By JOE LEDUC
Immanuel Kant once wrote that “a man abandoned on a desert island would not adorn either himself or his hut” to demonstrate the essentially social nature of art. While it may be created in solitude, art for the philosopher demonstrated our nature as sociable beings. A little over 200 years later, University of Southern California urban planner Elizabeth Currid argues in her new book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City, that social life still makes the culture move—and that it can be big business, too. Currid, a protege of The Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida, offers social science with a downtown mentality, crunching numbers with one eye on her data set and the other on the dance floor. Her argument holds that the arts and culture broadly speaking—including everything from graffiti to the Old Masters at the Frick, the fashion industry to Julliard—are not only an underrated aspect of New York’s economy, but are the source of the city’s greatest competitive advantage over other urban centers. She furthermore believes that the success of the city’s cultural economy depends on the density and rich social fabric available there for artists, including the presence of varied and extensive opportunities for nightlife. Currid’s analysis leads her to rethink the ways in which the government tries to foster the arts, shifting focus from public art projects and direct grants to encouraging and safeguarding the conditions under which a creative community can flourish. While much of her book deals specifically with the role and function of the arts in New York, sometimes with a less than critical eye, her book offers lessons for readers elsewhere who struggle with similar questions if not on the same scale.
The first chapters of The Warhol Economy introduce Currid’s themes and provide a brief overview of the history of New York as a cultural center. It’s important to note that, while artists and the arts form her subject matter and sources, her underlying interest is in the culture industry—hence the invocation of Warhol, whom she sees as the pivotal figure in the commodification of art. Warhol’s frequently collaborative work, his creation of a scene at the Factory that drew figures from diverse areas of cultural production from fashion to art to music, his involvement in areas of commercial design, all these Currid sees as emblematic of the evolution of the business of art in the ensuing decades. She argues that we should see the arts as not just an amenity or added attraction to New York, but as one of its vital economic sectors. While no one would deny that New York stands as a leader in the cultural world, it seems to me that Currid overstates her case somewhat in her effort to undo what she views as the inattention paid to the economic impact of the arts. While it’s true, as she writes, that the arts rank fourth out of all high skilled employment areas in recent years, only a little behind finance, by her own statistics they used to rank third, just ahead of the latter—and finance brings in far more money. Similarly, she relies on data from a report by the Center for an Urban Future to show that the share of professional and business services jobs in the city proper declined from 60% in 1970 to 45% in 2000. However most of these jobs are still within the municipal region, the same unit of measure on which her data ranking the arts as the fourth largest employer relies. Keeping with the single standard of municipal region, professional services had the most dramatic growth in employment numbers from 1940 to the present, essentially doubling from under 6% to near 12% to become the largest high-skill employment sector while arts employment remained roughly stable over the same period. Fashion, art, and music, it seems, do not drive New York; the professionals and financiers who view and consume the arts still do.
Since economic impact serves as the point of discussion, artistic quality doesn’t necessarily enter the equation. Currid’s data shows clearly what common wisdom suggests: that when it comes to theater, for instance, New York is the place to be for employment. But New York’s status as a center of serious theater has declined dramatically since the 1940’s. The regional theater movement created major players in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, and Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, to name just a few, organizations which increasing took on the role of developing the new plays that only later would arrive in New York. While much serious theater still originates in the city, many of the theater jobs Currid finds in the city come in a Disneyfied Times Square, not a vital scene. The presence of jobs in a theatrical tourist district conceals a large amount of decentralization in the higher reaches of the art form.
Those caveat aside, no one would doubt that the arts provide a lot of jobs and important revenue to New York. They may not be the largest sector of the city’s economy, but Currid demonstrates that they have a greater concentration there than in any other U.S. city. Overall the city boasts roughly four times the density of arts employment than any other city, while within certain categories—fashion design, for instance—the disparity grows even larger, to the point of total dominance. New York has a comparative advantage in other larger employment sectors as well, but none as great as in the arts. The question, then, becomes how best to protect and even foster this competitive advantage?
