Thursday, February 19, 2009

Seismic Shift on Wall Street = "Artists"???

It is a strange feeling to walk down the streets of New York these days. Though the hustle and bustle of commerce may still swarm all about you, it is noticeably quieter than usual. And though the sub-zero wind chills may easily explain why only the tourists and Broadway musical super-fanatics can be lured out to play, I would argue: it is more than that.

I've watched, listened, and noticed for quite some time now how things seem to be shaping up; and I've come to the conclusion that there are few other places in the country where the carnage and fallout from this blighted recession are more evident than in New York City. The Big Apple has been hit especially hard.

Condos and co-ops sit empty as their selling prices in the New York Times continue to plummet. Five or six businesses on my block alone-- establishments that had thrived for years-- all closed their doors forever within recent months. A cross-town bus ride or walk down 23rd Street will reveal more darkened storefronts. And perhaps most eerie of all: the empty

Like most people in New York who either have a hand in filmmaking or write about films on the internet, I have a day job. For the last two and a half years, I have worked at a financial firm located somewhere between Times Square and Rockefeller Center. It is this part of town that has, in a way, become the new Wall Street. In fact, the Wall Street of times yore no longer exists-- at least, not in the sense of it being the end-all-be-all site of where all the major money makers are housed. Most firms such as Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley now have office space and trading floors as well as run their businesses in buildings all over Manhattan. Dozens of media corporations such as NBC Universal, Viacom, Time Warner, and Conde Nast are also based in the area of town in which I work. Consequently, up until the Dow began its terrifying descent last summer, it was a matter of routine, a normal sight, to wedge one's way onto packed subway trains full of daily commuters headed towards the Great White Way. These days, however, in the wake of massive layoffs, my wait at the local halal food cart is practically non-existent; I no longer have to dodge and weave between as many brief cases and overcoats walking through Times Square; and most unsettling of all: as I look around during my morning and evening commutes, the subway cars are conspicuously roomier.

Why am I bringing all this up on a feminist-inspired
blog about cinema and the media? Because last month, in the New York Times, there appeared an article written by Hannah Seligson about the recent mass exodus of bankers and Wall Street types from the financial industry as they look to the arts and entertainment industry for their future career paths. In other words, they are turning to their "creative plan Bs."

Seligson writes:

"With Wall Street hemorrhaging jobs, bonuses disappearing and the financial sector going through a seismic shift, some bankers and lawyers are switching lanes to more creative career paths. They are putting down their Wall Street Journals and picking up Variety as they try their hands at comedy, filmmaking and writing."

The first thing that came to mind after reading this was what this could potentially mean for both racial and gender equality within the arts and entertainment fields. Anyone who works in finance can tell you that no matter how far race relations and women's lib may have come in the last few decades, the fact remains that white men far outnumber people of color and women at firms such as the one where I work. Not only that, but the way in which race and gender break down along the types of work within the industry are more starkly revealing: front office groups, or the departments that generate all the revenue for companies, tend to be populated by white men; whereas back office groups, such as human resources and administrative support, remain a virtual repository for people of color and women. It is still very much a white male-dominated game. So, when I read that bankers were jumping ship to work in creative fields, all I could think was, "Oh, great. Because that's what the entertainment field really needs: a fresh infusion of The Man."

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against white
people or men intrinsically. I do not condone, advocate, or believe in “reverse racism” or “femi-nazism.” However, neither can I deny that it is the implicit privilege inherent of being white and male in America that enables folks such as these Wall Street types to presume that breaking into-- and succeeding-- in the arts is a simple matter of choice.

