It’s 2014. Patti Smith sits in one of those weird Charlie Rose Show-esque abysses and tells young artists to leave New York. Like Moby before her, Patti Smith waxes romantic about the bygone days of New York City and tells the young artsy kids of today to seek their urban Arcadia in other rustier, smaller cities. “Abandon all art, ye who enter here!” she cries. “New York is expensive now so move along!”
I recognized this video immediately when it popped up on my Facebook feed today, and just as I did when I first saw it, I shuddered and seethed. Patti Smith is a genius who changed the way we thought about art, life, and the limits of beauty, but this video clip is useless, disingenuous, and full of shit.
The first error that Smith subscribes to is an unchallenged assumption that an influx of artists will do great things for a city. Gentrification is a complicated issue, one that much smarter people like Kelefa Sanneh and Sarah Schulman can speak to with much more authority than I can. That said, I’ve clocked many hours on drugs at great parties in funky urban DIY spaces; I’ve been known to sport intentionally ugly haircuts; I’m a white kid who likes coffee. All of which is to say that I, too, am an active participant gentrification, and am friends with many talented artists who have changed the character of the neighborhoods they’ve moved into.
Apart from some scattered volunteer projects and lots of impassioned and guilt-ridden conversations, the “community involvement” initiatives that are so frequently bandied about during the first wave of gentrification seem to largely remain wishful thinking. Much as I love art and love the neighborhoods that artists inhabit, I just haven’t seen much evidence that artists de facto improve the neighborhoods they move into for the residents who came before them (I’m truly eager to see exceptions to this or data that proves me wrong, but as Whitney said, I want to see the receipts).
So Patti Smith saying that a bunch of eager, well-intentioned artists flocking to the rust belt would help these cities remains at best an unproven theory. Fair enough, we can agree to disagree on the issue, and hoping for art to solve all of a city’s problems is naïve but sweet.
The larger problem is that Patti Smith is forgetting what brought her to New York in the first place. She didn’t come to New York just to huddle in cold studios with other brilliant artists. She came to New York to become rich and famous.
Miraculously, she was able to do just that while also remaining a vital and challenging artist. But make no mistake: this is a woman who hustled, hustled, and hustled some more until record labels paid attention; this is a woman who was happy to try every medium available to her until she found one that could get her media attention; and this is a woman who bought a $10,000 mink coat once she turned that attention into dollars.
You may think that I’m about to go into some narrative where I excoriate Patti Smith for her ambition and call her a sellout. No, darling, that argument is boring, kinda sexist and very very mid-90’s. I’m saying that the reason we’re all in New York is to sell out on some level.
Artists and “creative types”—as my Grandmother calls them—still come to New York today because they want to be adjacent to rich and powerful people. They want these people to give them more money, opportunities, and media attention than they could get in their hometown. I’m sorry if it sounds base or offends the fantasy that you have about artistry, but this was true in 1967 when Patti Smith left Glassboro, NJ for Manhattan, and it’s true in 2016 when a talented young painter leaves Oshkosh for Ridgewood. Believe me: both the rent and the paint are cheaper in Oshkosh, and the artist who packs her bags knows that.
Don’t get me wrong: there are brilliant creative people all over the world, and there are literally hundreds of millions of people living fulfilling creative lives outside of New York. For that matter, living in New York City will not―repeat―will not magically make your art better or more unique.
And there’s more to New York City than ambition and more to creativity than a career.
But what’s missing in Patti Smith’s argument—and the arguments of everyone who keeps screaming that New York is useless now that you won’t get shot in Central Park at 2:00 in the afternoon—is that New York was never just about art, even to the artists. It was also always about commerce. And commerce (read: her record contract) is the only reason you know who Patti Smith is now, 41 years after her first album.
Patti Smith admits that she doesn’t know the solution to New York’s homogenization and rising cost of living. Neither do I. But considering how many brilliant people I know who only can make ends meet here via prostitution and drug dealing, I’d say pushing your local and national authorities to decriminalize sex and drugs would be a nice way to invest your time. After all, like it or not, johns and drug users are the Medicis of our age.
But if you don’t feel like doing that, maybe you could just do this: keep in mind that it’s never been so hard to live as an artist in New York City, but every day a whole ton-a-bunch of broke and talented weirdos make it happen by sheer force of will. So start by giving them some props and respect instead of lecturing them on what city you think would better suit their artistic needs.