and Music Drive New York City
Princeton University Press, 2007, 248 pp., $27.95
It all starts with a yawn. The girl in the stockings, the girl with the legs, folded like an origami figure on the chair in the corner, yawns to let the world know she’s not impressed.
Sure, this is a genuine Chelsea gallery, none of your phony, commercialized SoHo stuff. This is the real deal, the in-people place, the inner New York grunge-meets-money world of inness, and over there by the door is Diane von Furstenburg in a dress that cost, like, a million dollars, talking to the guy in a torn shirt who said he’s the drummer for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. But that’s probably just a pick-up line, and, anyway, the girl in the corner, the girl with the legs, wants us to see she is above it all.
Unfortunately, no one does see—except, of course, the Wall Street boy nearby, the hedge-fund kid who was dragged here by his college friend. Well, not friend, exactly, just somebody who lived down the hall his sophomore year, but after a while in the city, you’re grateful for a familiar face.
When they left school, he was supposed to be the winner, the one with the merchant-bank offers and the Goldman Sachs chances. So why does it always feel as though he doesn’t fit in? $140,000 a year: To his parents back in Sioux Falls, that looks like all the money in the world, but he knows it isn’t—not here, not in the inner place. Not where the splotches on the wall, the graffiti-turned-art, run $25,000 a pop, from artists who could be as unknown tomorrow as they were yesterday if the gallery has guessed wrong. It takes real money to belong here, or real looks, or a real dose of that weird, scruffy, maybe-this-guy-could-be-a-star thing that his friend from college seems to have.
Anyway, he should leave, mention casually at the office that he’d dropped by a Chelsea opening over the weekend, and let it go at that. But New York is supposed to be like this, isn’t it? I mean, that’s why he came. The money and the bustle. Cabs like yellow cattle drives, stampeding down the avenues. Restaurants open at two in the morning. Night clubs. Famous people milling around art galleries. Girls with fishnet stockings, careful eyes and measured yawns.
Across the room, there’s another couple just like these kids—across the room, and up the block, and down the street, and over on the other side of town. New York runs on art and fashion. The in-crowd and the Page Six people, the models and the celebrity chefs, the witchy designers from the fashion houses and the smiling Cagliostros from the art studios: They make the city buzz and shimmer; they generate a whole economy of cool. But, along the way, they have to feed, and their meals are all the almost-pretty girls and nearly-rich boys—an endless stream of middle-class Hansels and Gretels who come to Manhattan every year to nibble on the gingerbread house.
It’s this part of the supply-demand curve—tracking out a kind of laissez-faire meat market—that Elizabeth Currid doesn’t seem to get, though she names her new book The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City. The book, it must be said, is a shambles. The Warhol Economy reads like a motorhome that somehow found its way over the George Washington Bridge, only to run out of gas in the middle of Broadway. Currid, a former graduate student in New York who now teaches at the University of Southern California, apparently wanted both to astonish her fellow academics with the technicalities of her economic analysis and to amaze impressionable readers with the names she drops along the way.
[credit: Simon Monroe]
She wanted, in other words, to quantify cool and, at the same time, to be cool. But there’s a reason that anthropologists keep themselves aloof from the cultures they study. For that matter, there’s a reason that economics is called the dismal science. Elizabeth Currid, evanescently happy about how cool it is to visit the tribe of cool people, can never quite bring herself to do the deeper and sadder analysis her subject requires.
Still, her choice of a title image is perfect: Andy Warhol was, indeed, the master theorist of the economy of cool, Adam Smith reborn as Dracula. From the 1960s until his death in 1987, he made the scene in a way that no one had ever quite managed before: the mocking paintings of Brillo pads, the ironic films of Chelsea girls, the non-stop quotable sound bites, the creation of an inner New York where style and money could mingle. He made millions at it, and he left suicides, overdoses and ruined people scattered like bread crumbs behind him.
Currid’s thesis in The Warhol Economy is that the in-scene of Manhattan—the grungy music clubs, the start-up art galleries, the fashionistas, the hipster parties—do more than give New York a sheen and a tone. They drive the city and make it work. They generate capital at least as important as all the other industries commonly noticed by urban economists: both a poorly defined human capital and a well-documented financial capital that compares with New York’s banking, investment, real-estate, legal and manufacturing sectors.
In itself, there’s nothing new here. With his 1973 The Coming of a Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell pointed the way, arguing for the financial significance of all the non-manufacturing sectors that were emerging in the economies of developed nations. In his 2002 The Rise of the Creative Class, a book Currid quotes often, the urbanist Richard Florida put both the general description and the specific policy ideas that Currid applies to New York. In any event, it doesn’t take a lot of new analysis to show that economic activity tends to rise with population density—a phenomenon that applies to exchanges of all sorts, from Mauritania to Manhattan.
But what The Warhol Economy wants to add to what we already know is clear evidence that a genuine economy can be found even in the hipsters’ hip lives: a real market and place of exchange where all the synergies that economists know how to measure do, in fact, exist. And to back it up, Currid stocks her book with a raft of charts and graphs showing labor stratification in New York, a pocket history of the city’s coolness, many photos of the gossip-worthy people she met, and several chapters on what passes for a social anthropology of urban hip. “Spatially Bound Creative Chaos” she dubs it, explaining, “You meet the ‘right’ people at an event or party, and then literally run into them on the street (SoHo, particularly near the border of Chinatown, is a hotbed for such contacts) or at another party.”
How much of this are we able to believe? That artists, particularly those of middling talent, thrive both artistically and financially in ways they wouldn’t without genuine communities? Yes, that seems right, as does the claim that vibrant and self-confident artistic groups prove a financial boon to an urban area. Why wouldn’t they? A city with a nationally visible art scene will discover that it has begun to collect allied industries—particularly entertainment, dining and clothing. It will learn that discretionary cash has a greater tendency to stay in the city, spent on art and those allied industries. And it will find that it has become a Mecca for all the young, ambitious people who have a chance of making something happen. The lure of celebrity, the gloss of reputation, shouldn’t be forgotten as a contributing cause to what Jane Jacobs called, in the title of her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
And yet, all those young people: That’s the rub, isn’t it? Most of them don’t make it—Elizabeth Currid’s greatest failing in The Warhol Economy is her unwillingness to admit any human costs to the gains of human capital she documents—and Andy Warhol isn’t the only vampire ever to stalk the streets of New York. His heirs flit through the pages of The Warhol Economy, and Currid is so overawed by the bit of access they gave her—She got to see Diane von Furstenberg! She got to wear a designer original! She got backstage to meet Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!—that she can’t bring herself to take her own topic seriously.
For this much remains true, as well, about the economy of cool: In the end, style is parasitical. It doesn’t really create capital; it mostly collects it. That can be very good for cities, particularly a city like New York, with a national reputation for art dating back at least to the day in 1881 when William Dean Howells abandoned literary Boston for literary Manhattan. And it can be very, very good for the people who make it: the ones at the inner core, the ones whose paintings and fashions and music catch on.
But the Warhol economy still needs the capital it gathers to originate somewhere else. For its liquid cash, it drinks the excess the real economy generates. And for its human bread it feeds on Hansel and Gretel, and all their kind. The long-legged, almost-pretty girls who come to New York in a desperate search for style. The bright, ambitious boys from Sioux Falls, who gulp and stammer when those stylish girls cross their legs and yawn.