NEW YORK -- Is it still possible to be a bohemian in today's New York City, where average rents now surpass $3,000 a month? Or are the rents just too damn high? And -- if they are -- what does this mean for the future of artists and intellectuals of the sort who have long been as much a part of the natural order of the city as pigeons and locust trees?
These are some of the questions provoked by an article in the Spring issue of N+1 magazine on "Cultural Revolution" signed by "The Editors." There's far too much Trotsky in the piece for my taste, but it does raise some interesting points about the arts and the way we think about social class. The piece is the latest item in a long New York tradition of articles describing the status anxiety and actual difficulties of people with top-shelf educations who are among the minority of their college classmates to take on risky individual creative ventures that are not particularly remunerative. Observe the editors:
We are witnessing and sometimes personally experiencing a sharp
de-classing of intellectuals. Our precious credentials are
increasingly useless for generating income and -- let us hope -- social
prestige, too. This should mean that most intellectuals view ourselves
as sinking, economically, into the lower-middle or working class, and
that "meritocratic" markers -- the contents of our bookshelves and
iPods; our degrees -- accord us less and less social status in our own
and others' eyes. Not to say there won't remain a self-protective
cultural elite hoarding its prestige: the hostility to criticism among
mutually appreciative writers, artists, and academics -- an aversion to
meaningful disputes -- is contemporary evidence of such a siege
mentality. But we can also hope for something else: perhaps
intellectuals' increasing exposure to socioeconomic danger will give a
new political dangerousness and reality to what some of us produce.
Might the continuing commitment of de-classed left intellectuals and
radical artists to their vocations, in spite of withered prospects and
eroding prestige, give our work an antisystemic force, and
credibility, it has lacked?
The piece makes for an interesting, though not particularly easygoing, read. From the decline of commercial book publishing to the massive expansion in adjunct positions at universities (as well as people with PhDs vying for them), the article explores changes in the intellectual economy that mirror changes in other fields. Yet there is a nostalgic quality to the piece that is hard to take. Added to the analysis must be a central and unspoken concern -- one that's been an issue since Rent (1996) and Slaves of New York (1989) and even the mists of history (1968). Namely, how to finance a life in bohemia while creating not just novel works but novel audiences. It has always been a struggle -- especially on the housing front.