Having coterminously worked in the film industry for the past few years, and being a woman of color myself, I can attest firsthand to the widespread sexism
and racism that still pervade and are built into the system. One of my fondest memories happened at an industry party, where a Hollywood producer (you guessed it, a white dude) told me point blank: "Sorry. I don't work with women writers." Similar stories abound amongst women in production and development circles. The anecdotes become even grimmer and more nihilistic among people of color who are trying to get a foothold in the business. For them, the tide of resistance to projects either produced by or about Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, or African Americans is significantly greater-- regardless of how much more original these stories might be than the same old schlock that Hollywood continues to crank out each year. Hence, it is almost safer, less humiliating, and far less devastating for people of color to assume that they shouldn't even try to make it in "the biz" at all. It is for this very reason that programs such as the Tribeca Film Insitute's All Access program exist: to give people of color and women a platform by which their projects might gain exposure to the industry at large-- an opportunity that would otherwise not likely exist, given the predominant white male sensibilities that continue to rule the business. Consequently, I cannot help but feel somewhat biased that this influx of implicitly white male "talent" may not be exactly the jolt that the art world or Hollywood really needs.

Which brings me to my other point.

While the prospect of the arts being deluged by white male bankers only slightly irritates me, Seligson’s assumption that these career shifts may be tantamount to the arts’ salvation is downright incensing. It both trivializes the meaningful work of cultural production as well as denies the sanctity with which the arts should be properly regarded. In her article, Seligson quotes Richard Florida, author of "Who's Your City" and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, who says: "The economic downturn is going to free up top talent to do other things that are going to change the metabolism of cities like New York in a very good way.” If this is in fact true, then what I want to know is: what have all of us who have been slaving away in the literary, studio, audio-visual, and performing arts been doing all these years? Why didn’t someone tell us that rather than training, practicing, and honing our crafts, rather than sacrificing our time, money, and effort, and rather than developing our God-given talents, we should have been crunching numbers as financial analysts so that we could some day render the finest works of art this world has ever seen?

Again, please don’t misunderstand: I do not begrudge Wall-Streeters their creative urges. Just the fact that some of them would only deign to pursue those urges if making a six-figure salary working in finance was no longer an option to them. Seligson recounts how a number of bankers have recently decided to accept-- and in some cases volunteer-- to take their severance pay in order to be able to concentrate more fully upon their dreams of literary, cinematic, and comedic glory. The mind-set being, in other words, that in these dire economic times, if the pay in finance isn't going to be substantially greater than what one would earn working in the arts, then why not simply work in the arts?

I find this line of thought particularly obnoxious.

As someone who has been working in the arts and arts administration since my college days, I know scores of people who have not only trained and worked in the arts for years, but who have possessed the courage and passion enough to put their art above all else-- including their earning potential. For most honest-to-God writers, musicians, filmmakers, and performers, the notion of “art” is not simply a romanticized concept. It is the way in which they perceive and experience the world around them; it is also the medium through which serious thought, hard work, and oftentimes penury is able to help them render those experiences wondrously apparent for the rest of the world to see. The reality of having to subsist in New York (or anywhere, really) typically dictates that these artists hold down day jobs while earnestly practicing their art at night. There is no shame in that. However, to suddenly deem the arts as "worthy" of one's time simply because the cash cow of finance has run dry implies that art forms such as film, theater, and music have an intrinsic value that is inferior to the dollar as well as devalues the level of commitment and talent that true artists actually possess.

In closing, it may seem odd that on a blog generally devoted to film criticism, news, and top ten lists, I’ve chosen to respond-- and so vehemently-- to a news article that many would simply qualify as “filler.” A fluff piece. Human interest. However, because our readers are mostly concerned with cinema, it is important to note that film as an art form is never created within a vacuum. It is also a business. An industry. A product. And like any product, what we see on the screen is always materially derived from the decisions made not just by the director, but by industry standards and trends, studio executives, and lawyers: in other words, Wall Street types who aren’t as concerned with a project’s artistic integrity as much as they are with its profitability. So what happens, then, when hundreds of finance-minded suits migrate over from Wall Street, interested in creating “art,” but have never studied or developed their craft, never cultivated a sense of the history of what it is they are now attempting to do? Is this truly the “top talent” that Richard Florida claims will help to redefine the creative fields? And if so, will it be for the better?

I wonder.


lizmedia said...

Right on, Karen!!!

Laura Durkay said...

"Oh, great. Because that's what the entertainment field really needs: a fresh infusion of The Man."

