Art and Society

This essay appears in print as the INTRODUCTION of ISSUE 01: Miserable Art. Copies of this magazine are available in our online store.

In the pages that follow, you will meet a painter named Helen Kenney, known creatively as Miserable Art. You will encounter an interview with that artist, a series of recommendations which provide insight into how that artist experiences the work of other artists, as well as a feature length story written by me, your author, containing a narrative think piece. Those are the basics.

This first issue of Durham Beat Magazine will tackle the topic of how art is valued in society, how the labor of artists is perceived, and how society reconciles its need for art with the nature of its consumption. At its core, this issue is about the experience of art and what it means.

Emotional, romantic, a little chaotic, sometimes irrational, the artform we know as “painting” is a familiar one, layered, drenched in history. Painters use their hands to reframe the world. They use the mechanisms of color, light, perspective, imagination, curiosity, and insight to create their works. Some of the most prolific artists across human history have been painters. To this day, many of their works live in museums and occupy wall space in households and businesses worldwide. Why throughout our history has art been so ever-present? What place does it hold among us? How do we, as members of society, understand and experience these works and the labor of the artists who made them?

As our civilization evolves and becomes more scientifically advanced, it’s challenging for the pragmatic drive of commerce and technological progress to maintain an appreciation for the cultural development of human expression that runs in tandem with all other forms of progress. Put another way, people in our society today struggle with how to value art, how to quantify the labor of artists, and how to understand the intangible and yet necessary presence of art in human society. 

People can’t help but create. It’s what we do. Whether we’re engineering a bridge, assembling a car, constructing a house, fixing a meal, or writing a poem, we are always creating. Where engineering and medicine and construction are practical and essential drivers for maintaining a functioning society, art is the emotional expression of that very same human ingenuity. 

Artists are very much like engineers. They build bridges between the heart and the mind, between people and their inner worlds, between emotions that contradict and yet co-exist. Throughout history, art—in all its forms—has been one of the most essential mechanisms humans have used to grapple with their emotional experiences of the world. 

Art provides a safe haven, a homestead for working out whatever it is that’s going on inside of us, whether personally or in response to our external, worldly experience. While some people may see a painting and say, “this has nothing to do with me,” they may yet listen to a song that makes them feel seen. It’s all relevant. 

Ultimately, art is not merely a way of making the world a little brighter, nor is it solely representative of what society finds or deems to be beautiful, it is fundamentally emotional and forces the human soul to confront its own vulnerability. For this reason, art is an essential part of human life and the human experience, of the way we co-exist and interact with each other and the world around us.

Introducing Durham Beat Magazine

For as long as I can remember, I have loved flipping through bound pages of printed material. Magazines, newspapers, books, zines, even catalogs. There’s something about that tactile feeling, holding paper in your hands, wafting its scent, running your fingers over slight blemishes—the distorted texture of coffee stains, the rough edges of a well-read book, almost like tracing lines on a lover’s skin. As a writer, it makes sense that I would have an affection for paper, that I would covet the experience of holding a body of work in my hands. These bound pages are more than just paper and ink. They are ideas, expressions, creations. 

Throughout the history of printed matter, the magazine has been an enduring and beloved format. Filled with dozens of stories and photographs and artworks spanning a variety of topics and mediums, reading a whole magazine is an intensive affair. As a journalist, I am very familiar with the mad dash of preparing many different pieces for a single issue. As a reader, there is so much material to get through that I often find I can’t seem to get to it all. I’m sure you have had that experience as well. Feels a shame to leave so many pages unread, untouched, unfelt.

So what’s in a name? A magazine exists to tell stories. What if we choose to slow down a bit, quit the mad dash, and focus on what it means to tell a story in the first place? And that’s where Durham Beat comes in. 

It was just an idea. One might dare call it a dream. I have never much cared for dreams though. And while to some I may seem a tad dreamy owing to my irredeemably romantic nature, I have always been a doer. I wanted to reimagine the magazine, so that’s what I did.

The first iteration took the form of a zine. A blurry interpretation of my anti-dream state, the idea was to tell one story. Simple, plain, singular, focused. These are a few of my favorite things. 

Durham Beat’s early zines became a vehicle for collaboration, a free space to fill however I wanted for a given project. But this approach proved a little too chaotic, even for me. So I retreated into the private thinkspace we lovingly refer to as “my brain” and ruminated for quite awhile.

The pandemic was raging, all of our events lay in ruin, and suddenly I had time to think. Over the course of several months, through pondering, research, endless conversations with a long-time friend and confidant, and lengthy correspondences with Durham Beat’s Chief Designer, Gabi Guerra, we found our way. We had inspired ourselves. And now, today, I can publish these words, which themselves represent the culmination of a singularly proud moment in my life and that of Durham Beat.

At long last, I introduce Durham Beat Magazine. Published quarterly, our print magazine offers an in-depth and focused exploration of a singular broad topic, which we approach through collaboration with a featured artist and present to you in 4 different sections:

Introduction: the opener; a two-page philosophical expression of the pages that lie ahead.

Interview: in-depth, exploratory ​and personal conversation with the featured artist​.​

5 Spot: an examination of inspiration and where it comes from; 5 inspired recommendations by the featured artist.

Story: a highly subjective narrative think piece written by me, your author.

Those are the basics.

Every issue of Durham Beat Magazine will also pair with:

1. A limited run collaborative t-shirt featuring original artwork by the featured artist. Profits from the shirt are split with the artist.

2. An Issue playlist. Think of it as a collaborative mood board in the form of music. I ask the featured artists to keep track of what they are listening to while we work together. I then take some of those tunes and curate them in a playlist with what I have been listening to throughout our collaboration. The result? A very emotional and wide-ranging selection of music, 30 songs deep and available on Durham Beat’s Spotify.

