Citizens, Not Consumers: A Manifesto for Artists

In 2004 I called for Art Workers to Unite. In 2005 I ran for Mayor of NYC in order to represent the needs of the Creative Class. While I am not yet throwing my hat in the ring for 2009, I do want to bring up some issues that I think are important locally and nationally.  Just because the arts narrowly escaped the Stimulus Package Guillotine does not mean we’ve won. Not by a long shot.

There’s a lot of talk about what artists need.  Numerous service organizations have commissioned studies and done research and field surveys to assess the landscape. Generally they focus on the idea that artists need to become more entrepreneurial and to do so they should take workshops in marketing, publicity, budgeting, grantwriting, etc. etc.

While I won’t argue the central idea that artists in general, if they want to be successful, need to stop being precious about their work and take it seriously as work, I will argue against the word “entrepreneurial.” Artists in any discipline need to realize that no matter how visionary, inspired, avant-garde, exciting and groundbreaking their work is – it is still work. And as such, while the creative process is messy and often illogical, the process of getting the work into the world – and getting paid for it – is a job just like any other. It should be taken seriously as self-proprietorship.

But the word “entrepreneurial” suggests an unquestioning acceptance of the idea of civil life as consumer culture. It suggests that art is no more than a commodity and that business principles should apply to the artist as producer, the artist as consumer and the market forces of the arts landscape. I reject that notion. Culture, and the arts, is not part of the business sector, it is a forum for public expression and civic dialogue. As such, the artist stands for all people when he or she says, “I am a Citizen, not a Consumer.”

In this light, and despite all the surveys and research done by service organizations, what artists really need is really simple:

  1. Money to make art
  2. Time to make art
  3. Housing
  4. Health Insurance/Health Care

Most artists I know don’t require luxury. All they want is enough stability to make their work and not starve, to be able to live a moderately comfortable – if simple and perhaps unconventional – life.

Affordable housing, universal health care, decent wages and quality of life WILL NOT HAPPEN if the burden of viability is always placed on the artist as an individual.

Focusing on individual entrepreneurship – while an important part of an artist’s training – will not improve the situation; it only perpetuates the systemic dysfunction. If we keep moving on the same path, in the same model, we will get the same flawed, ineffective and frustrating results. What is needed is real change and a fundamental reassessment of the cultural infrastructure.

I would suggest, first and foremost, that as funding models shift, traditional artist service organizations will become far less important than artist advocacy organizations.  Artists don’t need workshops, they need health care.

Artists who really want change in their lives, who really want to live within a sustainable arts ecology, are going to need to start focusing their efforts on organizing and advocating. We need to get involved in politics in our communities, states, regions, governments, the world – and not in an abstract way but in a focused, strategic way that puts our concerns front and center. Vague demands for government arts funding on abstract “moral” or “values” grounds will prove ineffective. We need to continue to focus on real dollars and real solutions.

And this is where artists’ needs dovetail neatly with larger societal needs.  Here’s a FIVE POINT PLAN. And remember, please, I’m not a politician – I know a lot of these solutions have been proposed, are in the works, or already exist. I’m just trying to look at it through the lens of the arts.

 1. Housing

We need real solutions in NYC and around the country. Most artists are used to living in non-traditional environments and arrangements. Community fosters creativity and as such artists are pretty flexible. In NYC co-housing and group housing strategies could be used to develop arts villages.  A building like PS122, for instance, could enter a public/private partnership to develop subsidized housing/workspace for artists above the performance spaces and galleries with retail on the street level to help provide revenue. Developers could be incentivized to build green, to build apartments with common space and shared kitchens. Arts Advocacy groups could form Urban Development Strategy teams and rather than being adversarial work in concert with developers to create mutually beneficial projects.

