THE WARHOL ECONOMY by Elizabeth Currid
(Princeton University Press 258 pp.)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
The importance of Andy Warhol is not silkscreened soup cans, nor even the first Velvet Underground album, so much as the simple fact that he came, early in his career, to understand intuitively some important parts of How Things Work. The artists, dancers, singers and 'superstars' who sat around taking drugs in his Factory, or formed part of his entourage in night clubs - the stars and celebrities who agreed to let him interview them - interacted with each other in physical and social spaces he provided, and, as a result of those random meetings, works of art were created.
Currid's argument in this intelligent and innovative book, is that New York and certain other great cities in particular periods, function as the Factory on a greater scale, and that social policy has to reflect that fact. Currid demonstrates that art and design form a significant part of New York's economy, less than the city's financial sector perhaps, but not by as much as might be assumed. A point she does not document is that success needs a population of failures out of which to grow - cities cannot cherry pick only the talented, only the popular, only the accessible, but provide living space for far more artists than will directly contribute.
There has to be cheap accomodation somewhere in the city so that there are garrets in which artists can starve - a city in which every spare inch is going to be transformed into expensive apartments for financial consultants is going to squeeze its painters and poets until they go elsewhere. No matter how noisy and irritating they are for people in adjacent properties, there have to be night clubs and cafes, or certain sorts of fertile meeting will never happen.
There has to be tolerance of mildly antisocial behaviour and eccentricity for people to find their voice - it may be regrettable, but is clearly the case, that graffiti artists are as significant a part of the art world as classically trained painters. Bohemians may not be convenient or good neighbours, or polite tenants, but they are a crucial part of the mix of a healthy and flourishing city. Currid makes this point, but not its corollary - that policies like those of Mayor Guiliani may do irreparable damage at the same time that they scour a city clean.
Apart from this temporizing politeness to the powerful, Currid's other main weakness is a tendency to talk as if painting, photography, fashion and rock music were the whole of the arts. New York has always been a city of poets, novelists and actors, but not noticeably in this account of its artistic economy. You would similarly never think from Currid that any artistic producer had ever had a day job - that the existence of day jobs temping or teaching or carrying messages or waiting tables is a part of what makes New York habitable for the young and poor.
Her book is guilty of that sort of colour-blindness which becomes effectively a pretence that racism is never a factor in people's lives. Similarly, she ignores the fact that one of the reasons why New York is a place to which the young, struggling, talented and gay throng is that some other parts of the USA are distinctly unfriendly and uncongenial for the modern equivalents of Warhol, Mapplethorpe and Candy Darling. This is an intelligent and well-documented book, as far as it goes, but its understanding of the social and economic context of artistic production needs considerable further development.