Can you subscribe to Durham Beat Magazine? Yes, soon. Later this year, we will unveil two levels of subscriptions. More on that later.

In the meantime…

ISSUE 01 and its limited run collaborative shirt featuring Miserable Art, a Durham-based painter, is now available in our online shop.

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Broken Dreams or New Things? A Fresh Perspective and Other Musings

I didn’t realize how tired I was. Rest had become elusive and I hadn’t really noticed. Not until everything stopped. Meetings, shows, work, cars, commerce, movement itself. About a week into the lockdown last March, I started to settle into my new daily attire. Instead of my customary hat and head-to-toe black, it was t-shirts and sweatpants and a hoodie and slightly disheveled hair. Then it happened. The most simple, eye-opening experience: I fell asleep at 8PM on Friday and woke up at noon on Saturday. 16 hours of sleep. Where did that come from? The last time I slept like that was after finishing college. I had returned to my parents house and started sleeping for 12 hours a day like it was my job (there were no other jobs back then, thanks to the crash of 08). So when I woke up from that 16 hour nap and realized how drained I had become, how little space I was affording me, I decided to embrace the concept of rest. So I became a prodigious sleeper. For a time anyway. 

The plights of life have a way of keeping us up at night, even when we are tired. The virus was silently spreading. The cloud of an economic crisis was forming. Beautiful spring weather and the bloomage it brings were hard to see among the growing death toll and the millions of jobs that instantly evaporated.

In my own small universe, the plans I had made for myself and for Durham Beat were all coming undone. A road trip across Georgia in July? Scrapped. A few weekend getaways to visit friends in Asheville? Nope. Brooklyn & Philly in August? Don’t think so. Seeing my family? Think again kid. And Durham Beat? Well… we had 15 events on the books and a handful of others in the process of graduating from concept to organizing. Such plans we had. So much fun! We did still manage to brew a beer with Fullsteam though. While our plans to share it with you as part of our 2nd birthday party succumbed to the reality of our crisis, we did still make that beer. And it was damn tasty. A small piece of light in an otherwise gloomy time.

By summer, the inbox started to fill up with release announcements from everyone’s pandemic projects. New albums, new art, new work, new ideas—newness was abound. Myself, I was mourning a year of work now defunct, the disruption of my vision for Durham Beat, not to mention an ailing heart, broken from wounds both new and old, now exposed thanks to so much time spent in solitude and silence. Healing needed to happen, so I decided to let it. 

Inspiration can come from strange places. Allowing myself the space to mourn and heal was only the beginning. In August I quit smoking. After a pack a day (sometimes more) for 15 years, I just stopped. Haven’t looked back. And that’s when I started writing again. For nearly 10 months I had been plagued by a creative paralysis unlike anything I had ever known. Writer’s block is one thing, but this was different. It was existential. The time afforded to me by the stillness of “stay at home” orders and almost no human contact yielded heartening results. I could hear myself again. And I realized I had a lot to say. So I did what any hungry poet would do: I started walking everyday. I wanted to breathe the air, soak up the sun, smell the flowers, and write about anything, everything. Don’t think, just write. In the course of these revolutionary steps, I discovered my stride. And I rediscovered the path I had made for myself; I was walking it, like I’m walking it now. Steady, intentional movement.

The rhythm of that intention spread to every area of my life. Next thing I knew, I had written my first book of poems. I fell in love with photography again. I learned how to cook an entire chicken. I started averaging five miles a day walking around Durham, writing in notebooks, studying trees. (Maybe you have seen me walking in the street picking up leaves.)

I also went back to the drawing board with Durham Beat. I revisited ideas that had been sitting around waiting for me to have time to spend with them. I took that time. We hung out, my ideas and me, and together we came up with a plan. I took that plan and reinvented our business model. And now I’m here, writing to you at long last, my dear readers. I have missed you. We have so many adventures ahead of us.

Between a large pile of new local art to write about and the forthcoming big announcement I’m dying to tell you about, there is a whole lot of space in your author’s life now for the works that will define the road ahead. To begin that journey, I decided we should clear out a little more space. So we’re running a permanent sale on all of our past zines, shirts, and projects until they are gone. It’s time for the future to arrive. We’re ready. Are you?

P.S. Look at that chicken!! You know ya girl made some gravy too. And a chicken pot pie with the leftovers. Mmmhmm. (Note: 18 minutes per pound in a preheated oven at 350; marinate it for 24 hours; internal cooked temperature of 165 and you’re golden; basting is the most important thing. Don’t skip it. Do it often. That is all. See you soon.)

A Few Words About Live Writing

Live writing is an experiment in writing as a performance art. A natural evolution of Gonzo Journalism, live writing forces raw reactions and unfiltered thoughts, all being shared through the mechanism of social media as the night unfolds. It is an inherently organic performance in which the writer invites the reader into the writing process itself, and into the experience of covering a live event as a journalist.

Of course, live writing isn’t only what you see on our social media. You will often find us, The Editor especially, out and about writing in public, making the words you will eventually read. Writing out in the world serves many functions. Exposure to the daily ruckus of the colliding lives of the people who live and work and toil in your own city is certainly a well of potential content. Real life often seeds the best ideas.

More than that though, it’s the noise. You might wonder, ‘how can you possibly hear yourself think?!’ Well, that’s just it. Being immersed in other sounds forces the writer to focus only on their own voice. Immersion has many benefits but none more so than learning how to hear yourself amidst the noise of others. This is where authenticity lives. Take away that which is not of you and what remains is what you mean to say.