Everyone was drinking and waiting for someone to look at them. The kids who had real jobs did their best to dress like artists, and the artists were bitching – mostly about the bullshit required to toe the line at once-cool brands for 40K a year. When asked what she does, a friend who works at Ralph Lauren answers, “I’m in fashion.” We’re good at pretending to be embarrassed.
“The manuscripts are bad,” a marketer from Macmillan tells the room, “but if you have thirty thousand followers on Twitter, you can get a book deal. If even a quarter of them pre-order, we recoup the advance.” This doesn’t surprise the other 20-somethings, as the fantasy of the creative class is long dead. No one expects to pay their rent doing what they love, and those who do are having a crisis of taste.
One such influencer-writer recently accused another of “gentrifying” the aesthetic – colourful, ugly Instagram font – of her 2018 self-help book and copying her ideas. Since accusation is verdict online, spectators demand that the best-selling author “cut a check” to the other best-selling author. Their novels are ostensibly the product of the apps that gave them a platform to begin with. Infographic prose with personal takes on universal truths, this kind of writing confuses honesty with relatability and is wildly popular. Though, which kind of artists find financial success is an argument best suited for college students, as every working artist I’ve met is obsessed with money. Nostalgic for the art of 70s New York but incapable of surviving the lifestyle that usually produced it, the greatest minds of my generation make digital art for Snapchat.
Nostalgic for the art of 70s New York but incapable of surviving the lifestyle that usually produced it, the greatest minds of my generation make digital art for Snapchat.
A boy on the train is reading Just Kids. He’s an artist but works for a startup. The alternative child of white-collar Americans, he figures he could be like Patti or Robert if only he’d inherited a different city. This downtown has 3K rents and a Starbucks. Yet the cultural memory of bohemia lingers because he still hears people who cut their own hair shouting at bars about how art should be a concept divorced from commerce, but since broke has only gotten broker, the personal parameters of selling out have shifted.
“Most of my commissions are not my personal style,” an illustrator confides. She understands that success hinges less on unique vision than her ability to cater to the market. Granted, there’s nothing new about capitalism influencing artistic trends, but pandering is a talent that should carry at least a little shame. And it’s troubling when artists stop realizing they’re doing it.
In a conference room in the new World Trade Center, I pitch a leading publisher TV shows that already exist. “Teen Vogue would love that!” Mainstream approval is such a buzz that I forget my ideas are shitty. In the Uber back to the office, I check my feed. A gay painter is giving other men’s selfies the oil treatment—art has become as ephemeral as the platforms on which it’s most widely shared.
A magazine editor posts a shirtless picture and undiscovered musicians comment fire emojis, vying for coverage. Anyone can find some kind of success online, which was exciting at first then ultimately depressing. “I don’t like that I have to appease an AI algorithm into sharing my work,” says an artist who actually makes a living. As if resisting commercial pressures wasn’t already hard enough, technology has streamlined aesthetics on an unprecedented scale.
Attendees of a gallery opening look at the walls and consider if democracy has gone too far. Taste is now dictated by consumer conglomerates and audiences are built in ways that allegedly promote diversity, but everyone’s art looks the same. Social media has perhaps made it too easy to identify the consumer. Elitism was bad but is whatever this is much better?
“I don’t dream of labour,” a writer announces before talking about his career for an hour. The conversation inevitably turns to money and how no one has enough of it. Struggle may be synonymous with artistry but today’s economic conditions make the greatest art centres in the world nearly inhabitable. Patti Smith’s New York and the Sex Pistols’ London no longer exist, taking with them those types of artists. By necessity a corporate hybrid emerges, we soften our edges and instead call ourselves “creatives.” Compromise is rebranded as flexibility and what we do to survive becomes all we do.
“People are good at lying to themselves,” suggests an art teacher. “I don’t want my work to be so palatable that someone would hang it in their home.” A conviction which requires seven part-time jobs to uphold.
A multimedia artist invests in a one bedroom apartment. “I need more space to create,” she tells her coworkers at the tech company she designs web graphics for. She ends up working more hours to afford her new studio. Burnt out from the extra workload, she creates less and the move that was intended to grant her artistic agency becomes a financial liability.
The bar is full of people who say they hate their jobs but put their titles in their Instagram bios. The successful artists are also drinking, dissatisfied with their output in a way that feels bigger than typical self-critique. Were they never that good or had appealing to corporate interests become so intrinsic they’d lost their taste? Another round.
At a different party, I paraphrase a New Yorker statistic about how only 10% of art school graduates make their living primarily as artists – no one is impressed.
Jacob Seferian is a writer and editor living in New York City. His work has appeared in over 13 magazines and he’s currently developing a comic about bad sex.
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