You said it, Karen! Great article--I'm going to put a link on my blog.

Karen Wang said...

Thanks, Liz. Thanks, Laura. :)

P.L. Kerpius said...

@Karen: I think in general we are on the same page with the primary issue you mean to address: the over-saturation of a white-male demo running the business. Obviously this is problematic if we as a society are interested in showing a diversity, and thus richness, of perspective in the arts.

But I guess I'm a little suspect of the overall tone towards this undefined Wall Street group potentially over running the industry. Is it right to wholly discount a set of laid-off individuals for their curious efforts? Do we know exactly what this set of laid-off individuals looks like? Are they indeed all white? Male? I understand the general statistics you've mentioned in your post here (i.e. admin/hr positions filled along female/minority racial lines), which I can see in my own office experiences too; but I think we should avoid making blanket statements about diverse groups of people with a diverse array of motives.

The other concern I have has to do with the nature of the artist period. Must we condemn people who have consciously moved away from what may be an un-fulfilling line of work to pursue something (i.e. the arts) that makes them happy? I know people personally who have left six-figure positions who are now involved in non-profit art work. Do we dismiss them because they do not have a specialized degree in the field? But to address the people who were laid-off with the presumed attempt to pursue their "plan b" career, I still wonder if we should automatically condemn them for this? People still have to make a living. Suppose this is truly a viable option for them? And in what capacity will they infiltrate the industry? Will the time and valuable effort you have contributed to Tribeca, et al. be dismissed simply because they have arrived on the scene? Are these people going to take over curatorial and directorial film positions, thus perpetuating the whitewash of Hollywood/mainstream filmmaking? Or will any of them be stepping up to create a separate platform for minority artists to work? Is it okay to discount them if they, on balance with women/blacks/asians/etc, can help foster a better creative output?

So again, while I think we are on the same page as per the tension we have toward an industry that remains male/white dominated, I would like to know more specifics about this. I feel strange condemning a group without that knowledge. I have to ask, more so, because right now it appears I'm going to bat for the White Male and that fuckin' sucks.

Karen Wang said...

@ Pam: I concede that it is unfair to generalize and/or condemn an entire group of people in which there may be some who would contribute to our nation's cultural production in a meaningful and richly diverse way. My intention was not to dismiss all those who may migrate over from Wall Street. However, I have to ask: is it even up for discussion or debate that Wall Street is predominantly white? And male? It's statistically apparent. Even a cursory search on Google would support my argument. Currently, there are only 15-20 remaining minority CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Out of only the top 500 companies ! And those numbers are actually steadily declining. Thus, while you may view my statements above as gross generalizations, the numbers would seem to say otherwise. Hence, unless every person of color at these recently ailing firms decided to up and leave to go work in the arts, I highly doubt that this group about which I am writing truly is as diverse as you seem so wont to believe. And to even hope that the majority of these people would be committed to bringing about dialogue on diversity within the arts rather than inadvertently perpetuating the whitewash of Hollywood is equally naive.

Secondly, what I have a major problem with is the overall tone of Seligson's article toward this "undefined Wall Street group," which is generally congruous with the rest of our mainstream media, whose reverence for the supposed intellect and brain power of people who work in finance strikes me as a bit ridiculous. In general, it seems to me that the media have always talked about and regarded Wall Street as where all "the greatest minds" go to work. Now that the recession has hit the financial industry especially hard, many within the media are expressing their concern over this huge "brain drain" as hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people are leaving Wall Street to go pursue other ventures. So, while I understand your skepticism toward my overall tone toward these bankers, please understand that this is my response, the expression of my own skepticism, toward the media's attitude that these are in fact the "best and brightest minds," capable of doing anything (including collectively bringing a nation to its knees). Thus, I cannot help but question or resent these pundits', journalists', and "experts'" assumptions that in these ex-Wall-Streeters, we will find the arts' "revolution." Which is to say, they are assuming that if a certain group of people are brilliant at "A," then they must be brilliant at "B," "C," or "D." It simply does not work that way. And to subscribe to this idea also shows a lack of understanding of the arts as well as wholly undermines what it is that true artists do. One cannot simply swoop in an produce art at a high level. It isn't as if I could just leave my job one day and perform brain surgery the next, or produce the next greatest series of important paintings, or work as a full-time jazz musician. Thus, it isn't that I am condemning folks who do not possess a specialized degree in the arts. But to assume that it is simply so easy to break into the arts completely ignores the fact that in order produce art at a high level, it takes more than just gumption, will, and academic prowess. It takes something truly special, a gift, and talent that must be developed over time. Are we saying that we could have had five or six other Scorseses upending the American film scene by now if only they hadn't been working as analysts at Goldman Sachs for the last decade? If they had truly possessed that kind of talent, vision, or passion, then what were they doing working in finance to begin with?

