Travelers & Artists: What Happened to the Give & the Take?

In the August 2018 issue of Etihad Airline’s inflight magazine Atlas, there is an advertisement luring tourists to Tuscany’s luscious Lucca, a city renowned for its botany, museums, and history. Yet, the advertisement features a curious photograph spotlighting a bicycle, a stack of empty picture frames, and a camera on a wooden stage. Hanging across the rear is a backdrop of Lucca’s Renaissance walls and soaring secular trees—trees probably planted long ago by Napoleon’s title-heavy sister “la Madame” Élisa. The text reads: “You’re in Lucca. You’re already on the stage…as the protagonist you will experience relaxation and adventure. You will travel through art and history…you will enjoy the culture…Now, as the curtain opens onto new worlds waiting to be discovered, are you ready for the applause?” You. You. You reading. The advertisement creates a second-person echo-chamber. And for whom is the applause? Are we meant to celebrate the traveler or the place?

Nowadays, touring another Italian city, Venezia, a traveler can barely discern the markers and vibrancy of “real city life”—veterinarian offices, dental clinics, playing schoolchildren, grocery stores hidden behind the palisade of day-tripper Venice. Even the gondola repair garage, the Venetian equivalent to the auto mechanic body shop, seems poised for spectators and foreign awe. And every corner store, instead of milk and eggs, sells magnets, feathery carnival masks, and more morbidly, the stork face of the Black Plague doctor. Sure, there still exists civic life vibrating a league or two back from the main canals, such as nearby the Bienniale Gardens in the Castello Sestieri (district) or inside the small bars serving cicchetti (petite bread slices with various toppings), but this is a far cry from fin de siécle or earlier Venices.

Perhaps art, not always innocuous, is as responsible for Venice’s “overtourism” as are budget airlines and thicker Asian wallets. Venice has long had a place in the heart of many a dreamer or wistful would-be traveler, even in the ticker of an old emperor. In the early 1970s, with his Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino let Marco Polo regale his fifty-five fantastical incantations of Venice to his Mongol benefactor, a Mister Kublai Khan, and consequently, Calvino may have inadvertently helped create the new Venice. Polo could call it Le Cittá degli Ospiti (Guest Cities) or Le Città delle Case di Nessuno (The Cities of Nobody’s Home) for today’s Venice is the easiest anatomy to dissect for this modern malady of travel and taking. Recently it was noted in Time, the City of Masks now has only 55,000 residents in its historic heart down from almost 175,000 in 1951 (Abend 2018). Furthermore, an inflammation of as many as 60,000 tourists swell its streets every day during high seasons. Perhaps, this cultural dependency by tourism is already similar to one of Polo’s original cities, the frightening Venice he christened Octavia where Venice is a city suspended over a giant spiderweb. In Octavia, the residents lives are “less certain than in other cities”, because “they know the net will only last so long”. Likewise, today, those in Venice know the current situation can only last so long. In 2017, the city reacted by instituting a #enjoyrespectvenezia campaign, which outlined suggested behaviors for tourists. Potential visitors to anywhere ought to read these kinds of guidelines. Moreover, this spring, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro installed barriers to certain residential areas in hopes to redirect tourist traffic. These measures are commendable, but another question is what can we as travelers do to help these places that we hurt by our fascination? As travel has become increasingly accessible to more humans, more people agree that travel changes a person’s life and perspective. Fed up with being snails, more people want to—and can be!—the sparrow in Simon & Garfunkel 1970s cover “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” traveling far and wide…even Americans with their relatively-bitty vacation allowances. Yes, the benefits of travel are well-noted; yet, what is more complicated to discuss is the cost of the traveler’s enlightenment to the navigated places, peoples, and the environment.

Interestingly, this problem is shared by artists and writers in a similar way. With art and writing, humankind has been known to ask: what is the cost of art to the people and places in the orbit of the artist’s existence? In Sara Majka’s short story “Cities I’ve Never Lived In”, the somewhat-bereft protagonist sets herself on a personal journey and decides to volunteer at soup kitchens with the urban poor and homeless across America’s second cities. Additionally, she hopes to photograph this demographic. At one point, the character says to her mother:

“…art can end up being compassionate—because you’re trying to communicate to people and that’s a compassionate act—but making it is often unkind. Artists take images and stories from people without telling them, and artists are doing it for their own ends, or for the ends of art. Even if they have morals or set limits, they are still taking from people. Their interest in another’s life is often for themselves.” Does the creation of art and the act of travel have to be solely about self-aggrandizement, though? Surely not—we can point to art and travel that were in service to others too, and travel that gave to humanity as much as it took. Our world is richer (and saner) for Ut’s galvanizing photo “The Terror of War” (commonly known as “Napalm Girl”). And despite their destructive behaviors and self-obsessions, we don’t want to live in a world without the masterpieces of Woolf or Tolstoy. Likewise, we learned from the travels of Thesiger. We all mourned Bourdain.

