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La Vie Bohème

By Harriet Staff

dude in chair

The Atlantic recently posted a brilliant critique (from Garance Franke-Ruta) of a recent n+1 article lamenting the perceived disappearance of income and prestige for artists in a modern, highly gentrified New York City.

The n+1 article argues:

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.

The Atlantic analyzes and counters the argument:

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 … a bit of perspective is in order amid the general bemoaning about the decline of affordable housing in New York: Anyone who thinks bohemia always involved great safe cheap housing needs to go back through the collected film works of No Wave cinema in the city.

And as a native New Yorker, Franke-Ruta has some authority on the issue:

I think people used to have lower standards for housing and for safety, and the housing laws were enforced more lightly … I remember seeing the hookers coming off their shifts when I was going to elementary school, done up in their miniskirts and rabbit fur jackets. Transvestite prostitutes — and the johns who trolled the streets for them — were a part of the neighborhood a few blocks north, along with the stench of rotting meat. Blood actually used to run in the streets of Manhattan’s meatpacking district when it was still a dismemberment zone, and great big beef carcasses hung from awning loading zones on hooks.

She also does a good job of painting an honest picture of past and current artists who have had to make ends meet behind the erroneous curtain of cultivation:

T.S. Eliot worked as a banker. Wallace Stevens was an insurance company vice president. There are others who have carved memorable careers out of evenings and weekends. But there have always been more who began adult life as artists and intellectuals only to find themselves 25 years on somehow being mainly a teacher at a D-list college in a place they never wanted to live.

Read the full, sobering article here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, August 8th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.