This is not to belittle the important work of those in arts administration. I acknowledge that many cultural institutions such as our museums, theaters companies, production companies, and all other manner of non-profit arts groups wouldn't even exist without the business acumen of scores of people who have precisely the kind of pedigree and experience that is typical of Wall Street. I appreciate this fact. And for the most part, I think that their motivations-- diverse as they may be-- can be viewed as noble. Few ever go into arts administration or the arts simply for the money.

However, this brings me back to one of my original points.

I do not begrudge those who were either laid off, or who, after seriosuly examining their own hearts and minds, decided at some point that finance was not fulfilling to them and then made the brave foray into a creative field. Who am I to dismiss someone else's newfound feeling of liberation or freedom? And honestly, I say good for them! What I find distasteful are those who would only ever consider working in the arts because their jobs in finance may no longer afford them serious wealth. Perhaps I had not made that as plain as I should have above.

P.L. Kerpius said...

@Karen: I guess off the bat my disagreement comes with the described tone of the NYT article, which does not imply that people recently laid off in the financial sector will waltz into a creative position as easy as pie. The article is actually occasioned on the comedy pursuits of someone who works a day job (as it so happens on wall street) so he can maintain his art outside of the office on his own free time.

What's wrong with that? Isn't that what you and I and a whole slew of others contend with everyday? Are you and I selling out to our art because we report to corporate offices each business day? What is the difference between me writing about film on the off hours and working for a corporation during the day? I don't understand how this devalues my thoughts on a subject I am devoted to.

It brings me back to the point I made in my previous comment, which concerned the nature of the artist. What is it? Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of the comedian Demetri Martin, a total success story in the comedy field, and who happens to have studied law. Do we discount his credibility as an artist because he has not suffered for his art in a way we as specialized scholars have?

I just feel like there are a lot of undefined terms in this argument that generalize too many people. The numbers from your google search are not surprising to me, and I am not naive nor wanting to believe the wall street sector is racially diverse when it is not. My problem is that this statistical search does not address how this largely white population will effect the industry. In what capacity do they aim to enter the field? Managers, admin? Directors, actors? I would also say that I don't think a greater infusion of people (no matter what color or ethnicity or gender) is a bad thing for a field that is historically neglected as a legitimate way of life. I'd also add that that seems to be the main point of the article in the first place--to draw attention to the fact that more people are going into the arts, and that that is what's going to positively "change the metabolism of cities like New York."

This group is also being talked about as a monolithic white population. The second person the NYT article talks about is a man writing a novel about his Jewish South African family. Nothing WASPy about that!

So, I don't know, I just think there are a mess of variable to consider before we wholly discount this group. I think it is an unfair thing to do if they are legitimately driven to finely tune their art. People are motivated by a lot of things. Life takes interesting turns all the time. I really don't know what else to say, because the tone of your original post doesn't seem to be very objective in regards to the original NYT article it is based on.

Karen Wang said...

