How Artists Get By In New York Isn’t Actually Romantic


New York now, lead me back to New York then. There isn’t one New York, it’s too mediated and historicized and romanticized— a city haunted by images and stories of itself. In New York stories, one theme is retold like a chorus: people don’t work here, they hustle. Hustling plays into the urban dream for everyone, but for artists, hustling is celebrated as a mark of a visionary experience, a rite of passage. In Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, the hustle is the poetry.

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Ten years after it was originally published, New Yorkers chose to read it collectively for One Book, One New York, a city-sponsored book club. They couldn’t get enough of the New York in which Smith renders hunger—ambition and an absence of food—as matter of fact, a way of life. I heard that Madonna was so broke and hungry during the early eighties that she lived off popcorn. All you needed was pluck and popcorn to make it in New York. Smith needed lettuce. She describes meeting Saint, her guide and fellow vagabond, near Houston Street. He showed her that it was possible to live on the streets:

We walked to the park, sat on a bench, and divided his take: loaves of day-old bread and a head of lettuce. He had me remove the top layers of the lettuce as he broke the bread in half. Some of the lettuce was still crisp inside.

“There’s water in the lettuce leaves,” he said. “The bread will satisfy your hunger.”

We piled the best leaves on the bread and happily ate. “A real prison breakfast,” I said.

“Yeah, but we are free.”

And that summed it up. He slept for a while in the grass and I just sat quietly with no fear.

They were just kids. They were poor, but free. It’s hard for me to imagine being a young woman, starving and living outside on the streets of New York, and feeling liberation. Imagine networking with male artists, writers, and performers back then. I try and fathom the unchained sexism and objectification fifty years before #MeToo.

The misogyny, the barricades to participation in public life, the occupational sex segregation (nurse, stewardess, secretary…), the compulsory roles of wifehood and motherhood. In her memoir, Kim Gordon is reminded of her subordinate place as the Girl in a Band. Eileen Myles said, “Any woman who went through that era had a lot of problems”; referring to Smith, Myles said, “She didn’t have any problems. Gimme a break, this is a complete puff piece.”

There isn’t one New York, it’s too mediated and historicized and romanticized—a city haunted by images and stories of itself.

Picture this Instagram post. An unwashed and unhoused nineteen-year-old woman and a man she just met in Washington Square Park, also filthy and on the streets, pose on a bench dotted with pigeon shit, encircled by detritus from the garbage strike. In the background permanently unhoused people slump on shards of fetid cardboard. As they eat lunch scavenged from a nearby dumpster, they knowingly smile because they found the secret. The post reads, NO FEAR. #freedom #artists #NYC.

Just Kids goes down easy. It’s not a manifesto, it’s more of a love letter to the city, Smith’s ambition, and her dearest friends, who happened to be great artists and remarkably photogenic (see Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard). I read it while I was in Tokyo, a few months after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown. Locals kept reassuring me that I was safe, everything was fine. They thanked me for being a tourist. Just Kids romanticism was comforting in the context of post- catastrophe Tokyo. When you’re destabilized and culturally out of place, yesterbation—the bad habit of being overly nostalgic, and not necessarily for something that was ever experienced the first time around—is especially cathartic. Everyone yesterbates privately. It’s satisfying to make sense of lost time and opportunity, the impossibleness of the present, through the lens of a mythic past. This is the Patti Smith effect.

I keep coming back to what an artist told me: “I don’t think you’d choose to live here unless you want more. People come here with ambitions. Like the Midnight Cowboy story, the classic narrative, they come here because their heroes are here. And you can go to a bar or a gallery and see someone you worship. There it is. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else.” I’ve had that feeling before and its supernatural. It’s like possession, being overtaken by an eerie power, and then longing to be someone else.

*

After art school ended, you slogged around Baltimore. When you weren’t sleeping in late or napping, you loitered. Solipsistic and raw, you were vulnerable to criticism and terrified of rejection. No one recognized your artistic potential, your skill. You were heartened your coworkers at the tapas restaurant seemed to like you, for real. They also mocked you, dismissing your art- world aspirations. When you constructed strawberry and radish garnishes, the dishwashers, Tyrone and Manny, commented on your fancy sculptures.

It became unbearable to face reality, to look at your own face, the face of a sous-chef with student loans renting a grim apartment. But you knew you were a legit artist. Your time would come, and these idiots didn’t have any idea. You lit a cigarette, sighed smoke, and fantasized future scenarios of the tapas people bragging about how they once knew you, like someone would talk about working with Warhol or Lichtenstein, proud to be a blip in your infamous biography, a footnote in your archives to be generously donated to a prestigious institution, maybe Yale.

A few months went by, then a year or two. You marked time by a series of unstable roommates, restaurant dramas, and blackouts, which you rationalized as part of your process. You stopped painting because there was no time; you felt pounded by a twelve-hour shift. You’d get off work and get faded with the kitchen staff. In the mania of a coke jag, you’d have a brilliant idea for a new painting and feel inspired. The next day not so much. The stretcher bars you primed remained untouched, and before you knew it, you were the kitchen staff.

Making art in New York City is a victory. All your heroes lived in poverty and obscurity at some point—that’s when they made their greatest work.

You found out that Eddie, your pretentious studio mate at MICA got picked up by a Lower East Side gallery. Eddie, that hack, got a write-up up in the New York Times. A short blurb, a critic’s pick, or shows to see this weekend, but still. In your objective opinion, Eddie’s work was total bullshit. Dazed by his success, you started thinking about moving to New York. You would meet real artists, go to real galleries, and live in an artist community, which you imagined would be like art school but way better. To try and fail in New York beats living in Baltimore, also Cleveland, Detroit, and any other city supposedly livable or artist friendly. The New York art world will save you from this loser city and yourself. You got out of there.

*

You can’t believe you’re forty. Even thinking it is cliché, but you keep thinking it, while working on an art moving truck and picking up side jobs as a freelance art handler. Your left knee keeps swelling up. The fluid-filled sac moves when you poke it. When you poke it, you recall you have no health insurance. You don’t have gallery representation, and you’re subletting a windowless studio in Bushwick with two other artists in their late twenties. Younger versions of you. Multiple paychecks almost cover it, credit cards maxed. New year, new lease increase. You can’t find a rent-stabilized apartment, you can’t pay the realtor finder’s fee, Art supplies are extortionate. You’ll only use a certain brand of oil paint—Old Holland. Compromise inconceivable. You still believe in the work, reminding yourself that you sold a painting two years ago, and it could happen again, at any time, possibly tomorrow. There’s something to be said for integrity, which you recognize as a defining personality trait. You wear your integrity like your favorite ratty t-shirt.

At a gallery opening in some guy’s apartment, a so-called art-world professional, an independent curator or art consultant or whatever, said that you should update your Instagram and post more often. You fume at the suggestion. You’ll never become a brand. Also, what do they know, they’re not an artist. They’re artist adjacent.

You experience persistent nightmares, failure dreams. If you can just ride it out for another couple of years, something will happen. What else are you going to do anyway—move back to Baltimore and become a consultant, someone who works with an awesome team and collects data, analyzes data, whatever. Making art in New York City is a victory. All your heroes lived in poverty and obscurity at some point—that’s when they made their greatest work.

This is how the art world works. This is the artist’s way.

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art monster

Excerpted from Art Monster: On the Impossibility of New York by Marin Kosut. Copyright © 2024 by Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.



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