When we make art about the artist themselves only or travel about the traveler only, instead of about the interaction, the art’s subject, or the traveled place, we do something both different and worse than the new fad of simplifying all cultural exchange, trespasses, and fusions, as “appropriation”. Goblin King Bowie traveled, read, and created prolifically. He had love affairs with Japan, Berlin, even the planet Mars; his Kansai Yamamoto bodysuits and robes with kanji are legendary. Yet, the appropriation-police don’t pull out their batons and bludgeon his legacy. Why? It is the same reason we admire Bourdain. Bowie and Bourdain, artist and traveler, exemplify how we can both take and give as artists and travelers. It is why we listen, enjoy, learn from Billy Joel as he sings about misunderstood Vietnam vets using the pronoun “we” despite not being a vet himself (á la “Goodnight Saigon”) or let Ai Weiwei speak on behalf and create art in the name of refugees. There is something about their behavior and their actions that we trust, because we see them giving to us, and not just taking. Thus, with travel and with art, how do we behave like the masters and balance the taking with giving? How do we ensure we are travelers and artists who inevitably may take—but also give?

In Dorthe Nors’ story from The New Yorker “Sun Dogs”, the protagonist, a writer, says of her maybe-lover Olav’s mother, “We never spoke of Olav. It was my impression that she was a strong person, but at regular intervals she’d worry about whether I’d write about her.” Is Nors writing about someone like Olav’s mother? Fiction is always some kind of anagram of a writer’s life—except when it’s not. Similarly, the wannabe photographer in Majka’s aforementioned story feels an edge of criminality by taking photos of the homeless, but she still does it. Sometimes the homeless even let her take their photo for small coins. Perhaps we as readers accept these “takes” because we sense the authenticity of the artist’s interest in the subject. Possibly, people angry about cultural appropriation (and related—superficial tourists) are really angry about the inauthenticity of interest from the artist or visitor.

We are all guests in the lives of others, and we ought to treat our hosts with not only respect, but also with genuine interest, especially if we travel far to meet them or decide to make art from their lives. Like the conflicted writer or photographer, travelers fret over the transgressions of travel, but travel anyway. The frequent traveler, at ease in their savoir-faire, sighs under their breath at uncoordinated tourists who shout at waiters in imperial English or crowd the small pastisseria, arching and whirling with their large backpacks, like dromedaries on two legs, deciding between a powdery ensaïmada or a more familiarly-shaped croissant. Yet, the frequent traveler’s disdain for the inexperienced traveler is like air conditioner-conditioned Americans telling the rest of the world to switch off their lights and recycle. The frequent traveler may be less burdensome in the moment, but their carbon footprint and their presence in place after place has repercussions too. The real frustration is in the perceived perception that the frequent traveler has about those unwieldy dromedaries—that their interest is superficial or inauthentic. The frequent traveler may or may not be right. The point is that in order to just be takers, we must be authentically interested in a place we chose to visit or a subject we chose to make art about.

And yet, who can decide what artist and what traveler’s enlightenment is worth the pillage of others’ lives and places? There is no Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for this conundrum. Do we want the 2/3rds of Americans without passports to actually get passports and fly to Venice and Florence in hopes that through cultural immersion the country overall will become less militaristic, more open-minded, and savants of geography? Do we want writers to stop spinning life into fiction? Do we want our photographers to walk around with permission slips or live in places with laws that forbid taking photos of citizens?

Whether the answer be yes or no, the reflection must be on the quality of whatever it is we give back for what we have taken. It must not all be in vain as the funny sage Ogden Nash rhymes in his poem “Ha! Original Sin!”: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity/ That’s any fun at all for humanity./ Food is vanity, so is drink,/ And undergarments of gossamer pink,/ S.J. Perelman, long vacations,/ Going abroad, rich relations,/…The prophets chant and the prophets chatter,/ But somehow it never seems to matter…”. How do we ensure that our travel and art matters beyond self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement? The creation of art and spoils of travel exist in a grey area.

