Most of the creative people I know are struggling. On the phone the other day, a friend who’s living in Vermont told me she almost gave up looking for work when she got turned down for a cashier job at Michael’s. “The craft store,” she added. “They said I was under-qualified.” This friend, a liberal arts honors graduate, cries when she hears a story on NPR about a kid with Down Syndrome who started his own restaurant, not because he has Down Syndrome, but because he has a restaurant. I asked if she’d heard the one where Chana Joffe-Walt, of “This American Life,” goes to Alabama to find out how a quarter of the people in town are getting disability benefits (one laid-off worker memorably relates his re-training officer’s advice to “Just suck all the benefits you can out of the system until everything is gone.”) Screw them, I thought at the time, as they’re getting almost double what I make as an art critic.
Still, I consider myself lucky. I went to art school. I have an enabler mom and sympathetic friends who consistently set me up with freelance work, without which, I would need to move back home. For every one of me, you can bet there are thousands of artists and writers who had to give up.
Given this landscape, is it conscionable to have a Make-a-Wish Foundation for famous artists? This week, thousands of people are crowding into Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall to see Creative Time’s latest project, Nick Cave’s “Heard NY.” The movements were familiar from previous Nick Cave performances in major museums and blue chip galleries; Cave’s grassy, embroidered horse costumes shuffle and spin around to, respectively, a harp and drum. Both dance and song felt like a watered-down tribal something, but the costumes were convincingly horse-like, making it about the same as watching a herd of actual zebras through the window of a tour bus. I didn’t think much more about the piece until after that phone call with my friend, I saw the Nick Cave subway ads again, passing one at the station and another in my car. How much did that cost, anyway?
I wouldn’t wonder had Creative Time not set out to align itself with the ideals of social progress through events such as its annual summit. In last year’s glamorous gameshow-style edition “Confronting Inequity,” Creative Time set its mission at activism through edu-tainment, with comedic breaks to rehash tweets about curator (and host) Nato Thompson’s shiny pants from certain well-followed audience members. The whole production prompted critic Mira Schor to comment that the event was “marked by a relentless positivism embodied in its chosen style of presentation, a style derived from the equally relentlessly positivistic and corporatized TED Talks…” All of it counteracted its purported, activist goal of “Confronting Inequity,” which means not being entertained, risking your popularity, shut-up-and-do-the-damn-thing. With the hindsight of half a year, the event didn’t so much confront inequity as made everybody feel better about it from a safe distance for two days.
Said colorful presentation continues to be a thread in the projects which Creative Time champions: Herculean efforts, often centered around social issues abroad. Summit presenters Invisible Borders, for example, travelled across Africa documenting different cultures; Conflict Kitchen serves food and culture from countries with which the US is in conflict; Michael Rakowitz (Creative Time-grantee) brought Saddam Hussein’s dishware to the United States.
It should be noted that the summit did include several local (national) presenters– not least of which were Martha Rosler, Occupy’s journal Tidal, Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ), Jodie Evans of CODEPINK– and the organization has sponsored more practical projects like the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “Teach 4 Amerika” and artist Tania Bruguera’s “Immigrant Movement International.”
But when ideals of social change are given Creative Time’s main stage, there seems a tendency to shoot them all into space, even literally, as Trevor Paglen (vocal critic, though he is) did this summer with his CT-sponsored “Last Pictures” satellite. Before that, Creative Time brought space to the Armory in Tom Sach’s engrossing but utterly ego-centric “Space Program: Mars.” These are ideas for fatter times. Historically, the only bust-era machine to rival this scale might have been the Works Progress Administration, which mobilized so many artists and left a lasting cultural legacy. Here, it’s tasked to realize the singular vision of an already-famed individual.
The hope is that successful artists do a greater social good, mobilizing the communities they touch; Creative Time throws its heft behind programs like its current “Global Residency,” sending successful artists abroad to explore culture, and “Creative Time Reports,” sending successful artists abroad to be journalists. They’re on-trend with what AFC’s Paddy Johnson calls a “brand-building” mission to broaden internationalism in arts circles, like Performa’s recent addition of international pavilions, or BiennaleOnline’s mission to bring underserved foreign artists to the attention of Europe and America.
At best, such projects add some insight to the tunnel vision of participants in the New York art world. But better than sending successful artists to do other people’s jobs, it seems, would be sending some money upstate, or to New Jersey, or Alabama. Albeit it’s less glamorous, but there’s no question it would make more artists here. We need it.