@ Pam: I'm starting to get the feeling that we're arguing in circles, because while I definitely hear and understand your points, I feel as if I've not only addressed them, but also explained my reasoning already. Plus, the original post was never intended to be objective toward the NYT article. It was an opinion piece, my own reaction, to Seligson and Richard Florida (and by extension, how the media have always talked about Wall-Streeters), neither of whom I thought are particularly objective themselves. Perhaps that is also a major point of difference between our two views as well? Because it seems that I interpret the article rather differently from you do. But stating my issues with it again in this public forum, I feel, wouldn't be conducive to reaching any kind of understanding or resolution at this point, because I'll just say it: I really hate arguing over the internet. I find it tiresome, and much less effective than actually just discussing a topic in person or over the phone. Certain points of contention are starting to get recycled without their proper context, and thus are beginning to mutate into other issues altogether. So, I suggest we take this conversation off-line, if you wish to pursue it. Otherwise, maybe we can just agree to disagree?

gatamala said...

I posted this at Racialicious in response to the crosspost & comments:

Read the entire Seligson article.

I find the tone and underlying attitudes disgusting. It appears that Karen objects the the sentiments it displays, not having dual/opposing careers. Her beef is not that i-bankers have other desires. The issue is how the financial, gender and racial power imbalances will increase exponentially.

As being a loya is what I do, not what I AM, I understand that us suit types have other interests and need creative outlets. I also know that financial pragmatism make sense for many people. I made my choice. My choice may make my dream of opening a salon possible. However, we should have some consideration for how our financial advantage gives us the ability to indulge our passions that others have sacrificed for, and to alter the context in which art is produced. This is the point Karen is making.

Upon reading this article, I gagged. Just what the creative arts needs more CONNECTED white, male-centric number-crunchers.

The guy with a severance package that will allow him to survive 2 years in NYC has parlayed his hobby into a successful career. Certainly he isn’t the only who works (e.g., waitstaff that Karen mentioned).

What do you think these guys will talk/joke/paint/write about? Being wealthy, white and male in NY.

That was certainly the calculus for Benjamin Cox, 33. After leaving his job as a vice president at Goldman Sachs in August, he immediately began incubating his plans to work on his screenplay — he calls it a cross between “Swingers” and “Annie Hall” — and start a production company.

How fresh and exciting!! I bet he’ll have a tough time finding support for his production company. :-/

I just love this one:

“The economy couldn’t survive on speculation and what really amounted to advanced financial alchemy,” he said. “We are now realizing it is our human creativity that is our real capital.

“The economic downturn is going to free up top talent to do other things that are going to change the metabolism of cities like New York in a very good way.”

Are they fucking serious? The people responsible for the near-destruction of a global economy via their inhuman creative activity are lauded for not only being top talent on WS, but in the creative sector too?

The man who said that runs this:

Please try to understand what is going on here before getting defensive about your hobbies.

P.L. Kerpius said...

Many of my concerns and objections are echoed and clarified (with the exception of the commenter above) in the re-post of this on Racialicious. I simply did not find the NYT piece "disgusting" or offensive at all. Who in the world thinks making it big in the arts happens overnight anyway? You have artistic talent or you don't. It's a "gift," as you say, that is cultivated in a multitude of ways from myriad places; one route is not better than the other.

I don't think the article implies further oppression in the arts along lines of race and gender; but it seems you do. So I agree: we disagree.

Andrea Janes said...

Oh man! I read this article, winced, laughed, and thought, good luck to ya, boys. What I *really* want is a follow-up article on these guys in two years, after they've been shopping their Annie Hall-meets-Swingers scripts around town for a while! *evil, maniacal laughter*

Lisa B. said...

Hi all. I know it’s a bit after the fact, but I thought I'd make a contribution to this engrossing discussion. I tend to agree with Pam on this one. That lots of out-of-work investment bankers secretly would like to be famous neither surprises nor offends me. In the era of American Idol + Recession, adopting an attitude of delusional optimism when faced with financial disappointment is something that no particular ethnic or socio-economic group has a monopoly on.

That said, I think that the Annie Hall-meets-Swingers movie should be called "Manhattan on the Rocks;" star Ben Affleck and Zooey Deschanel; be directed by Curtis Hanson -- a la "Lucky You". Romantic Comedy gold -- I feel like an investment banker turned artiste.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Karen, I am just happy to hear that "you have nothing against white people or men intrinsically." As a white male, that puts my mind at ease.