To answer, Currid first offers a sort of sociology of the arts in New York. Relying on the work of her mentor and other scholars, as well as extensive interviews with artists, designers, musicians, writers, and others in the cultural sphere, she finds that the arts, and knowledge industries more generally, place a greater reliance on socializing and informal contacts to spread ideas and information and form new productive relationships. While obviously all professions rely on networking and references in various ways, she sees the arts as leaning more heavily upon informal social bonds to connect potential collaborators, foment new growth, and offer possibilities for employment. No one needs a new record, or a new painting, after all, in a strict sense; and absent a dense network of possible creators, we’d probably have less of them. But create that network, fill it with people eager to see and hear and create new things, and all sorts of possibilities arise. A chance meeting in a bar might bring together musicians who decide to work together, or an artist and a poet who find that their shared sensibilities would join perfectly in an illustrated book. The nightclubs, industry parties, and gallery openings, Currid shows, are the real offices of New York’s creative industries. It’s no wonder no one really looks at the art at an opening; they’re too busy working.
At the same hot spots and events one finds the gatekeepers—the editors, critics, and tastemakers whose judgments have a crucial effect on the success or failure of artistic productions. Gaining their attention makes entrance into the social life of the cultural world even more important. The density of New York’s artistic community, and its penchant for gathering in particular haunts also makes a certain amount of public peer review possible. The reaction to a song with a certain beat might lead to another track, while a new look spotted on a girl on the dance floor might inspire a twist on the fashion of the day. It’s through social life of various kinds that cultural production gets examined, evaluated, and advanced, contributing to New York’s cultural vibrancy and ultimately its economy.
Currid at moments acknowledges at points that there’s a darker side to the importance of socializing: the less-connected can be overlooked while the young, beautiful, less-talented art world darling gets fêted. Her evident passion for fashion, art, popular music, and parties, however, leads her to describe the world of New York’s high style in perhaps a sometimes uncritical manner. She takes at face value the assertions of her interview subjects that to achieve any sort of importance in the arts one must be in the city, never noting that such ideas are exactly what one would expect New Yorkers, notorious for their urban provincialism, to express. Perhaps this is just the sentiment of a New Englander writing as the Red Sox’s lead over the Yankees threatens to falter, but at times I would have appreciated a greater skepticism on her part. It would also have improved her argument to broaden her range of interview subjects. They tilt towards the areas of pop culture I take to be her greatest interest, making one wonder if a sort of selection bias might affect her conclusions. She writes that the major formal institutions like New York’s museums don’t play much of a role in her subjects’ creative life, but how much of that may be due to the fact that many of them are relatively young? Do exclusive clubs and late night parties have the same importance to a classical violinist as they do a rap star? If I understand her correctly, Currid would argue that while they might move in different milieux the same underlying principles and practices would govern the social life and work of the two, but it would have preferable to see this demonstrated.
Before turning to her conclusions, I would like to take a moment to note what role the internet plays in Currid’s analysis and how it might affect her model, writing as I am for an online publication. She repeatedly emphasizes the importance of place for the social ecology of the arts. The fact that New York is so dense, that many of the nightspots, galleries, and restaurants that fuel its cultural life are within walking distance or a quick cab ride, makes its fast pace possible. An outsider, however talented, isn’t missed, according to her argument; the flow of approved cultural production runs from New York, through its gatekeepers who stamp it with their approval (or not), and then out to rest of the world for it to consume. The internet, as she hints at times, complicates this picture. In her discussion of the emergence of the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, for instance, the pivotal gatekeeper in moving a local band to national prominent was famously Pitchfork Media, the Chicago-based online music site. Images of New York graffiti art, Currid notes, receive worldwide distribution on websites, but graffiti art from elsewhere also comes back the same way, creating a dialogue between street artists in different cities rather than a center/periphery phenomenon. To what extent has, or will, the increased communications capabilities of the internet erode the importance of certain urban centers as nodes of creativity? No doubt to some degree, and with more changes to come. It’s now rather easy to sit on the East Coast and get a pretty good sense of what’s going on artistically in, say, Portland, Oregon by following websites like PORT and that run by artist, gallerist, and writer Eva Lake (Big RED and Shiny obviously plays a similar role within our region.) Artists on the West Coast can get a better view of what’s happening in New York as well. I very much doubt that the art world, rooted as it is in elitism and serious money, could be prone to the crises of confidence that the political media has had regarding online writing, and certain industries like fashion no doubt are site-dependent in a way that makes the internet no substitute. But for many people New York doesn’t seem as far away as it once did, and that could diminish some of the importance of its physical place.
