July 21, 2010 by Dan Cameron

This will be my first blog entry since the middle of Prospect.1, probably in early 2009. During the intervening 18 months, all of us have been extremely busy with both the organization itself (U.S. Biennial) and the upcoming programs (Prospect.1.5 and Prospect.2). We’ve all been buffeted by the economy, of course, and New Orleans in only six months has gone from its Super Bowl rush of glory to the Gulf Coast fears and anxieties of today. For those of us fighting the good fight to see that New Orleans’ incalculable cultural value to the rest of the country and the world is recognized and allowed to prosper, it seems that the Golden Age had no sooner begun when suddenly another reason to get squeamish about visiting south Louisiana had arisen in people’s minds. That’s not to downplay the devastation itself, but rather to focus instead, just for a moment, on the effect that the environmental damage has on the imaginations of so many people who might have wanted to visit New Orleans for cultural purposes, but are beginning to have some serious doubts.

As I sit this morning in my wonderful house on the friendliest block in Treme, I’m thinking about my overgrown backyard garden, which had not been touched since Katrina when I bought the place back in late 2007. At that time the fallen tree limbs, choking vines, and accumulation of debris was totally intimidating to me. I didn’t know how to hack my way through all the accumulated growth, most of which was pretty foreign-looking to begin with. The first visitors were even a little scared to go back there, because they envisioned snakes, spiders or some other lethal denizen of these subtropical climes. Each time I would spend a few hours clearing stuff out, and despairing over how little visual effect each load of dead foliage had on the larger picture, I would remind myself that no matter how imposing the job seemed, it was finite.

Setting aside the obvious fact that no man should live in fear of his garden, my early motivation was the fabled lemon tree that all my neighbors talked about. Apparently the tree, at the very back of the property adjacent to St. Augustine Church parking lot, is one that produced such plentiful and delicious Meyer lemons that most of the neighbors dropped by at harvest time to get a handful. One, a neighborhood activist, would even bring them to meetings with public officials, handing it to them in a decorative basked and saying, “Enjoy the Treme citrus.” One morning late last fall, after many, many sustained sessions on the yard by myself and/or my neighbor Dwayne, I realized I had a clear path to the lemon tree, and suddenly I was confronted by a vision of dozens of fat yellow fruit weighing down their branches. I snapped one off, brought it into the house, cut into it, and was instantly amazed at the sweetness of its juice. This wasn’t anything like a lemon from a store, and the tree was thriving despite any intervention from me for the last four and a half years. It was a mature tree growing out of soil in my own backyard, and it could easily supply the lemon needs of many households for months into the future.

Mulling over New Orleans’ incomparable fragility and precariousness, and pondering how to explain the unshaken artistic vitality of the place to those who have not experienced the little epiphanies that my friends and I go through on a pretty regular basis, my mind is drawn to my backyard experience and that tough old lemon tree. For example, does it make sense to say that no matter how catastrophic the oil damage a short distance from here, that amount of oil is actually finite. We might all have eaten our last local oysters for years to come this just past spring or early summer, and with very complex emotions, since none of us know when those beds will be restored. But that number of years is also finite, and if there’s a good chance we could be scarfing down plump Louisiana oysters again in another 3 or 4 years, I believe most of us would be willing to tough it out.

Is living life at the further edge of plausibility one of the things that keeps us in New Orleans so immensely appreciative of what we have together? The delicious summer sunsets here, the wafting of a trumpet on a July breeze in the evening, and yes, the unexpected taste of some brand new concoction created moments before by your local chef or bartender — how do you explain to somebody else that it’s the ephemeral nature of these things that makes them so precious? Should we be thinking of our new sales pitch in terms of the message, ‘Come to New Orleans, where life is so very fleeting?’ For me, one of the most enduring paradoxes of my mission with Prospect is that my entire profession has been founded on the premise that even if you & I can’t personally take our art with us when we go, society, in the form of museums, will take care of it on our behalf. With New Orleans, I’m constantly reminded that not being able to take the best moments of our lives with us can be the generative force for a different kind of knowledge and appreciation of what it means to be alive in the first place. And somewhere in that metaphysical gap between the weight of history and the fleeting nature of actuality is where I believe Prospect New Orleans can flourish and become of the instruments by which the world finally realizes that this city, and what it has to offer, is truly one of the pinnacles of our civilization.