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BOOK REVIEW

THE WARHOL ECONOMY: TOO COOL FOR JUST A FEW WORDS

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 14 NOVEMBER 2007— Ever since Rudolph Giuliani and team scrubbed away the worst of its crime and Michael Bloomberg and team reengineered its finances, nothing has been better than New York City. Those back-to-back mayors, who gave New York an unprecedented run of good government, are the unspoken instigators of a boom that threatens creativity and, thereby, New York’s economy itself, says Elizabeth Currid in her new book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press, 280 pages).

The book, which carries the scent of an expanded doctorial dissertation, is illustrated with clear and easy-to-follow economic charts and with muddy and dull black-and-white photographs. The author advocates in favor of New York City as an incubator of a creative community whose products are desired by the nation and, from there, the world. That is because New York has managed for many decades to brew together the social and economic elements that draw creative people to live there and to connect with each other.

The creative New York economy sets tastes for people who enjoy music, movies and electronic media, for whatever bits of the population own up to reading books and, of course, for people who crave fashion in all its forms, from cheap chic to haute couture. The businesses that make those cultural properties form a powerful engine in the local economy—indeed, in the economy at large. The danger facing New York is that, with crime down and money flowing, high rents are forcing the perpetually hard-up majority of the creative community to move outside the moated fortress of Manhattan, that narrow island where, packed together, the artists, musicians, fashion designers, actors, club crawlers and hangers on create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

New York without its artists would be like Las Vegas without its slot machines: losing them in significant numbers would change not only the character of the place but its economy.  

There could be serious cultural and economic consequences in pricing them off the island, more than was the case when Manhattan lost agriculture, then shipping, then manufacturing. Even if creative people were to commute in, high-end residential neighborhoods encroach upon territory once occupied by trendy and rambunctious late-night venues (such as the one that still keeps my downtown cousin and the rest of her block awake until the wee hours), forcing them to shutter and thereby depriving those creative types of places where they can congregate and stimulate each other into dreaming up the next big thing.

With the limited exceptions of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the theory continues, no other American city has managed to produce the kind of creative output that can set public taste. Indeed, American cities that failed to get that mixture right ended up as hollowed-out shells inhabited by day trippers: office workers, messenger services and restaurants that shut after lunch. The sub-premise is that, as successful cultural artifacts such as punk rock and hip-hop music and abstract expressionist painting expanded beyond the cutting-edge subcultures of their gestation, they were diluted, becoming tame, conformist, commoditized.

Elizabeth Currid is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, but she studied urban planning at Columbia University, on the edge of West Harlem, and the jacket notes report that she yet divides her time between Los Angeles and New York. The jacket photograph shows a rather attractive brunette, chicly dressed and offering the come-hither stare of a young woman aware of her allure. You can imagine that she had quite a good time in downtown New York back in the day.

In getting her message through, Currid all too often restates the obvious in the form of revelation. On one page in the subchapter headed "Gatekeepers, or How Buzz is Created," we learn, "After production, creativity sells itself to consumers and attains economic value." And then, "From ‘keeping up with the Jonses’ to owning the newly reissued Nike Air Force One, consumers mold their taste around conceptions of what is cool, trendy, high brow or exclusive or a myriad of other qualities that fall under the umbrella of ‘good taste.’" And then, "We can also look at who is wearing what is fashionable. Mostly, it is actresses, musicians, celebrities, people with economic means and so on, thus a very tangible example of class differentiation."

Currid shows greater originality when discussing the importance of nurturing a creative subculture and the importance of that subculture to the economy of New York and the nation. Her commentary, however, requires a few asterisks:

The New York she is defending is largely downtown Manhattan, not in the form of the struggling Wall Street business district or nearby residential towers, but the parts that have long been synonymous with bohemia. Traditionally, the Upper East Side, where I now live, has been more expensive and has been populated by lawyers, financial people, men of independent means who call themselves "investors" because it is bad form in Manhattan not at least to pretend to have some sort of job, and the pretty Clairol blondes those men date and marry. Until recently, the Upper West Side, across Central Park, was a down-market version, with more families, more Democrats, Jews, Africans and Asians, fewer neckties and larger dogs; the upward trend in real-estate prices that has caused an equalization in value between these two halves of the island’s midriff has indeed helped erode that distinction, as anyone who bought into the new Robert A.M. Stern building (where initial offering prices rose nineteen times) one block from my former West Side apartment building can attest.

Until quite recently, downtown was for fun and adventure, not for families and the genteel life. Today, real estate there is as expensive as that uptown, young children live where parents formerly would never have taken them to visit, and boutiques of the kind once seen only on Madison Avenue—such as Hermès and Montblanc—have opened downtown branches. It all proves Currid right about where downtown has been headed: straight up the economic ladder. The problem is that young, very smart and datable women such as Currid may not ever know, in their shuttles from Columbia University to SoHo, how little contact the rest of New York, starting with the Upper East Side money belt, has with the creative subculture of Manhattan that she so admires and hopes to protect. If you are young, even modestly smart but a total babe, you don’t pine over the demise of CBGB; you don’t flirt with the guards at whatever new club has taken its place, hoping to be selected for entry; you don’t illegally download the latest tunes from hot bands and convince yourself that it is okay because you pay for live concerts. What you do is buy tickets to Upper East Side entry-level charity events until you marry an investment banker, then you pursue or patronize any damned art you please.

