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(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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Serkan Ozkaya

Serkan Ozkaya is a conceptual artist whose work deals with topics of appropriation and reproduction, and typically operates outside of traditional art spaces.

8 replies on “How David Byrne Misread the Creatives of Our Time”

  1. New York and London may be where the art money is and so the places to have a financially successful contemporary art career. But the more interesting art work that will have greater meaning in art history is happening where change is exponential, places like China and Africa.

  2. Mr. Byrne identified himself as being part of the 1%. I can’t believe that is accurate, he ain’t that rich. Name me one artist that is even close to the Billionaires with oil and media money? It is important that we not muddle the numbers or cheat the imbalance. Clearing up the disparity should incite plenty of artistic rage everywhere.

    1. It only takes an income of around $250,000 to be in the 1%. Thats just how unbalanced our wealth has become in this nation.

  3. While I can appreciate the rage from “the swallows pass” there is a sense of being naive concerning sucessful artists and their being a part of the 1%. Brice Marden, Schnabel and
    Chilhuly are three more artists, among quite a few that are also a part of the 1%. No, not as wealthy as the Waltons or Koch Brothers but in the 1% nonetheless and equally as disparate from the majority of artists or the norm in America or the world. Rage on but understand that the numbers aren’t muddled but real. Once you are beyond the rest sometimes it is hard to look back at what is behind you. David Byrne gave you something to think about.

  4. Loved your article… I lived in New York about three years ago, in a ridiculous small place in Greenwich Village, studied in NYU, I was poor when I went to live there and I returned to Mexico twice as poor…. New York is just the pinnacle of rat-race when it comes to creation and art, now I live in Mexico City, in my own floor… I surely miss NY when it comes to interaction and multicultural display, but the real art, the real lifestyle/government/political questioning and deep thinking is NOT in NY is everywhere else…. NY is too busy struggling for more money

  5. Why is the economic class of the artist irrelevant? If you are going to make such an outrageous claim, you better back it up.

  6. Great article! Reminded me of another opinion I read recently basically stating that the only way to be a truly good artist is to have come from a moneyed background… “The creative pursuits, including long-form journalism, are a luxury of the wealthy and connected.” By Chris Arnade in The Guardian (article titled “Beauty in the Bronx: to create is human, but art is too often a privilege” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/20/beauty-bronx-create-human-art-privilege )

    A Wall Street banker who quits his job because he’s amassed enough money to do whatever he wants and the next year he considers himself an art photographer and is whining about how he’s not gotten his acclaim… “…I have received criticism focused on the wealth difference between my subjects and me. “Poverty porn” or “exploitation” are phrases I hear often.”

    He goes on to whine more and tries to prove that one can only be a good artist if one has money. Apparently the man has absolutely no art history knowledge whatsoever. He takes photos of a kid who likes to do flips in the street. Whoopie. Now please, show me something w/real context!

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