Art | Community | Opinion

Opera, Sarcasm, and War: The Detroit Art Scene

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Charles Gounod’s Faust, as it premiered at the Detroit Opera House. The story of a man who has grown weary of his life’s pursuit acquiring knowledge and seeking out the mysteries of the universe. In desperation he summons the devil, Mephistopheles, and in exchange for his soul, is promised power, youth, and wealth. In that moment, the audience was immediately confronted with the question, Are we willing to lose our souls in order to recreate ourselves?

Look alive crew, the Detroit brand has gone pop. Her sins overlooked, her vices no longer worth mentioning in national news outlets that come in droves to get the “authentic urban experience.” Fine dining amongst the neglected architecture and art galleries in the middle of the hood is the new chic. Let’s separate ourselves from the Philistines and dance in the graffiti’ d alleys in the shadows of Albert Kahn’s genius. Let the New York, D.C, and Cali cats come down to contribute to the artistic raw aesthetics of this true urban Eden. We got studio spaces for the low, gentrifiers giving panel discussions on how to prevent gentrification, and the Everybody in Detroit vs. Everybody, the main procurers of the brand. When it’s blood in the streets … right.

Mephistopheles introduces Faust to Marguerite in Act II. Faust completely infatuated by the innocence of Marguerite, spends all of Act II and III in pursuit of her love. He is made perfect in his chase by the help of Mephistopheles as he serenades and adorns her with gifts of jewels. By the end of Act III, she goes against her nature and submits to the advances of Faust. She is completely in love. 

We’re back in the fold! We’re no longer the cautionary tale of the black city that failed, proven by the imagery of what would appear to be the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s post apocalyptic waist land. Re-branding is the order of the day. Nothing like listening to Claude VonStroke’s “Who’s Afraid of Detroit” as you jog down Woodward from Hart Plaza to Woodward Square in a vintage Cass Corridor tee. Let’s get lean. Let’s rename it all in the name of love. The exclusion of Detroit in Detroit is on trend. Let the craft beer flow into the streets and lets all have a drunken brainstorm for the name of the new Detroit. I got it … lets call it Bizzaro World.

Marguerite finds herself pregnant and abandoned in Act IV. Her brother Valentin, comes back from the war where he is shocked to learn of his sister’s state of being. He is provoked into combat, and with the intervention of Mephistopheles, Faust delivers a fatal blow. Valentin dies in his sister’s arms and curses her immorality until his last breath. She goes to church to pray for her sins, where Mephistopheles launches an overwhelming assault on her conscious.

The great art war is coming! Soon there will be torn canvases, broken paintbrushes, and dark red acrylics staining the sidewalks of Woodward and Canfield. War paint smeared on the faces of Massey, Tylonn, and Moore as we get into the conflict and the chaos that comes with progression. No more artist talks from galleries who have no intention of being transformative. No more talk of inclusion from those who do nothing for the communities they serve. We’ve become obsessed with the notion of peace when the only way forward is war. The hypocrisy in the talk of inclusion has worn thin. The fabricated answers given on grant forms asking for community impact have run its course. We stand in the middle of the darkness and the vast forest as Baldwin prophesized. Let the work transcribe the artist’s point of view instead of the plagiarism and shallow critiques of stereotyped Detroit life. A battle wages and the Wright sits on the sidelines. Detroit’s soul is heavy and it’s name carries with it a burden that is inescapable. Art for art’s sake, in the context of Detroit is absolutely worthless. Let us see the artist’s purpose. Let us see the disruptive nature of transformation. If you claim Detroit, you are accountable.

In the powerful and disturbing Act V, Marguerite has gone insane and is condemned to death. Faust attempts to rescue Marguerite, but as they arrive, Marguerite has a moment of clarity and recognizes the evil of both Faust and Mephistopheles. Just as she is to be executed, her soul is redeemed by God.



Nathaniel Wallace
Nathaniel Wallace is the Vice President of Operations for Communications Professionals Inc., a family owned firm, specializing in Federal IT contracting. A Detroit native, Nathaniel has always had a deep appreciation for the skill and transformative power of arts. Currently, Nathaniel sits on the board for Emerging Art Leaders Detroit, Music Hall of Performing Arts, and hosts Art Salon Detroit in his Brush Park home, where a curated show of local artist and local chefs showcase their talents. He has always been a supporter of both visual and performance arts in Detroit. Follow him @mrnatewallace