Is the “The Warhol Economy” good for the production of culture?

Warhol Economy
Image source: Princeton University Press

I finally got around to reading Elizabeth Currid’s book, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City, which argues that these creative industry are an important economic force in the city and social networks that allow it to function. The book is a breezy read, with an academic context but written for lay people. Thankfully, Currid references in an academic style. Many of her citations which left out of books aimed at the general public have been added to my to read list. Books in this style are very important because they counter the increasing obscure that academic research often takes has it plummets in sub-sub genre navel gazing. Although I have some issues with the book, I’ve been thinking about it for a week, which is a sign that it was worth reading. Aside from a few factual errors that slipped though the editorial process, (the Roxy was located in Chelsea, not the East Village) the book ends up leaving me wanting a lot more exploration on the merit of the social networks which promote the creative production and why that is good for New York.

She sets out and shows how the creative industries of New York, provide real economic value to the city’s economy and represents a growing percentage of the labor force, which quickly and adequately does in Chapter 3 of the book. She then spends the rest of the book describing how the social networks of these creatives (the people working the industries Currid explores) help produce output that drives these industries, by interviewing people who have successively used this networks to advance their careers. Also she shows the creative industry has value, she doesn’t explain why it is valuable over other uses of resources. That is, the creative industry and its use of social networks is assumed to be worth continuing because of its past existence. However, this assumption doesn’t question the dependence on the social network itself. Is this dependence on being able to capitalize on social networks efficient, fair or democratic?

By only interviewing the success stories, she risks overly celebrating her subjects like Quincy Jones, Jeffry Dietch, and John Varvatos. A more complete study needs to include examples of failure. The barriers to entry of these networks are only slightly mentioned. She quotes of a successful graffiti artist, Colt45, who mentioned that other talented colleagues did not achieve success or fame, while other less talented ones did. Interviewing those who lost out, I suspect reveal a new narrative. Last year, the painter, James Rosenquist gave a telling interview (around 30:30-31:45) in which he discusses being selected by Henry Geldzahler to be the now legendary show “New York Painting and Scuplture: 1940-1970” at the Met.

He goes on to explain that the his success has a lot to do with luck, and recounted that he knew many talented artists who never were able to achieved fame. These experiences only get brief mention the Warhol Economy but deserve examination, because they shed insight on why we should ultimately care about these social networks and ask if they are better systems to encourage cultural production.The middle chapters of the book describe the interaction with creative workers and the gatekeepers of culture, be it fashion, music or art. Here, the analysis misses an opportunity to show how digital technology is influencing production of culture and the tradition powers of the gate keepers. These are relevant changes, because the fall of the cost of digital media production and the rise of digital social networks are having effects which simultaneously work for and against the gate keepers. This simultaneity of opposing forces caused by digital networks has been discussed here in previous posts, as well, and I will admit is a personal interest of mind. In this case, decreases in the cost of audio recording equipment, the rise of peer to peer networking and increases in the access to high bandwidth, are creating opportunities for musicians to circumvent traditional music labels. Further, promotion of music has similarly seen a massive increase in the ways a musician can self-promote her music as well. When anyone with a personal computer can record and distribute music, the creators are seemingly no longer as dependent on gate keepers found at big music labels and mainstream publications.On the other hand, with an abundance of choice, we often look towards these taste makers as trusted brands to do the filtering for us, which in turn increases their power. Disruptive forces in the music industry, such as MySpace and P2P file sharing, radically change the importance of the nodes of that a band’s social network. Currid interviews the independent band, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and describers their rise of success from in part, being in New York and playing shows in the Lower East Side clubs. While this is undoubtedly true, here is a slightly different narrative from metafilter:

“Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are a band that, less than a year ago, were making music without the help of a record label, pressing CDs themselves and selling them at concerts and on the Internet. Then the following happened: June 9: Dan Bierne writes about the band on his MP3 blog, June 14: Pitchfork Media posts a review of the song “In This Home On Ice”, June 15: Blogger Gothamist posts an interview with the band, June 20: Blogger Stereogum announces the band’s show at the Knitting Factory, June 21: Gothamist reports that David Bowie was in the audience at the Knitting Factory show, and June 22: Pitchfork posts one of a slew of reviews of Clap’s first album. Now, they’ve been named to dozens of critics ‘best of’ lists, they’re playing Conan and Letterman, and are about to embark on a new tour.”

Pitchfork, which Currid mentions, is not just a well-regarded online music review site. It was started in 1996 by a recent high school grad in Minnesota, and then relocated to Chicago. The digital social networking component was both decentralized and an important component to their eventual success. It also suggests that changes in social networks can have effects on the culture economy and therefore, according to Currid’s research, New York City’s overall economy which depends on cultural production. The reason acknowledging the influence of digital production and communication is of value, is that it is changing the status quo, which Currid’s proposals seek to maintain. Policy makers have a tradition of regulating for the past, certainly not the future, and rarely for the present. While is it impossible to predict, closely studying the present is useful, of which William Gibson is often attributed for stating something to the effect of, “the future is here, it’s not just widely distributed yet.”

As the book is mainly a descriptive text, rather than normative (or proscriptive) I’m wondering what Currid feels about the current social network, gatekeeper system that is in place. The title of the book is telling, as Warhol redefined not only the art of his time, but also idea of fame, wealth and celebrity of living and working artists. In his aftermath, the idea of the starving artist is passe. Not only the rapidly rising cost of living in New York that is changing, but the expectation of what an artist’s standard of living should be. It’s hard for me to tell if $300 bottle service is good or bad for New York’s cultural economy, because she makes it sound so alluring.

Currid concludes by suggestion a few ways that local government can support artists and designers through subsidized housing and studio space, as well as, more open policies toward nightlife. However, with this suggestion, it’s not clear to me that they would work, or if we want them to work. I wish she included more than a paragraph reviewing of what other countries (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) are doing in supporting the culture economy. I’m curious to know how can we learn from cities with better funded social-welfare programs, such as Tokyo, Paris, Amsterdam, and London strengthen or weaken her ideas. While what Currid documents in important, there seems to be a lot more work to be done.

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2 Responses to Is the “The Warhol Economy” good for the production of culture?

  1. Frank says:

    Great review, sounds like this is a very interesting topic the book is describing. I particularly like your focus on the losers, who are constantly venting in places like gawker:

    My biggest concern about the Warhol economy is that it plays into what Robert Frank called the Winner Take All Society. Are really visible prizes at the top luring too many people to try to be part of a creative class? Finally, what about inequality of income…are we basically creating a courtier society where it matters more to prepare baubles for the wealthy than to make products that actually improve most people’s lives? Certainly the recent show “Design for the OTher 90%” suggested as much…though i’m not saying that, say, the pharma or legal industries do much better distributionally.

  2. Ray says:

    I agree without looking at the winners and losers the system cannot be adequately judged in any context. Is the status quo efficient in an economic sense, or fair in an ethical sense?

    Here’s a counter example, that didn’t make it into the post, because I wanted to get it live. If we interview professional athletes, we’ll hear stories about support networks, of families, friends, coaches, team mates and schools. It sounds like a successful network that pumps millions of dollars directly and indirectly into the local economies of the cities who host NFL, MBL, NBA, and NHL teams. Does that mean we should encourage polices to support to these teams and young people to pursue careers in athletics?

    Obviously the chances of becoming a pro-athlete is much less then the professional creative. However, in both cases, by only looking at the successful cases, we cannot discern parity of the process.

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