectives on how much we need the arts. (Photo by Kyle V. Hiller.)

Betrayal and perseverance

The prospect of eliminating the OACCE is heartbreaking. I can’t remember the last time I felt this betrayed by the city of Philadelphia. And I don’t expect the city to roll out any reconciliation. We, the people, have to be agitated. This is a trend, not an isolated incident. Not everything is okay. Positive pessimism will inform us better than anything else.

One of the positives that occurred to me on Election Day 2016 was that I knew so much great art would come out of the next four years. Now, in an election year tilted by a pandemic and budget cuts looming in Philadelphia, things could get worse going into the next four years. I want to say that there is going to be so much more great art in the midst of what hangs over us, but if we don’t pivot, the arts and culture of our city, America, and beyond will continue to spiral into an irreparable place.

Now isn’t the time for ineffectual positivity. It's also not the time to give up. It wasn’t in 2016, it wasn’t two months ago. It wasn't last week, and it isn’t today.

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