On the creative process, author Nettie Jones has said, “…I beg to see them [the muses], I go places where they are, sometimes I have to run after them, and in the process, I leave others behind…like my child, my husband, my sister, my mother, because I am so determined that I have to be heard” . Whether it be the determined writer in their headspace, ignoring children and lovers, the photographer toiling away on Adobe Lightroom, editing photos of unaware subjects, or the honeymooner positioning a gelato cone in San Marco for the perfect Instagram upload, there is a supposed greater meaning to all these activities, but there isn’t unless we are running towards our muses. Traveling ought to be a heuristic activity. Individually, we might not have much sway over the powers of “big travel” , but we do have the power over our own actions and the questions we ask ourselves. Why do I want to visit Tokyo? Would I be more interested in Honshu Island given my passion for biking? Is it kind of me to take thirty selfies at the entryway to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore? Do I have a real interest in Verona—or given my resolution to learn new recipes, should I take a local cooking class in a less crowded city? We also have ears to be sensitive to the wishes of others. Don’t burden our bridges with heart-shaped locks. Make eye contact with the shopkeeper and say bonjour. Let me be me—authentically.

In Peter Carey’s 1974 short story “American Dreams”, a quaint town in Australia faces a Venice-size problem after the death of the village crazy and the discovery that this outcast had constructed an exact model of the entire town on a large hill overlooking the town, including painted replicas of all its inhabitants. The county’s minister of tourism gets wind of the attraction and smells profit. “The Americans would come, he said. They would visit our town in buses and in cars and on the train. They would take photographs and bring wallets bulging with dollars. American dollars” (Carey). The minister is right. And Carey is right too—to write this particular story long before “overtourism” entered popular lexicon. In the story, the town is transformed by its fame and tourism; the townsfolk don’t even resemble their painted doppelgängers on the hill anymore, they grow older and sadder, yet the frustrated tourists want the experience of the model town. They want the people in the town to stay locked into the image of the model. This story is many things, including a warning.

We all want seduction and adventure. Good art and good travel seduces us,, but many people have forgotten how to be properly seduced. We aren’t going to feel the intensity of Henriette’s come-hither eyes or the atrocities committed by imperial Japan at Nanjing’s Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre Museum if we are too overcrowded, and acting and looking like dromedaries, only thinking of ourselves. To be truly seduced by travel, we must look; we must be curious! It requires the self-awareness and resignation that places and people change, they even change by our—the traveler, tourist, artist’s — presence, and we must make our choices accordingly. Quality over quantity. For we all know people in our lives who have traveled and seem no less compassionate or generous for it.

At this time in history, true seduction is nearly impossible standing in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, squinting your eyes between the heads, hands, and cellphones continually rising over Mona like Schweppes bubbles. But if you follow the Seine southeast to the National Museum on the History of Immigration, you can stand alone in front of a black-and-white photograph of another woman’s haunted face. She waits there, a roma, a traveller, in front of a sign saying “terrain interdit aux forains & nomades, 12.10.1972”. Be curious about her. She has the stage. And if you want to write about her, ask yourself why. What is she thinking? How does she feel? Did she stay or leave France? As you wait for her answers, you’ll find yourself forgetting the sound of applause.

This piece is part of our  Invisible Cities series.
Artwork by Peglar Kharmendjian

References

Abend, Lisa. “The Tourism Trap.” Time, 6 Aug. 2018, pp. 26-32. Print.
Advertisement for Lucca. Atlas. Aug. 2018, pp. 44.
Buckley, Julia. The Independent, 26 July, 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/venice-enjoyrespectvenezia-tourism-campaign-paola-mar-travel-campaign-litter-swim-canals-bridges-a7861321.html. Accessed 30 July. 2018.
Calvino, Italo. le cittá invisibili. Milan, Mondadori Libri, 2016, pp. 73.
Carey, Peter. Exotic Pleasures. London, Pan Books, 1981, pg. 151-162.
Majka, Sara. Cities I’ve Never Lived In. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2016.
Nash, Ogden. Selected Verse of Ogden Nash. New York, Random House, 1946, pp. 4.
Nors, Dorthe. “Sun Dogs.” The New Yorker, 23 July 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/
books/flash-fiction/sun-dogs. Accessed 30 July 2018.
Taylor, Glenda. “The Creative Process: Nettie Jones.” Online video clip. YouTube.
YouTube, 29 Dec. 2010. Web 30 July 2018.

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