New Tork is not yet, by any means, a Renaissance Florence, but the history of art in America is largely a history of its life. An has grown here as the city has grown. To say that it has grown by the proverbial leaps and bounds is to make a very mild statement. Progress started late, but when it came there was no stopping it. —Royal Cortissoz, in "New York as an Art Centre," in his book American Artists., 1923.
The feeling that if you have grasped an idea you can realize it, instead of beating your head against the bars of prejudice and prestige, is most invigorating. There is a big work to be done here and we should, in a sense, take a very leading position. Money, I think, would come in plenty, but more than that, real power to shape things and real consideration. It's a quite different spirit to that of England; the artists admire one another too much perhaps, but how much better that is than not enough .... There is going to be an immense boom here in art—everything is shaping and arranging itself for it and I am regarded as the person who can give the direction to it in lots of ways. ... it is the bigness of the job, the elan and real confidence in the future that fascinate me and this climate is exhilarating, no doubt. —Roger Fry, in a letter from New York in 1905. New York in the 1980's is, culturally and otherwise, a vastly different city from the one that Royal Cortissoz was writing about in the aftermath of the First World War or the one that Roger Fry knew in 1905. For that matter, it is in many respects a vastly different city from the one that I myself encountered when I first came to live here in 1950. Yet the perspectives afforded by the observations I have quoted above may be useful as a way of approaching the subject of this symposium—New York as a cultural capital in the 1980's. Certain things have not changed, after all. It can still be said of New York that "Art has grown here as the city has grown." The "immense boom" in art which Fry shrewdly envisioned in 1905 is still very much with us, and on a scale that even Fry could scarcely have imagined possible. Nor, incidentally, was Fry the last figure of the London art world to be made to feel that he should take "a very leading position" in this historic development. Eight decades later Fry's successor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is, like Fry, an Englishman—and so are the chief art critic of The New Tork Times and the music critic for The New Yorker. Likewise, Fry's candid reference to money, like the evident pleasure he took in the prospect of "real power to shape things," may serve as a salutary reminder that ambitions of this sort—ambitions involving money and power and the renown that accompanies them—are not a phenomenon new to the 19805. They have long been an integral part of what gives a cosmopolitan culture its special dynamism, and we have only to reside for a time in places where such ambitions are either unknown or under suspension to appreciate the real difference they can sometimes make in creating the conditions in which the arts—and life itself—may prosper. That the current phase of the city's growth is not to everyone's taste—that, in fact, it is for many serious observers a source of mounting dismay and apprehension—is not exactly news. One hears complaints about it in every quarter, and these complaints are amply reflected in some of the contributions to the present symposium. And while some of these complaints are surely legitimate and point to something real, others may strike us as little more than expressions of nostalgia for a world that never was, nor could be. At no time in the last thirty or forty years was it ever cheap or easy for writers and artists to live in New York. When I first came to live in Greenwich Village nearly forty years ago, I found New York frightfully expensive and opportunities for a decent livelihood almost nonexistent. One knew that one was living on the edge, with virtually nothing to fall back on, but it was on that edge—or so it seemed to the minds one most admired—that life was worth living. One tends to forget how much in the way of comfort and amenity artists and writers were willing to give up in order to live here even in the so-called good old days when rents were undeniably cheaper and the city was a far safer and cleaner place than it now is. In this respect, William Phillips's description of the way young writers once lived in those cold-water flats, with bathtubs in the kitchen and toilets in the hall, affords us another useful perspective on the present situation. In my own generation, which is younger than that of the writers he cites, living in such a style—or in some makeshift equivalent—was still something of a norm for those entering upon the life of art, and it was assumed as a matter of course that it would be many years before anything better would be within one's reach—if, indeed, it would ever be.
