City Lit: How to Be a Starving Artist

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During my senior year of college, I told a professor that I planned to become a professional poet. I would go out into the world, full of fire and verse, win poetry slams, sell my collections, and survive on my writing.

“And if that doesn’t work out?” he asked.

“Then I’ll starve.”

After graduation, predictably, I starved.

When your passion, whether it be art or activism, is unlikely to ever generate a profit, how do you survive and keep creatively fulfilled? How do you keep working on your own projects and still handle a career? Or is there another alternative? The profound allure of New York City journalist Mickey Z.’s new book, The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet, from the scrappy purveyors of counterculture at Soft Skull Press, lies in its potential to answer such questions. Unfortunately, it pretty much fails on all counts.

Hoping that readers could learn from the examples of working artists, Z. e-mailed a questionnaire to 100 artists and activists (many of whom live in New York City), asking them about their struggles with employment. Instead of useful advice or instructive examples, the book gives us endless tales of first jobs, second jobs and current jobs, bolstered with self-serving accounts of relationship troubles, publicity for projects, and judgmental jabs at meat-eaters and “corporate lemming culture.” The collection generally shows the danger of turning artists loose without an editor.

It’s an unfortunate failure, because Z. was on to something. As the city’s economy barrels into an ever-deepening pit, the folks who drive its renowned creative engine are among those leading the way–and we’d love some advice on how to make it through to the other side. No one has yet offered big-picture research on the impact the recent hard times have had on the cultural economy, but snippets of information are starting to add up. The Cultural Institutions Group recently surveyed its 34 members–some of the city’s most significant midsize to large institutions–and found that all of them have cut back the hours they’re open in recent months. Some have slashed staff.

“Virtually every group in town is seeing a decline in all areas of income,” says Alliance for the Arts President Randall Bourscheidt. Alliance for the Arts is in the early stages of a study that Bourscheidt expects will “substantiate what we fear and suspect” about the broader creative world’s condition. He concedes that any study will have trouble quantifying the impact on what the Center for an Urban Future (a think tank associated with City Limits) estimates to be more than 150,000 working artists in the city–in part because it’s near impossible to quantify who is an artist and what he or she does for a living.

But let me help: Things are bad. I got laid off from my arts editing job last year due to flagging ad sales. So I’m in my second bout with trying to make it on my own in the unforgiving cultural economy. My first go-round was more voluntary. As do Z.’s Murdering contributors, I worked a wide variety of crappy jobs–washing dishes, pushing popcorn, mopping up vomit–hoping to leave time free to create. Over two years, I wrote maybe two poems worth keeping. It’s difficult to wrestle with an irregular rhyme scheme when you can’t pay the heating bill; shivering tends to make your handwriting all blurry.

So I surrendered, got an office job with a salary, and discovered that I really liked being able to eat. Suddenly, I didn’t have to choose between getting extra cheese and paying rent. And I thought, with my heat and my food, I would be able to concentrate on my art. I went home, fired up my computer and… nothing. Murdering gets this much right: Jobs you don’t want are soul-crushing. They drain you of energy and imagination, siphoning off the inspiration that could go to your own projects.

The writers in Murdering clearly understand the miseries of menial jobs, but what’s lacking is a connection between their employment and their artistic side. Some of them have produced fine work–the punk zines Clamor and Maximumrocknroll, for instance, or the Disinformation Society’s collection Everything You Know is Wrong, and the projects of the (now-closed) Vegetarian Center of New York–but only a handful are surviving based on their passions. Yet the facts of their finances and their art/activism are not explained–aside from the occasional vague advice to “live simply.” In fact, Z. best describes the collection’s problem while trying to deny it. In the preface, he states, “This book is not a collection of stories from whiny, misunderstood geniuses blaming the world for their perceived misfortune.” Unfortunately, for large stretches, that’s exactly what we get.

