New York, cultural capital of the world? A real debate

Is New York still the cultural capital of America, let alone the world?

To the creative strivers who still flock here, the answer may be self-evident. But when the question was posed point-blank to four cultural critics from New York, they struggled to muster resoundingly jingoistic responses.

“No,” said Jerry Saltz, a magazine’s art critic in the “New York Times” pages. “It’s one of several,” said Amy Larocca, its fashion editor. Kurt Andersen, host of the radio show “Studio 360”, was less equivocal, but only barely. “Sure,” he said, but not as much as New York was in, say, 1960. “Now there are more alternatives,” he said.

 “I got to New York, and I was eaten alive by envy,” said Mr. Saltz. “I walked around SoHo, and the higher the buildings got the more I was saying, ‘I hate these people. I want that.’ ”

Artists don’t have to live in New York, Mr. Saltz continued. They just have to live around other artists. “Vampires have to live with other vampires,” he said. “If you live in the suburbs of Chicago, where I’m from, vampires go crazy and start feeding on squirrels.”

Fashion, like art, has many global capitals, Ms. Larocca said. But American designers still pretty much have to be in New York. It’s where the buyers and editors are, not to mention the customers and the kind of street-fashion muses featured in New York’s popular “Look Book” feature. “It’s the only place where people really dress up,” she said — quickly adding for the benefit for anyone in the hinterlands who might be following the proceedings via Twitter, “As opposed to people who look really nice, which we have everywhere.”

But Justin Davidson, New York’s architecture and classical music critic, also noted that the city’s vitality did not stem entirely from the creative classes. “Artists are just among the many people who come here,” he said. “If you look at a place like Times Square, it might look like the interesting edges are gone, but it’s still a magnet for the world, drawing all sorts of people internationally. The greatness of the city is in its unevenness.”

Jeremy McCarter, began with another snap poll: How many of you live in Brooklyn?

Every hand went up. “Except for my parents and a few childhood friends, I don’t know anyone who lives in Manhattan,” said Emma Straub, the author of a recent short-story collection, “Other People We Married”, “It’s just become so uncool,” added the experimental playwright Young Jean Lee.

Kalup Linzy,,  a video performance artist whose work has appeared both at the Museum of Modern Art and on “General Hospital”, said he had gone out almost every night in his first four years, but it had become difficult to justify the distractions from his work, not to mention the commute into town from his apartment in Crown Heights.

Gabriel Kahane, the composer of “February House,” said moving to New York, and to Brooklyn, had been “a slightly dogmatic choice.” But others took a more wayward path. “I was living in New Haven, writing a dissertation, and having a nervous breakdown,” Ms. Lee said. “In therapy, I realized I really wanted to be an experimental playwright.” So she moved to New York with a list of people to contact, and managed to survive for three years on less than $12,000 a year. She then formed a company, and for a while the money from Europe was “pouring in.”

When Mr. McCarter brought up the subject of money, no one else gave numbers, though some cited their day jobs. Ms. Straub kept her job as a clerk at Book Court in Brooklyn even after scoring a book contract.

Mr. Linzy does some teaching and takes commissions from fashion houses. “I was fortunate to enter the art world when there was a boom going on, and got a ton of grants,” he said. “But the disadvantage is then it sort of dries up.”

Mr. Kahane said, in other field, the world of new classical music was really too small to be competitive. “We all play in each other’s pieces,” he said. Ms. Straub said she “cheered” every time she heard that another writer had sold a book to the movies. “It’s a victory for writing,” she said.

Ms. Lee, who is working on a screenplay for Hollywood, said that as long as she wanted to stick with experimental theater, she was sticking with the city. “But if I go into film full time, then I’m moving to Manitoba. They have tons of money in Manitoba.”

 “Is New York a good place to sleep on an air mattress in a friend’s apartment?” he asked. “Yes.”

Tags: Culture, New York

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