I grew up in Baltimore, and one of the opinions you are legally mandated to hold as a native of Charm City is that Washington, DC is a snooty, superior, bland, bureaucratic, sleepy little town without edge, without personality, and without flavor. Having lived in DC now for more than a dozen years, I have had ample time to rid myself of my prejudice—well, most of it, anyway—and come to appreciate the city on its own terms. In particular, what I’ve learned to love more than anything about DC is what a terrific place it is in which to make art… for a variety of different reasons.
Chief among them is the dynamic, ongoing encounter with a kind of a stew of different cultures. No city in America, with the exception of New York, is as international and diverse. Yes, that means I can get an authentic bagel for breakfast, Peruvian chicken for lunch, and Korean barbeque for dinner… but what it really means is that in any given day I can encounter an amazingly wide range of ideas: an impossibly diverse assortment of ways of thinking about and living in the world. It is impossible to be intellectually isolated while living here. (Senators from more homogenous states have to huddle together in row houses, speaking to no one else, in order to stay bland… and even then, it doesn’t always work.) One’s prejudices and pre-suppositions about the rest of the world are constantly being challenged… and personally, I consider that a pre-requisite for creativity.
There’s also the matter of the sheer quantity of readily-available art we’re able to consume for inspiration and education, let alone entertainment. The Smithsonian goes without saying. We also have more theater seats for sale in a given year than any other city in America, save for New York, so there’s no shortage of plays one can see. Thanks to the Kennedy Center, we have plenty of opera and ballet and classic music, too. It’s not a particularly literary city, I’ll admit—though I’m told that’s changing—but there’s a great music scene as well, with an immense diversity of styles. We really have an embarrassment of arts riches.
For my money, though, the single greatest benefit to making art in this city is living in the immense shadow of such towering political power, which I believe is essential to the development of a DC-specific artistic and cultural voice, though few of us seem to talk about it in those terms.
The massive, impenetrable United States government looms over everything we do here, from buying bread to strolling along the Potomac to parking the car to just plain earning a living. We make our way in opposition or response—whether we like to admit it or not—to its power. Its skeletons are literally buried in the streets all around us. The sheer white faces of our historic monuments and buildings are the blank slates on which all of our screeds are written and our images projected. No other city offers this: a chance to make art that engages the political soul of our country so directly. If you want to speak truth to power—not everyone does, I realize, but I sure do—this may very well be the best place in America to do it.