We’re looking instead for useful tips like the ones I’ve gotten from the small-press cartooning community online, such as: When printing your chapbook or zine, go to Kinko’s at three in the morning, make some copies and, when the clerk wanders into the back, open the machine and swipe a ream of mid-gloss paper for your home operation. (You can check your own moral compass for how you feel about ripping off big corporations.) Hit every art gallery opening you can for free food, free wine, and a chance to network. And, of course, if you’re lucky enough to have been laid off from a steady gig, take advantage of the government’s one broadly distributed subsidy for artists: unemployment insurance.

Almost every unemployed creative person I know is using an unemployment check to subsidize freelance endeavors. (I should point out here that doing so is certainly unethical and possibly illegal. For the benefit of any members of the Labor Department who may be reading, I have been diligently looking for full-time employment, and none of the following endeavors are likely to lead to any income whatsoever, now or in the future. Thank you.) I’ve personally had more energy than I’ve had in years. In the last eight months, I’ve taught myself HTML and PhotoShop, written two books, started a Web comic and been more jazzed about writing than I’ve been since school–all because my unemployment insurance, for now, pays just enough to cover room and board.

If you look at Z.’s book not as a source of this sort of advice, but as an anthropological study of activists and artists, you’ll conclude that consciously deciding to work outside the mainstream as an artist or activist pretty much sucks: You should be prepared to be poor and unappreciated. Is that really a surprise to anyone?

Bill Roundy is a downsized arts editor in Brooklyn.

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Aspiring Fighters
Memoir of a Visionary
By Antonia Pantoja
Arte Publico, 384 pages, $26.95

Whenever I set foot in a bookstore, I am reminded that there is no shortage of books by people testifying to their own effectiveness–from Giuliani’s Leadership to former CEOs who make elephants dance. So it was a relief to read about a woman who came from nothing, went from Barrio Obrero to the White House, and could remark on her success with humility.

Dr. Antonia Pantoja overcame significant obstacles, as a Puerto Rican, a woman and a lesbian, to devote herself to social change. In Memoir of a Visionary, published one month after her passing a year ago, we learn how Pantoja created Boricua College, the National Puerto Rican Forum and ASPIRA, a national leadership organization for young Puerto Ricans. Eventually, she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Born in 1922 in Puerto Rico, Pantoja grew up at a time when it was illegal for Puerto Ricans to fly their nation’s flag. She was raised primarily by her grandmother, a skilled storyteller who often told Pantoja about the sounds of the cannons being shot by the Americans during their invasion of Puerto Rico in the 1800s. Her grandfather, a union organizer at the American Tobacco Company, was brought home from work one day with burns, after strikebreakers threw hot lard at him. The company left Puerto Rico during her youth, leaving most of her family without work. When she came to the United States in 1944, her family couldn’t afford bus fare, so she walked to school. A cautionary tale for those debating CUNY tuition increases: Pantoja was only able to finish her college degree because Hunter College was free.

By the 1950s, just a decade after her arrival, Pantoja became involved with other Puerto Ricans who believed that the government was failing to represent their interests. So they formed alternatives, like the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs and ASPIRA. At a time when there wasn’t a single Puerto Rican commissioner, Pantoja sat on the staff of Mayor Wagner’s Commission on Intergroup Relations. Wanting to refocus the profession of social work towards social change, she went on to create graduate programs for community development in New York and San Diego.

Her philosophy was simple: Build the institutions that build the leaders, and they will create change. Pantoja believed that young Puerto Ricans, if properly educated, trained and “socialized,” would become advocates for the next generation. Today, ASPIRA is in six states reaching 50,000 young people. But while ASPIRA produced prominent and committed community members like Aida Alvarez, Nelson Diaz, Digna Sanchez and Jimmy Smits, it also produced Giuliani appointee Ninfa Segarra, whose political patrons tried to limit access to the very institutions that produced Antonia Pantoja. Unfortunately, Pantoja doesn’t address this paradox in her book.

Whether her strategy is the answer to the immediate challenges of making a just social and economic policy, I don’t know. But the most compelling proof of her success is the thousands of Latinos who credit ASPIRA for changing their idea of what is possible.

–Andrea Batista Schlesinger