“Expensive cities are killing creativity”

creatives bewareSt. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior has published an editorial for Al Jazeera, calling upon creatives to reject the now-cost-prohibitive art centers of the world. Kendzior launches her piece by citing Patti Smith’s May 5th advice to young NYC artists: that they “find another city.” Smith said, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. New York City has been taken away from you.” Similarly, David Byrne stated in October that “the cultural part of the city – the mind – has been usurped by the top 1 percent.”

Kendzior notes (and I recommend reading the piece in full) that the exploding costs of living in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and LA mean that failing as an artist often means more than getting yet another job:

“To fail in an expensive city is not to fall but to plummet. In expensive cities, the career ladder comes with a drop-off to hell, where the fiscal punishment for risk gone wrong is more than the average person can endure. As a result, innovation is stifled, conformity encouraged. The creative class becomes the leisure class – or they work to serve their needs, or they abandon their fields entirely.”

In other words, if creatives want to be able to take risks, or simply pursue their own work — as opposed to serving corporations (and/or the 1%) — they may need to take Patti Smith’s advice and “find a new city.”

i can has artAs a midwestern artist, my knee-jerk retort was that quite obviously, economic hardships are everywhere – particularly in humanistic/artistic professions. And while a city’s cost of living is a significant factor considering the low incomes art careers often earn, it’s not as if art is undervalued strictly (or even primarily) in the recognized artistic centers of the world. In fact, some of us pine for cities in which people actually go out to look at, listen to, or otherwise value art of any form. (The sense of being undervalued is likely more stark in cities in which a smaller population means that the small percentage of art-valuers necessitates a microscope.)

And finally, most artists – in any locale – have to serve corporations in order to pay our bills: often by licensing music, designing logos, or writing copy for marketing campaigns. While this may be sign that various cities undervalue creativity, these artistic circumstances are much more nuanced, extensive, and (by now) culturally intrinsic than a few cities’ issues with inflation and elitism. (Cue projects such as Kickstarter, or Jack Conte‘s Patreon.)

choose your own

Still, what’s great about Kendzior’s piece – regardless of its failure to take a more holistic approach – is its theoretical rejection of (financially-)enforced artistic silences. It offers a turn from the myth of “proximity-equals-success” to a focus on minimizing — to whatever extent such minimization is possible — the risk that one’s work will be (over)determined by economics, and thus deprived of its individual voice. In effect, Kendzior gives artists “permission” to go wherever our work can be most ours… and to feel no compunction that this may not be in a culturally-approved, globally-recognized center for art.

Kendzior’s call to artists will feel, to most of us, entirely too theoretical and imprecise, but the thrust of it is sound: Any creator must actively set aside assumptions about where art is (or can be) made in order to uncover where her own art is made. If such a place exists — and no one is saying it does — it’s worth some grueling exploration to find it.

And if, in the process, one chooses to give a theoretical middle finger to cost-prohibitive cities that have enjoyed a reputation for welcoming starving artists with open arms: well, bonus.

“Perhaps it is time to reject the “gated citadels” – the cities powered by the exploitation of ambition, the cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. Reject their prescribed and purchased paths… for cheaper and more fertile terrain. Reject the places where you cannot speak out, and create, and think, and fail. Open your eyes to where you are, and see where you can go.”

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2 thoughts on ““Expensive cities are killing creativity”

  1. Do you have an audience in small town america? Do you feel the sense of inspiration there? Have you tried alternatives, in San Francisco, for instance, like living in Crockett or living collectively in Oakland?

    • Tasha says:

      Thx for reading, rb! The audience for my music has grown mostly out of small-town america… if I note that “small” is relative. I believe small towns can be great places to forge innovative creative works and communities… and the lack of saturation can be a boost to creativity. Not to mention the lower cost of living, which for creatives is generally essential.
      Still, I wouldn’t want to be read here as promoting small towns over big cities or even big-city “art centers” of the world, as I think the criticism of art centers in the original blog wasn’t quite nuanced enough (although it was accurate). What I want to promote is freedom and imagination among artists of all genres/media — to go where they can do the best/most work, and keep it the most “theirs.” And to remind them that this might not be in the traditional artistic centers of the world, although of course it just might be. 🙂
      I *have* seen collectives work for a few friends, although I also know some artists who’ve had to move from the bay area back to regions with lower costs of living. The trade-off is sometimes painful: Larger, more artistic cities offer more exposure to art and fellow artists, and more people interested in valuing/buying art. But the question of affordability can, rather than just slamming the door on big cities, maybe open some imaginative conversations.
      Thanks again; take care!

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