Thursday, July 14, 2016

over at Vox Joshua Rivera has a riff called "I grew up thinking journalism was just for rich white people. I was mostly right."

Years ago I read some stuff by Scott Timberg, who writes about the arts for Salon, a publication I confess to frequently finding annoying.  Timberg has been on a mission to lament the decline of the creative class and has been concerned that if we're not careful the arts will become a leisure activity.

But the arts have ALWAYS been the activities of leisure.  Vocational artists are by definition those of a leisure class. 

Sure, artists and writers get paid less and less these days just like music sales aren't what they used to be but rather than consider the possibility that the arts as we've known them in the last century might be a gigantic bubble there are occasionally laments about how it would be nice if artists could catch a break.

Depending on where you live (i.e. what state you're in) some of them already DO get a break ...  and Wenatchee The Hatchet blogged on this a couple of months ago:
The report calls these buildings POSH developments, Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing. They’re priced in such a way that families with children or those who are extremely poor could not afford them. To be considered affordable for those whose income is 60 percent of the area median income, rents can be 30 percent of the set income level. But often, the rents for these buildings are at the very upper end of the spectrum. For a one-person household in Minneapolis, the maximum allowable rent is $910. A-Mill studios rent for $898. Most tax-credit developers don’t set the rents that high because their projects are in lower-income neighborhoods and because they are targeting lower-income tenants. But developers of POSH properties do. The buildings also require application fees and reservation fees (to keep a unit off the market while the application is processed), additional costs that would make units out of reach for low-income families, the authors say.  
In 2007, the IRS tried to crack down on subsidized housing that gave preference to artists. They said that doling out credits for such properties potentially violated the tax code because such housing was not “for use by the general public.” Soon after, lobbyists succeeded in inserting an item into 2008’s Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) that exempted artists’ housing from the tax rules requiring projects using tax credits be used by the general public. Since then, according to Orfield and Stancil, subsidized artists’ housing has grown rapidly in Minneapolis and other areas. [emphasis added]
The artist properties share a few characteristics. They’re usually conversions of historic buildings (which can more easily win developers tax credits). They have restrictions on the professions of the tenants (usually artists). They’re located in hip neighborhoods where the market rent is among the highest in the city. And they are often built with loans from the city to promote the public good, by making a place for artists to live.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with promoting the public good and building more affordable apartments in trendy and expensive neighborhoods. POSH properties can help high-income neighborhoods become more economically diverse. And the not-in-my-backyard objections that often come with affordable housing are less likely to be present for POSH properties, because neighbors rarely object to artists’ buildings that look like luxury condos and hold mostly white tenants. POSH properties help lower-income white people and artists who want to live in cities but otherwise would be pushed further out into suburbs.
Something similarly pragmatic and skeptical can be said about literature and that subset of literature that is generally known as journalism.  Take the unpaid internship ...

"Internships," the headline in the New York Times’s opinion section read, "Are Not a Privilege." The op-ed was by Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, and it discussed what he called "America’s internship-industrial complex" — the way unpaid internships effectually lock out diverse, talented young workers who cannot possibly afford to work for free.

It got media types talking about journalism’s unpaid internship economy and why it’s insidious. I figured it’s a good opportunity to tell you a little bit about my experience with unpaid internships, because I am, improbably, a member of "the media," and I'm kind of tired about only ever seeing white colleagues sound off about this nonsense whenever a fellow person of color addresses it on a platform as big and white as the New York Times.


All of college was a culture shock for me, a surreal experience I never stopped feeling like I wasn’t supposed to have. But most bizarre to me was how necessary the school’s career development office stressed unpaid internships were, how chill we all were supposed to be with doing immense amounts of entry-level work for free.

They said a lot of things, but most of what I heard in my head was, Whoa, this shit really is for rich white people. I could not comprehend how I, had I not lived walking distance from a train station minutes away from New York City, would have ever pulled that off. Everywhere, kids were moving to other states to do unpaid gigs for this network or that publication. I was stuck where God planted my ass, and even then it barely worked out

In other words, to be able to do things vocationally in the arts you already have to come from a level of socio-economic privilege to not have to worry about what food you're going to eat for the rest of your life.  Not everyone recognizes this tawdry yet seemingly obvious point.  Some do, and some of those folks, like Whit Stillman, can make hilarious films about people of privilege not quite grasping just how much privilege they have until they're about to lose it. When one of his characters in Metropolitan grouses that we only ever see stories of upward social mobility in American popular culture it's on the nose, but it's on the nose for a reason. 

It may be that Americans who want to make a living in the arts may not grasp how much privilege is involved in making that living or, as noted earlier, the extent to which policy can subsidize that privilege in ways that aren't always extended to families and in ways that can, at times, seem to be a reflection in some regions of racism. 

If you can make a living as a writer or an artist or musician, cool.  But sometimes, no, most of the time, it seems to me that those who do vocationally work in the arts seem incapable of grasping the level of privilege involved in that vocation; to formulate it another way that's in keeping with the polemical edge the word "privilege" has gained in internet discourse in the last decade, artists who have the privilege of being able to work vocationally as artists may not always realize that what they do doesn't necessarily directly make the lives of other people better in obvious ways that today's artist or writer is in a sense like the priest or scholar of a millennium ago, a monk who has taken a vow of poverty could still live in a monastery that was paid for by the labors of others and feel like he's not that privileged at all. 

Sure, but that's the thing about so nebulous a term as privilege and the way people are talking about it now, the odds that you recognize the extent to which you've benefited from privileges you don't realize other people don't have can seem pretty high these days. It's part of why the term and its discourse can seem so esoteric and even vaguely useless. Social Justice Warriors at college campuses feel disenfranchised, some say, and that feeling is no doubt real for the person having it, but for those who can even go to grad school at all, for instance, the level of privilege and access needed to even get in can seem like another planet.  It's not necessarily where Rivera went in the aforementioned piece, but it's one of the paradoxes of privilege discourse, that it can seem everything is on a sliding scale.  Maybe "privilege" in today's academic discourse is kind of like "sorcery" from five centuries ago. 

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