April 30, 2010
NYC Artists Speak Up: Is American Mediocrity Killing the Artist in Us?I was walking through Union Square about a week ago when I came across the familiar row of independent artists and craftsmen who were out for the day to display their latest creations.
Unique to this stroll around the square, was the enormous number of negative posters slamming Mayor Bloomberg (who btw, is the 8th richest person in the United States) and the Parks Departments for their aggressive move to dislocate the artists from designated areas throughout the city, including Union Square, Central Park, Battery Park, and the Highline.
Check out some videos of President of A.R.T.I.S.T. Robert Lederman and other artists being arrested from protesting (spans 1994-2001). According to information posted on this site, Lederman was falsely arrested 43 times to date, was never convicted and has won 4 Federal lawsuits about the arrests. See objections for proposed park rules for artists.
More information can also be found on the Yahoo Groups page dedicated to NYC Street Artists.
I had a chance to talk to a few artists on that very weekend day as well as at a public protest the following Friday (April 23, 2010), held on West 25th Street just outside the Chelsea Recreation Center. Below are links to a number of videos I shot to bring you up to speed on the issues.
Listen to my interviews with artists David and Eva, who have stalls near each other in Union Square.
Watch my video taken of Robert Lederman who is leading the protest, asking artists to stand up for their rights, as artists stand around shouting ARTIST POWER with protest signs in their hands.
Hear my one-on-one interview with Robert Lederman at the protest.
Lastly, watch my videos (Video 1, Video 2 and Video 3 (Lederman tells his point of view) that were taken at the hearing at New York's Chelsea Recreational Center: people speak to a table of three Parks Boards members addressing the proposal.
Here's what I discovered from numerous conversations over the course of the week.
Mayor Bloomberg and supporters have a commercial interest in moving artists out of the parks. The question is: will they open up those 'free vendor' slots to new 'bidders,' leaving the 80+ artists in Union Square and hundreds of others with few places to go. According to a recent New York Times article entitled A Fight for Art Vendors, a Look to the Past, parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, "insisted that the department had no plans to license any more vendors for the high-traffic areas in question."
The artists' sentiment is that Mayor Bloomberg does not 'respect' them as artisians, nor do they feel he cares where they 'end up' in favor of a lucrative plan to generate more revenue.
Lederman's voice echoed up and down West 25th Street. He loudly reminded artists that they have rights, that the parks belong to the people, that they've won similar court cases in the past, and that they need to stand up for freedom, which is what he adds, "American is founded upon," and "why you all came here."
"How many artists from Argentina?" he shouted and tons of hands went up. This went on for several minutes as he went from country to country, leaving a chill down your spine as you gazed across a large diverse group of artists holding picket signs from hundreds of cultures across the world.
Personally, I saw, met and talked to artists from Ecuador, Australia, France, Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Japan, Romania and South Africa. Some were supporting families on the little they took in from their stall sales.
While many artists had been recently complaining about each other, largely because space is so competitive, they seemed to have bonded together with one unified voice since the recent threat. What occurred to me as I walked through Union Square, was the sense of community. Like a seasonal street fair, neighborhood artists would talk to each other while waiting for tourists and locals to stop by, browse and hopefully buy.
Residents showed up at the hearing, and in front of the Parks Board, they told their story. Residents complained of increased congestion in Union Square and the Parks, which they claim, prohibits a natural path for baby strollers, joggers and dog walkers. Others complained of noise from the crowds that the weekend stalls generated.
The artists argued that the green market and holiday fair created more congestion and one photographer had shots to prove it.
SO, what do I think?
I'm a fan of diversity and I'm a fan of art. Who is to argue whether a poor artist' work is better or worse than one who can afford to pay a high priced rent for his/her stall?
One could argue that if an artist had more money and resources, they might be able to create 'better art,' or could afford to be more creative than a colleague who makes substantially less. Even in cases where that might be true, is that really what art is about?
One could also argue that high bidding 'rent wars' would bring in big corporate vendors, the same kind that are sprawled throughout the rest of homogeneous America. The independent artists of New York City not only fear the loss of their livelihood but the onslaught of art that is average, tacky, cheap and mainstream.....the generic eye candy of Orlando's Kississimee, Times Square's plastic Statues of Liberty and cotton candy dolls found in small town fairgrounds. Or, it could simply be more expensive versions of the same.
It's too early to know, but what I do know is this.
What I witnessed sent chills down my spine because unlike other American urban centers, New York houses so many cultures, its intoxicating what you can learn and discover on one subway ride alone -- if only you remain open to a conversation or two.
Only in New York City do you witness chaos, art, intensity and charm in the same glance and more importantly, a sense that passion and conviction will always win over fear and trepidation.
People don't move to New York City to 'get a job.' They come to create, grow, sing, dance, trade, partner and deal.
It's an active culture that requires you to participate....all the time. Whether it's a conversation on a street corner, in a deli, at a building reception desk, in front of a theater, on the train to Brooklyn, on a bar stool at an Irish pub, or at a restaurant on quaint Elizabeth Street, the engagement is always diverse, and it's almost always 'real.' And, whenever you don't feel that it is, you can call a New Yorker on it and they'll likely meet you half if not all the way.
New Yorkers don't sit on the sidelines and watch. The protest reminded me how much that statement is true about New York culture and how there is no choice but for it to be even truer for artists.
I always wanted to be an artist, most likely a photojournalist shooting wonders under the sea or people on the streets of Soweto during the riots. I didn't go down that path because the entrepreneurial spirit of America knocked louder. For those who understand that knock and how profound our life choices are, it's a gift to know the real truth about yourself and the outcomes of our life choices - art as a hobby because we chose a different path, OR art every day of our lives because we simply couldn't walk down any other path.
It takes courage to live that life every day, one step at a time, often giving up financial security along the way. Artists do that -- they live their inner passion every day. Says Seth Godin in Linchpin, "an artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo. And, an artist takes it personally."
And so, I think it's not just in our best interest to support an artist's dreams, but essential, whether it's the more traditional artists who are protecting their rights in New York City parks or the artist in all of us dying to spend more time creating than performing and following. It's essential that we support, honor and embrace the artist, in order to preserve creativity, independent thought and unique creation, leaving homogeneous lizard brain products, services and art, far far behind in the dust.
Asks Godin, "why is society working so hard to kill our natural-born artists? When we try to drill and practice someone into subservient obedience, we're stamping out the artist within. Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn't matter. The intent does." Hear hear.
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Renee, this was really wonderful to read. Art blossomed in New York during the 1960s largely because of gallerists who felt emotional connections with new, strange abstract painters and patrons who loved buying their fresh, thrilling work. It doesn't take much for a city like NY to keep the arts alive, and taking away a struggling artist's chances to sell artwork is an easy way to convince him or her to stop making/selling art.
Posted by: Audrey | May 4, 2010 3:49:32 PM
That was my feeling too Audrey. Having spent a lot of time in Europe and studying/living there for a stint, there's such a divide culturally between a society (there) that honors, respects and cherishes the arts, so much so that it makes it inexpensive or free to its citizens to SEE IT....and so they do regularly. Museums, shows, events, classes.
In the states, we don't 'honor it or respect it,' not in the same way. It's not in our veins or DNA the way it is on other cultures - no surprise that so many of these artists were from other countries, hanging out to the passion and desire they have to keep creating.
Will be sad if the trend continues in this direction. How much more soul are we going to take out of this country?
Posted by: Renee Blodgett | May 10, 2010 2:40:04 AM
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