On money and art

Pola Oloixarac, a young writer honored by the recent Granta publication Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, brilliantly described herself as “political with a little p.” She’s interested “everyday politics” and “micropolitics” which place the individual against society. As an Argentine writing in the context of Latin America, she is inherently, if not purposefully, political.

I scribbled notes on these thoughts as I watched a Granta panel discussion in the Miami Book Fair. Like Oloixarac, I feel that I am interested—perhaps obsessed—with everyday politics. I am the daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants; I grew up in Little Havana, attended primarily low-income public schools, couldn’t tell my spoons apart, etc. But I went to Princeton, too (and that’s why I identify, at least in part, with Fitzgerald, who loved and loathed and idealized and romanticized his alma mater, and by association, its culture of money). Cornel West says race matters, but class matters, too.

Maybe we’re all political.

Side B Magazine has been defined, redefined, and refined since we launched our first issue – and it’s only been a few months. I discuss it with my editors, I think about it in the shower, I scribble notes on my hand. In essence, I think, our mission – our 30-second elevator spiel – is to create a culture where art can flourish. I didn’t realize this was a political statement until, well, I wrote this article.

How can art flourish? What are the conditions under which artists can pursue their art? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests everyone had physiological and safety needs. We all need food and shelter. We all need money (even artists). How, then, does someone make art a career?

A career is defined as a chosen profession or pursuit, usually remunerative in nature. An author, for example, may publish a book every (or every few) years and sustain themselves from their writing—in theory, at least. In reality, it rarely works out that way.

“If you don’t want to teach or work in Hollywood, don’t expect to earn a living writing,” Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, advised his audience of Yale students at a recent talk. I have to admit he’s probably right. With the death of print and the faltering sales at major bookstores, writing isn’t looking very financially viable right now. But did it ever?

Stephen Elliot, editor of The Rumpus, takes an opposing view. “I’m not upset that I don’t have much money,” he says in an article entitled Why Two Roommates and $25K at Age 38 Equals a Lucky Man. “Why would someone pay me to do whatever I please? I’m not owed anything.” His article is romantic, optimistic, and perhaps occasionally casually self-deprecating. Elliot claims that if he had a million dollars, he would do the same thing (and really, it doesn’t sound that bad when he puts it that way), but then on The Rumpus, he starts a book club (perhaps the greatest idea ever), sells calendars (sexy AND smart) and t-shirts (fans of Sugar need to stick together), and discusses making money through advertising. That’s quite the hustle.

Being a starving artist is okay so long as you’re not actually, you know, starving. 

By definition, artists are passionate about art (it takes a certain amount of passion to sit in front of a blank page for hours on end, filling it with paragraph upon paragraph about people who never existed) and many artists tend to buy into the romantic ideal of art for art’s sake, untainted by money. In the summer of 2009, I think I tweeted something to this effect: “I would starve for the art, if that’s what it took.” I’m a year older now, and slightly more realistic than that.

Maybe I’m not the only one

It seems that at the end of the day, many of us recognize (implicitly or explicitly) that no matter how we feel about capitalism, oppression, our duty to mankind, etc., money is necessary to sustain art.

Perhaps that’s why many artists choose to enter MFA programs. These programs, which enable artists to become a part of academia, and give and take to their respective institution, provide artists with time. In the case of those who become professors, they provide artists with money, too. No matter how you feel about MFA programs in particular, you have to admit, being a graduate student is an inherently privileged position. Art can, and does, flourish in college, but what about afterward?

Can I take Side B Magazine and transform it into a force—a movement, if you will, as we call it in the mission statement—that supports the pursuit of art? When will money enter the equation? There’s no such thing as redistributing privilege, but maybe there is such a thing as creating opportunities. 

Side B Magazine

A literary magazine for emerging artists. We believe that all people have the right to read, see, and hear stories that affirm their identity.

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