Nationally – if the government is bailing out the banks (predatory lenders) by buying up all the bad debt, then they are essentially buying all the defaulted mortgages and, basically, the Government now owns all that property. How about they give it back to the taxpayers? Give the homes back to the homeowners, make excess housing stock available under H.U.D. or some other government-subsidized housing program. Work with local governments to move artists into at-risk neighborhoods and help re-build. Every major city in America has scene how artists – and gays – revitalize blighted urban areas. If the government owns all these houses, then house the people!! Use strategic housing initiatives to spur urban – and suburban – renewal.

2. Education

One of the biggest challenges facing the arts today is the slow eradication of arts education – and the education system in general – over the past 30 years. The life unexamined it is not worth living – but today’s young people are not given the tools to truly examine their lives. For that matter they are not given the tools to succeed in the Information Age. America needs to invest in its education system.

So give an artist free housing in an at-risk neighborhood in exchange for working in the community to re-build schools. Find teachers and give them subsidized housing and tax credits to move to underserved areas. Using the NYC Teaching Fellows model for a national teacher’s corp.

And re-introduce rigorous arts and literature programs into the schools! I would argue that the arts – more so even than sports – provides young people with a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, it builds character and facilitates collaboration and teamwork. It gives young people a chance to express themselves – it is like aerobics for the imagination. It nurtures hope through inspiration.

Integrate arts and culture more deeply into communities and education – have artists in residence in middle schools, high school and colleges. Match artists with educators to develop curricula using arts to explore history, identity and values. Offer artists a living wage to enable them to be in their communities as artists and share their gifts and passions in meaningful ways.

3. Health Care

This is such a no-brainer. GIVE PEOPLE HEALTH CARE. Get rid of employer-based health insurance and provide universal health care to everyone. Employer-based health care is absolutely untenable for most artists – many of whom are freelancers.

About a year ago I did a project with Adam Forest Huttler at Fractured Atlas and learned about his ongoing – and frequently Sysiphean – efforts to get the insurance industry to recognize artists as a group and thus offer a reasonable deal. There are so many misconceptions about lifestyle, risk and the demographic as a whole that it is nearly impossible for an artist to get coverage. They frequently go without and then, when something really bad happens, are imperiled, indebted and sometimes incapacitated.


4. Income/Jobs

 Here’s an idea – pay people to make art. Art is important. Really. People have been floating this idea of a WPA for artists and it is a good one. Making art is hard work, it requires years of training, highly specialized skills, craftsmanship, talent, vision, persistence, intelligence, insight, innovation, creativity and much, much more. And when the artist is done, usually, everyone benefits. So would it be so bad to have the government invest in infrastructure by hiring artists to photograph and film our stories? To work  on the internet which, apparently, needs to be re-built? To dramatize our struggles? To paint murals and write novels and poems and make music and celebrate our wonderful American heritage of freedom, democracy, pluralism, inclusivity, hope and dreams?  I mean, really. This about this:

culture n. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

Culture is not a luxury; it is the totality of human expression, the manifestation of afflatus in the physical world. Culture is the investigation of human imagination, it his how we create hope or despair, it is how we represent ourselves – our lives, our dreams and our values – to ourselves. As such one could posit that the generative, creative act is human modeling of the primary divine behavior, that of bringing forth something from nothing…..So maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t kill the government to pay people to do this important work.

 5. Infrastructure

  • Make the subways free. Seriously. Its too much money and we need to get around town. WTF?
  • Wi-Fi/Internet Access should be a public utility. Not only would it be cheaper and freer but it would probably be easier to secure if there was a unified information infrastructure.
  • Build smarter, better, greener. Construction workers don’t care whether they’re building luxury condos or public housing – they just want to work. So let’s fix things. Screw the stadiums and the shopping malls and all that wasteful spending. Build housing on a livable scale, support small businesses, invest in communities and use urban design to influence human interaction and behavior. No skyscrapers – keep it small, keep it local, keep it proximate.
  • No more cars in Manhattan. Bikes, baby, bikes!!
  • More green space!
  • Healthy Food Distribution

 And in closing….

 Think globally, act locally, dream big, love your neighbor, support small business, don’t be an asshole.

Take what you need, leave the rest.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

 Yours truly,

Andy “Culturebot” Horwitz




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