Prompted by David Byrne’s rather scathing indictment of New York City for driving out all its artistic heart with rising costs of living and shrinking humanist sensibilities, and Patti Smith’s equally blunt advice to artists to “find a new city,” the New York Times hosted a Room for Debate article entitled “The Cost of Being an Artist.”
The article, which featured short passages by six artist types, seemed to be aimed at striking a balance, or at least comforting people to think things aren’t so bad. Yes, the city doesn’t support their artists like it should, but everyone now has day jobs, so it’s OK. One voice, Miki Navazio, was once a jazz guitarist and composer, and is now a lawyer, which he says is much easier. The others are all either moderately successful artists (a playwright, a filmmaker) or artists with pretty comfortable day jobs that relate to their field (an arts administrator at a company who works for funding for artists, and writer at Policymic). At any rate, no one is starving. I mean, someone knew them well enough to put them in this article, right? Are they the best people to ask about the real state of the struggling artist?
The overwhelming sentiment was that it’s hard to be an artist, but it’s in our blood, so we do it anyway. Paddy Johnson’s quote is perfect: “Asking whether it’s too expensive to pursue the arts is a little like asking whether it’s too expensive to read or write. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t stop.” I don’t necessarily disagree with her on this. However, a common problem I find is that we all romanticize artists and their struggles. By saying that artists have no choice but to be an artist diminishes the work, the struggle, the training, and the fact that not everyone can do this extremely challenging job. And romanticizing it can easily lead to the trap of thinking that artists love their life so much that they will do this art, what seems to flow out of their bodies with ease, for free. They like it so much, right? If it’s so natural to them, it’s not hard right?
Ms. Johnson does go on, however, to make a point that I want to plaster on every graffitied construction site I see: “These efforts [of the artist] in effect subsidize every other industry in the city by making it a more interesting and desirable place to visit and live, so maybe it’s time we spent a little more time figuring out how to support artists.” YES! Juri Koll also points to this issue when he says, “Compared to other countries, such as Ireland and Denmark, where there are tax-free grants or direct subsidies with special tax benefits, the United States lags far behind in its treatment of artists.” These are some great points, and productive ones at that. This is something constructive to work toward. But the question remains, how?
And now I finally get to what I’m trying to get at. We all complain. We talk about how the city does nothing to support us, and we reference other cities that do support their artists. And then we stay here, continuing the fight. We don’t want to take Patti Smith’s and David Byrne’s advice to find new cities. Patti Smith and David Byrne had New York City, and we won’t rest until we have it too. This is where the artistic community breeds new ideas and finds daily inspiration. This is where we’ve already been building our lives. And so I find that I’m actually more on the side of the artists with day jobs than the established artists telling us to move. For better or for worse. And I’m well aware that it might be for worse.
But let’s stop complaining and start doing. Pointing out New York City’s flaws might be one step, but it’s not the only step. The next step is to work toward finding a solution to the ever-worsening problem. Let’s build that community, and find a way to stay in this city we all love.