Contemporary art is catapulting in price, but for most, artist is indeed a low-paying or just-scraping-by kind of job, almost regardless of medium. That’s why God invented law school. (Trust me on that one.) New York without its artists would be like Las Vegas without its slot machines: losing them in significant numbers would indeed not only change the character of the place but its economy

Efforts have been made to provide subsidized housing to keep the artists around—rather as efforts have been made to save the pandas of China and tigers of India, with the same equivocal results. And they may not be needed. As Calvin Tomkins politely suggested in his recent profile in The New Yorker of the art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, "[T]he current downtown scene has not produced anybody who seems marked for stardom on a larger stage, but the participants project a lot of high-decibel energy."

Fashion people are staying on (sometimes doubling up as roommates), but they have steady jobs, provided their lines continue to sell. Fashion, as important as it is to the economy of New York and in establishing what is desirable and marketable, is not properly a fine art but an applied art—a complex craft requiring talent and training. That puts even haute couture somewhere on the creative scale between accountancy and authoring Beowulf, but that is no dishonor to those who ply the trade. Your walls will stay up with no art on them, but the law doesn’t let you go around naked, and it makes just about everyone feel good at one time or another to buy and wear something new and flattering.

But what to wear and who will decide? In a subchapter headed "Peer Review," Currid earns another asterisk. The theory here is that movie stars, popular musicians and other celebrities certify the output of other creative types, such as clothing designers. That provides a kind of peer review—an imprimatur from an equally creative force, albeit one in a different field. The moment the actress wears the dress, the theory goes, is the moment ordinary women will kill to have it (or a cheap imitation) in order to catch hold of that (now commoditized) aura of cool, because the actress, whose oeuvre and life thrill the public, is a tastemaker who has certified the dress for general admiration and consumption. Currid does admit that, "it is the stylist who is often responsible for a celebrity’s signature look," thereby requiring "us to reconsider our perceptions of who is the ultimate tastemaker and reviewer." I did mention how the restatement of the obvious can be tiresome. I happen to be married to one of those stylists. Without her and her colleagues, a lot of famous pretties would be in front of the cameras right now, looking pretty awful.

Currid is also right, albeit by implication, that American pop culture increasingly looks and sounds like something that was thought up over drinks at a noisy club; but for good or ill, American pop culture remains seductive worldwide. Its consumer products, which Currid does not take great pains to distinguish from genuine art, are indeed of economic importance, but that leads to the current philosophical and economic debate about consumerism and to more manageable questions such as what it means to have true style versus being merely fashionable—all points for separate inquiry.

Large numbers of creative New Yorkers are not that fussy about what they wear, and they are too focused on what they do and too budget conscious to make club-hoping an avocation. They absolutely do, however, depend heavily on networking to keep their careers stoked, and there is proof in surplus in New York, London, Paris and elsewhere to support Currid’s basic premise: creative people need access to communities populated not merely by fellow artists but by the publishers, publicists, gallery owners and others who can bring their work to the public.

Unlike the products and motifs of high culture, such as fine art, sophistication and civility, the products and motifs of cool can be easily packaged, marketed and commoditized in the manner described by Currid, and they thereby serve as raw materials that help create pop culture. The fact that pop culture has so completely taken over American life that even university professors get jiggy over it and write books about it reminds us why our friends in Europe continue to respect American optimism, risk taking and hard work but consider us cultural idiots.

A great thing about New York is that it’s just so big and so goal oriented that, at the end of the day, no one really cares where you came from, what you do and who you are. That is why, however good it might be to have neighborhoods here that are cheap and others that are tolerant enough to let people get rowdy, New York will remain the center of the arts in America even if Manhattan should somehow evolve into one massive and demure high-rent district. The arts need money, and we’ve got that to spare. The arts need taste, and we’re still the only corner of America that can compete culturally with Europe. (Not on charm or civilized conduct—I’m only granting us the taste and culture factor.) More important, from wherever you come, once you are here, you can reinvent yourself as you like, and as long as you let everyone else alone, they’ll let you alone to do as you please, and to shine if you can. That liberating quality and the freedom granted for even maladjustment to thrive is just what an artist needs. If star-struck, trend-worshiping America didn’t have New York, even a New York that never produced another trend worth following, it would be quite a dull place.

The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City
By Elizabeth Currid

Princeton University Press (July 2007)
Hardcover: 280 pages
ISBN-10: 0691128375
ISBN-13: 978-0691128375
$27.95
 £16.95

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He writes frequently on cultural affairs. His last exhibition was as part of the Postcards from Paris show at Leica Gallery in New York City.  He last wrote on Two-Minute Art: The New Kitsch for Culturekiosque.com 

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