Callahan: Joy, pain, and nausea

When I tell people who apparently do not read City Paper that I work for City Paper and mostly cover art, I often hear in response something like: “That’s good—we need positive press about Baltimore. It’s not just murder and drugs here.”

Because I rarely have the energy or patience to go down that road, I don’t tell them that’s not why I do what I do. I don’t mention that the last thing I want to be is a cheerleader, or that in the past I have described certain artworks in my reviews as “blandly self-referential” and even “crapstraction.” I don’t say that my biggest project to date was a longform admonishment (co-written with visual arts editor Rebekah Kirkman) of members of the art scene’s complicity in abuse and sexual harassment against its marginalized participants. I don’t say that, if anything, I wish I’d been tougher on art in Baltimore during my time here. And I don’t add that we as a city can’t afford to ignore the “murder and drugs,” or the homelessness or the corruption.

But these days, I can’t afford to let slide those misinterpretations of what I do—what the City Paper has done for 40 years. If art serves only as a diversion from or concealment of suffering, we’re in trouble. The same is true for journalism. America is at war against people of color, women, immigrants, the ill, queer folks, people without wealth, the planet—and all of those wars have marked Baltimore. If neither art nor journalism speaks to the state of things, then the only purpose it can serve is as a weapon to maintain or advance those wars. We are at such a desperate point that artists and journalists (especially artists and journalists whose bodies or backgrounds or names are inherently politicized) have no choice but to understand our work at least in part as weapons; we do not have the luxury of creating in peacetime. But at least we still have the freedom to choose how we fight, and for whom. For now, anyway.

I don’t mean to conflate art and journalism at all; art can certainly be journalistic and journalism can be artistic, and I like examples of both best when they conjure the particular feeling (rather than the facts, which can describe truth but do not embody it) of a certain time or place or way of existing. But they are far from the same. I’m also always wary of inflating the power of either art or journalism in its capacity to change the way things are—I’m afraid to stake that much hope on anything, really.

But art and journalism can launch ideas that might start a shift, and if not that, they at least serve as records of our time, so when we look back we can understand how we dealt with the way things were (for better or worse), what it looked like, and how it made us feel.

How I feel is ill. It began when I started dry-heaving over my kitchen sink in the early hours of Nov. 8. The reflex stopped after about 20 minutes, but the feeling hasn’t really gone away, nearly a year and countless more traumatic headlines later. I keep thinking of Joan Didion noting in “The White Album” that “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Vertigo and nausea may be the only appropriate response to the year 2017. To feel overwhelmed by dread or horror—as well as beauty every now and then—is a reasonable response to living in a city like Baltimore in 2017 or 1977. Or the spring of 2015.

City Paper has captured this sense of destabilization that is not unique to but often felt more intensely in a city like Baltimore, where everything is shifting all the time (often through loss) except perhaps for the more or less constant values in place (marketing, homogeneity) that keep some things from changing for the better. Beyond that, the paper has articulated how we deal with that dread and anger and confusion—I think of our coverage of the uprising, of the grassroots movement to hold a ceasefire earlier this year, and of artists’ efforts to give voice to both joy and pain.

Joy and pain—the two words I most closely associate with Baltimore and my time at City Paper, which are inseparable for me. Joy in seeing my byline for the first time as an intern at the old Park Avenue office; pain in the impostor syndrome that often comes with being a young woman in a male-dominated industry. Joy in receiving keen mentorship from editors Brandon Soderberg, Karen Houppert, and Baynard Woods (who hired me back when I was too young to even drink with the staff after wrapping each issue or attend the Best of Baltimore party) that no degree could match; pain in the necessary and ongoing struggle to define and respect my own voice. Joy in experiencing great art; pain in exposure to terrible art. Joy in getting to work with great writers like Lisa Snowden-McCray, Brandon Weigel, Anna Walsh, Edward Ericson Jr., Kenneth Stone Breckenridge, all our freelancers, and of course my regular co-writer Rebekah Kirkman (who tolerates both working and living with me, Christ); pain in having to copyedit all their fucking misplaced commas. Joy in seeing our stories take on new life with the photography of Joe Giordano, Reginald Thomas II, and others and the illustration and design work of Charlie Herrick and Athena Towery; pain in seeing those images sometimes disserviced by our printing. Joy in being sent out to report on exhilarating-if-not-intimidating events like Art Basel in Miami and the DNC in Philadelphia; pain in having to turn out a paper, working sometimes till sunrise, at times when it felt like my life was being pulled out from under me. Joy in keeping up with the city’s art happenings and nightlife; pain—so much pain— in the deadening monotony of writing the calendar listings week after week. Joy in writing something so fun and ridiculous as a round-up of the sexiest depictions of Jesus Christ at The Walters (and having the trusting editors to let me do something so dumb); pain in reporting on something so demoralizing as a vigil for yet another slain transgender Baltimorean. Joy in writing about such a beautiful city; pain in writing about such a frustrating city.

Joy and pain at the same time: I think of the early Wednesday morning last August when Rebekah, Lisa, Soderberg and I ran drunkenly (or I was a bit drunk, at least) from karaoke night at the Crown to the Lee-Jackson Monument by the Wyman Park Dell. Soderberg had received a tip that the racist statue was actively being removed by the city; we bolted soon after I’d finished my grating rendition of some My Chemical Romance banger and met up with Baynard and Joe as well as activists and police and Mayor Pugh and that one angry sympathizer who “blamed” City Paper for the monument’s removal (too generous). We had our eyes on the statue for at least two hours before it was finally lifted from its plinth by a crane. Artist Pablo Machioli’s sculpture ‘Madre Luz’ stood triumphantly with her fist raised in front of Lee-Jackson as it levitated up and down onto a truck platform and finally rolled away.

The pain of what that statue stood for was still there, the horror of the white supremacist terror attack in Charlottesville days earlier was still there; but the joy in seeing that bad piece of art go down to leave only Machioli’s great work of art and smiling activists climbing on top of the empty pedestal was overwhelming. I don’t think it was really the booze, but this mix of the joy and pain was all so much I actually felt a bit nauseated.

And so too I feel that sickening friction as I write this last piece for City Paper. Baltimore and beyond now has one less weapon to give power to the independent voice, to shape new voices. I intend to keep writing about art and joy and pain in Baltimore, but wherever those stories end up, they won’t be at the paper that taught me everything I know.

Maura Callahan is the performing arts editor and calendar editor at City Paper.

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