What has changed, of course, is not only the price of real estate but an entire attitude toward life. It is my impression, anyway, that the appeals of the bohemian life had begun to lose their allure for artists and writers as soon as the prospect of some real alternative made itself felt on a significant scale. It was the emergence of this alternative in the 19505 which made that decade an important turning point in the history of American cultural life. Why such an alternative emerged at that historical moment is a long story, to be sure—and one that has yet to be told. It certainly had a lot to do with the international acclaim that was lavished on the painters of the New York School in the course of that decade. It had something to do, too, with the growing recognition that the New York City Ballet was the greatest thing of its kind in the world. In other fields as well— music is a case in point—there were important developments which made it possible, in some cases for the first time, for Americans to believe that a dedicated career in the arts no longer necessarily entailed a vow to poverty and obscurity.
What made the difference, in other words, was the possibility of "success"—a concept which, being relative, means very different things to different people but which nonetheless has the enduring characteristic of acting as a spur to serious minds. What one can say about this concept of "success" with a fair degree of confidence is that it always entails two things: the wish to achieve a certain recognition for one's achievements, and the hope of improving one's lot in life. We are not speaking here of the dream of vast riches or fantasies of a runaway media celebrity—those came later and have taken their toll—but of something more modest and, I think, more legitimate. As soon as it was generally perceived that "success" in this earlier sense lay within the realm of possibility for more and more talents in many fields, then the traditional appeals of bohemian life were doomed to recede, and the life of the arts was established on a less marginal basis. The whole notion of a career in the arts was overtaken by a sense of rising expectations. And nowhere was this truer than among those artists who made it their business to be in New York, where expectations tended to be higher and opportunities more compelling than elsewhere.
Given these rising expectations and opportunities, it was inevitable that the arts would now attract a great many people who in an earlier period would not have considered—or been allowed to consider—a career in such a difficult and risky realm of endeavor. If this has meant—as I believe it has—a marked increase in the number of aspirants who are attracted to the arts primarily as a means of acquiring money and glory, we need to remember that this is an increase in numbers only. The type itself has long been familiar to artistic communities everywhere—and, for that matter, it is not unknown to other walks of life. As New York has more of everything, it was bound to have more than its share of such types, but along with their increase there has also been a parallel increase—or such is my impression—in the number of aspirants who remain dedicated to the life of art and quite as willing as their predecessors were to endure whatever hardships they have to face for the sake of what matters most to them: their art.
Since it was New York that long harbored the largest as well as the liveliest bohemian milieu in the United States, the progressive diminution of that milieu from the Fifties onward has naturally been felt more acutely and lamented more publicly here than anywhere else. And as the changes that have followed in the wake of this development have been unequal in their effects, bringing prosperity and fame to some and added hardship to others, the impulse to assign blame has naturally been widespread. Some attribute the causes of our present woes— insofar as they see them as woes—to the real-estate developers. Others arraign the media, and still others the public itself. Fashion is often cited as the principal evil, art dealers are denounced for their venality, arts administrators decried for their lack of vision and courage, and critics impugned on grounds of integrity as well as intelligence and taste. Some even condemn the government as primarily responsible for what ails the arts, while others invoke the capitalist system as the central cause—as if any other system in this century has offered greater opportunity or freedom for the arts to flourish on their own terms. Rarely, if ever, mentioned as a major factor in the life of the arts today is the artist—and what the artist does, or does not do, in his art. We tend to treat the artist as a figure who is acted upon in the cultural arena, rather than as its principal actor—which is very odd when we know very well that it is what the artist does, or fails to do, in his work that creates the fundamental conditions of our cultural life.
What is therefore essential to understand about the change which has overtaken the life of the arts in New York is that it was achieved, first of all, as a result of what certain artists accomplished in their work. If they had not put New York on the cultural map—and kept it there—none of our present problems would exist for artists, and none of the opportunities either. It was the art—and the recognition duly accorded to the art—which caused money and attention to be lavished upon it, and not the presence of money or the media that caused the art to be created. What we are talking about are the problems that follow from a certain kind of success, not the problems of failure— which are of another order altogether.