What most readers not in New York will find of interest in Currid’s book are her policy prescriptions on how to foster the creative economy. She does stress that her analysis is done with New York in mind, and that every city’s needs will be different. To that end, she urges that cities do the research to discover what their primary comparative advantages are and seek to support and develop those rather than fight history. Her ideas for New York do have some broader applicability, though, for places like Boston which have a significant interest in bolstering their creative economy. To pick only a few of the most notable, she emphasizes the need for increased arts education, less punitive treatment of nightlife and a balancing of interests between residents and clubs, and a rethinking of how artists receive government support.
Each has its strengths and weakness. Arts education has been sorely neglected nationwide, and one can only enthusiastically agree with efforts to increase it—not so much to increase the number of trained artists, as Currid argues, but rather the number of artistically literate citizens. While I do agree with her that greater efforts should be made to give opportunities to talented disadvantaged students, in general we do not have a supply problem with artists but a demand one. The crushing debt and poor employment prospects that can greet an MFA graduate, or an MA or Ph.D. humanities grad, are too grim to make it anything but a mercy to discourage a young person from taking that path (alleviating the problem of college debt in general would be a good thing, but no reason to only do so for art students.) New York may have a lot of arts jobs, but there’s already far more people clamoring to get them than positions. As for nightlife, while I certainly concur that a balancing of interests is needed, it’s achieving the same that proves difficult. Currid’s analysis can be very convincing on the importance of clubs for a creative scene, but on the other hand, it’s hard to shed too many tears for the troubles of an establishment that charges $300 for bottle service. Lastly, the interviews she conducted and her own observations have led Currid to the conclusion that public art projects, New York’s artist in residence program, and grants are not effective ways to help artists. Public money comes with the need to complete tiresome applications and proposals, diminishing its worth, while the breaks on housing available to artists in New York turn out too often to be going to a banker or professor. She proposes, among other things, redevelopment grants for artists who rehab unused buildings in neglected neighborhoods, or subsidies of workspace for artists who struggle to find a place to practice their craft—all of these done in a way to weed out the impostors in favor of “real” artists. It sounds appealing, but every step taken to make sure only “real” artists benefits is a move to complicate the process of getting the grant—just what her research indicated made them unattractive to artists.
Despite all criticisms, The Warhol Economy performs the very useful role of demonstrating how that which appears ephemeral and unimportant in the life of a city actually serves as part of what makes it function. What other scholars dismissed as fluff, Elizabeth Currid took the time to understand and interpret. While her findings can and should be debated, they raise important questions regarding the proper weight given in public policy to favoring formal art institutions even as the ecology of an arts scene, what makes it flourish, receives neglect if not persecution (self-interest dictates that I answer: support both.) In doing so her book reforms and advances the debate on cities and the creative economy that continues to loom large in New York and across the country. An agricultural metaphor seems out of place to describe such a relentlessly urban study, but in many ways The Warhol Economy urges us not to worry over certain plants but tend to the garden so that many things can grow.
The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City, is written by Elizabeth Currid and published by Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
All images are courtesy of the publisher.