How David Byrne Misread the Creatives of Our Time

(photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
(photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

When I read David Byrne’s recent Creative Time piece on how the 1% dominates the world, or strictly speaking, the art world, and more specifically, New York — the city we live in — it made me collect my experiences, thoughts, hopes, and projections and put them into a script. While I’m not young anymore, I am an artist a couple of generations removed from Mr. Byrne and one who came to the city less than five years ago and is still struggling. I do have to agree with the fact that starvation in itself doesn’t lead to good art, but at the same time I must add that neither does fattening. Yet, should artists view the middle class as the only appropriate position or platform from which to practice their art? If New York is already a theme park rented to tourists and its housing stock has been given over to part-time inhabitants who can afford to keep an empty space in midtown, then how does the prospect of a comfortable class of “creatives” offer any sort of challenge to this lopsided dynamic?

Let’s recall the great (also New York-based) artist George Maciunas’s dilemma: he manifested to “ … purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual’, professional & commercialized culture” until he decided he was nothing but a bourgeois himself. But this is a familiar story. I believe, in fact, that the economic class of the artist is quite irrelevant even though — and perhaps with the best of intentions — many would wish to push this to the fore.

Why do artists come to New York, or why did I do so? I was born and raised in Istanbul and decided to become an artist in the 80s. At that point, all of my resources were hearsay and my access to the art world arrived via black and white Xeroxes of art works from the West. My friends and I were drawn to badly reproduced images adorned with titles written in a language we didn’t understand, and that inspired us a great deal. The feeling among us was that by being in Istanbul we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As one might imagine, neither Turkey nor the U.S. are the defenders of the most respected political ideals: one deals in self-disgust and the denial of her past, present, and future atrocities and crimes; the other treats the whole world as a pet project and is most inventive in finding new avenues for imperialism. The story is different, however, when it comes to cities: Istanbul is a beautiful city with buildings that are thousands of years old and is filled with people who are young and courageous. In the recent upheaval they proved all the neoliberal states wrong and fought for a smart cause. This act was not merely a display of resistance on behalf of a park or a demand for a greater share of the city’s wealth; instead, the fight was for diversity. Different classes of people came together and shared everything they had, and let me assure you: it does work!

New York, on the other hand, is a diverse and innovative place where you can talk about Felix Gonzales Torres with your barber, run up the stairs after exiting a crowded subway platform, and wait at a line in an after-opening-buffet with your empty plates with David Byrne standing behind you and feel at home.

Artists are creative people by definition and we will create ways to be here if that’s what’s needed; we’ll forge, we’ll make rich friends, we’ll squat places, we’ll convince institutions, we’ll fool institutions, we’ll outsmart politicians, we’ll work hard in order not to work at all — we’re here to stay. If anything, artists should resist becoming anointed into the ranks of a creative class as the ubiquitous language of the knowledge economy implies art as amenity, valuable only for its benefit to urban prosperity. And I’m sorry to say that the “next” center isn’t upstate New York or Portland or Brooklyn or even Berlin, as these are readily gentrified places. Should a new center of activity be needed, then the best case scenario may come when we rid ourselves of our bodies and take up permanent residence on the web.

With all the devout people worshipping the money-god and living in a male universe of scores, numbers, and everything that can be counted and compared we do know there exists a certain truth that has very little to do with all of this. This truth may appear in an unusual tune you hear on the radio, or in a book you read, or (in my case) a picture on a shitty Xerox page, or perhaps in a poem you encounter whose author, Orhan Veli of Istanbul, died — as with Maciunas and Torres — prematurely, achieving far fewer years than I or Mr. Byrne or my barber:

For free we live, for free
The air is free, the clouds are for free,
Valleys and hills for free,
The rain, the mud, for free,
The outside of cars,
The doors of the cinemas
The shopwindows, for free.
Bread and butter aren’t but, stale water is for free,
Freedom can cost your head
Captivity is free
For free we live, for free

P.S. All of the above may sound romanticized, so for the record I should state that I never could foresee my finances and every time I tried to make something to sell I failed and the work failed with me. Only after I said “Fuck this, I’m just going to do what I have to” did people start to show interest — and also invest financially — in my work. If this changes in the future I will question my integrity and my honesty, but not my financial planning or career, whatever it means.

P.P.S. And, of course David Byrne knows this all so well, but he sounded like he needed a little reminder.

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