The question of the moment is: has New York's success somehow so altered the way the arts here are created and perceived and supported that they are now in danger of sliding into a period of decline ? Many people, for good reasons and for bad, now fear that this might be the case. New York has undoubtedly changed, and so has the rest of the country in relation to it—in part, anyway, as a result of standards and opportunities set in New York. It is in the hope of exploring the nature and the implications of these changes—both in New York and elsewhere—that the editors of The New Criterion have organized the present symposium. For this project we have turned to those who are most directly involved in the creation, the criticism, the performance, and the organization of the arts. To a select group of these figures we have sent the statement and questions which follow below, inviting them to reply to the issues they deem most paramount at the present time. We are far from agreeing with every statement made in this symposium, but unanimity of opinion was not our purpose. What we set out to achieve was an informed and wide-ranging discussion of the problems which are now thought to beset us—problems which lie as much in the realm of opinion and judgment as in the realm of creation itself—and this we believe we have accomplished.
The statement and questions submitted to the symposiasts are the following:
It has been accepted for several decades now that New York is the artistic capital of the Western world, and that it will remain so in the foreseeable future. In all questions having to do with high culture, whether as a creative enterprise, as an object of critical scrutiny, or as an established institution, New York in the last years of the 19805 continues to occupy a place of unequalled leadership. Yet this position of dominance, while rarely questioned as a general proposition, no longer seems quite what it was even a few years ago. Changes in the city's economy, as well as changes in the arts and in the pattern of patronage of the arts, have lately led to the speculation that New York's status as a cultural capital may actually be undergoing a significant shift.
It is no secret, for example, that young artists and intellectuals in every field find it more and more difficult to survive the high costs of living in New York, and it remains something of a mystery that so many aspiring talents nonetheless manage to establish themselves here. In certain fields, moreover, New York is now seen to import as much as it exports in culture. Our theater has increasingly become a dependency on the theater of London as well as on regional theater in the United States. In the visual arts the heralded new talents are today as likely to come from Germany, England, and Italy as from New York. In architecture, New York seems to garner more in the way of controversy than of first-rate achievement. The academy has for many years seemed to provide a more secure environment than New York for aspiring novelists, poets, and critics. In musical performance, there is at present little difference between what goes on in New York and what goes on elsewhere; in composition, the argument is being made that New York no longer leads in the avant-garde. And so it seems to go in many fields. The way patronage is both perceived and acted upon now seems to focus as much on Washington as on New York institutions, and this too has led to speculation that New York's position of dominance has been seriously undermined. The role of television as a medium in which reputations are made has likewise raised questions about the future of New York as the place where an artist or a writer must establish his critical renown. The issue that emerges as the result of these observations is whether such shifts pose a threat to New York's position as an artistic capital or, on the contrary, indicate only the kind of changes that regularly occur in the cosmopoltan cultural life for which New York is now universally famous.
The New Criterion is soliciting responses from a group of artists, writers, and cultural leaders in order to ascertain what the state of the arts and letters in New York City is in the 19805, and what the future may hold. Specifically, we would like your view on the questions which appear on the next page. Because these questions move from the particular to the general, we hope that your answer might include consideration of your own field or fields of interest, and then might go on to sketch your opinions on the broader matters of New York's present and future position. Your answer may, of course, include comments on any or all of the questions we are asking.
1. In your field, does New York lead now, and will it continue to lead?
2. In your field, is the new generation of leaders in New York or elsewhere?
3. How interested are you in what goes on in your field outside the geographical area where you work?
4. What are the benefits and costs of being an artist or a writer in New York?
5. If you now live in New York, is there anywhere else, in this country or abroad, where you would rather work?
6. If you live outside New York, how important for your work is coming to New York, and how important is having your work noticed in New York?
7. Is New York's perceived position of leadership real, or is it merely a matter of the concentration of media attention?
8. How has the cultural vitality of New York changed over the last two decades?
9. To what extent are social and economic conditions responsible for the change?
10. Can any decline of New York's central position in America's cultural life be seen as part of a general decline ?
11. Are there thriving regional cultures in America, or are they merely smaller-scale replicas of what New York has been doing, and still does, better?
12. Were New York to lose its position of leadership, what would be the effect of this loss on American culture as a whole?
Please excuse the absence of this article as we work to update our archives with special issues from The New Criterion's past.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 11
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