Creative Resistance: A Rising Economic Movement

by Ali Rosa-Salas

The second installment of New York Live Arts’ conversation series Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues, “Creative Resistance: A Rising Economic Movement,” focused on a critique of capitalism that both acknowledged its undeniable centrality yet pushed for the seemingly untenable: its downfall. Panelists Piper Anderson, Okwui Okpokwasili, Laura Flanders, Joan Morgan, Seyi Adebanjoand audience members collectively considered entry points for anti-capitalist resistance, both habitual and revolutionary. From the practice of cooperative economy to that of radical self love, these offerings of instigation constructed a glimpse of life after capitalism that made one thing clear: something’s gotta give, and cultural workers are at the helm of envisioning an alternative way of being for all of us.

During Sunday’s conversation, discussants candidly shared the challenges posed to sustaining a practice when student loan debt, the rising cost of city living, and the fiscal imperatives of private benefactors dictate the vitality of the creative production in the 21st century. The romanticized notion of the “struggling artist” has normalized a survival of the fittest mindset among artists and institutions, wherein competition for ever dwindling resources promotes a narrative of deficit that inevitably leads to burnout and abandonment of the field altogether. In this fraught economic context, who actually has the economic privilege to pursue their purpose?

Alexander Thompson’s recent Culturebot piece about the (in)feasibility of a livelihood in the arts industrial complex urges us to yank the invisible cloak from the systems that undervalue artists and the administrators who support them. From unpaid internships that lead to underpaid jobs to performance opportunities that result in little to no compensation, Thompson asks: “…how are you making it work? Does everyone just have trust funds? Is everyone just poor?”

As Thompson points out and Open Spectrum participants echoed in Sunday’s conversation, it is the cult of silence around valuation of labor in the arts that fuels the anxiety which keeps us up at night. The expectation that artists and administrators do the most with the least is an exploitative model founded on a “least-cost” rhetoric, one which insists on maximum production at minimum expense.  Art is wholly implicated in a supply-in-demand ecosystem that dictates the feasibly and conceptual direction of projects. In turn, artists and institutions are often pressured to hasten creative processes to meet unrealistic deadlines and deliverables. Money literally runs the show.

As evidenced with the recent closure of Cedar Lake, the New York-based contemporary ballet company funded exclusively by Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Laurie, the status of the philanthropic arts funding models is precarious to say the least. In the case of Cedar Lake, it was infact a trust fund that singularly dictated the vitality and downfall of this seemingly secure cultural institution. Dancers have lost their jobs and audiences will no longer be able to witness the brilliance of one of the world’s leading dance companies — all at the whim of an exorbitantly wealthy dance enthusiast whose fiscal priorities have simply shifted. Easy as that. But ours haven’t…so now what?

Anti-capitalist sustainability models do exist and have been employed to both fund independent productions and institutionally produced work.  Although grassroots fundraising strategies like crowdfunding and barter systems pose promising alternatives to federal and philanthropic funding models,  our industry continues to face the question of how to reconceptualize an ethics of value that privileges process over product.

We’re worth it.