“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” – Hotel California

December 8, 2010  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

When I moved away from San Francisco two years ago I thought I would go to New York, meet like-minded artists and find my place among the wide-eyed bohemians in the East Village. Among them, I thought, I would finally be able to work uninhibited and purely, immersed in a thriving, electric world of creative and brilliant people. In my fantasy every place I visited would be full of wild characters who spoke the true language of art. I would at last become part of what Larry Rinder, director of the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum, once ironically called “the one true art world.”

Instead I found bedbug-infested lofts in the gritty parts of town. Drug-addicted dog walkers, ballerinas who couldn’t make the cut, European artists who came all the way to New York just to work as unpaid interns in Chelsea – everyone had some crazy story to tell.

Worse yet, everywhere I looked the cafes were packed with disillusioned artist refugees just like me. Endless hours studying Hegel and Heidegger and Derrida didn’t exactly prepare them for a broke job market. Or did it? For some reason many people I met were from Florida or Ohio. While others were fresh from India or France or China. But no matter where we came from we’d all arrived expecting a New York that didn’t seem to exist any longer. The cramped apartments were overpriced and any job in the arts was hard to come by. The mythic sense of opportunity might have been there but maybe I just wasn’t standing in the right place, or sitting on the right bench in Washington Square Park. People kept telling me things like “You just have to hang out and get a feel for how things work, man.”

Then I read about a talk that Patti Smith did with author Jonathan Lethem. She said, among other things, that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…there are other cities…Detroit, Poughkeepsie…” and that “…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.” I remember her other comments about how expensive it was and that it had been overrun by trust fund kids. That seemed to ring true. But hasn’t New York always been the destination of trust fund kids? Was I really going to move to Detroit instead? Wasn’t New York an amazing city no matter what? What did she mean by “struggling?” What did she mean by “…closed itself off.” I was confused.

Well regardless, her saying those things didn’t make me feel any better. It also didn’t help that the art market basically collapsed right as I was finding an apartment. Yet hearing Smith’s admonishment I came full circle in a way and found myself appreciating San Francisco more than ever.

Yet if I left my old Chinatown studio in San Francisco in pursuit of a mythic city that, according to Patti Smith, didn’t exist any longer – I wondered if the people who stayed were similarly thinking they were living in the city of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or of Allen Ginsberg‘s Beats, or of Ken Kesey‘s hippies? It’s hard to have perspective sometimes and so I started asking people I knew what made them want to stay or what made them leave. Needless to say I heard some very thought-provoking stories, all of which disproved the notion of the “one true art world.” The stories also confirmed my suspicion that it’s not the city you live in that’s important but rather how open you are to the experiences around you. It’s also about how present you can be at any given moment.  This blog will be a way to share some of what I heard.

Story 1: The Shootist
Only in San Francisco? In the early 1980’s a young V.Vale was an employee at City Lights Books. One day he saw an opportunity to spend time with notorious author William S. Burroughs by suggesting they go target shooting in the East Bay. Although not an art experience per se, it could be considered an aesthetic one and was certainly an event that had a profoundly artistic impact on him. Since then Vale has published Bruce Conner’s photographs of the S.F. punk rock scene and over 30 books on the arts and the cultural underground which have featured many Bay Area artists.

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