we can draw the line some other time

June 9, 2009 at 11:29 pm

| Gabriel |

Lots of people have been talking about the NY Times article on Williamsburg trustafarians suddenly facing reality. A lot of the commentary has been of the “this is the world’s tiniest violin” variety. I have two thoughts.

1. It’s amazing how pretty much all of these people have completely unremunerative creative-sector careers supplemented by service sector work. The article describes a musician, a writer, and a “designer wallpaper” entrepreneur (good luck with that). Of course this actually shouldn’t be surprising to me since I lecture my soc of culture undergrads for about a half hour on the “starving artist” phenomenon. Here’s the elevator version of that lecture.

Lots more people want to be artists than there is demand for and this shift in the supply schedule depresses the price, which is why the median artist makes less than you’d predict from his education. There are two theories as to why (unlike other workers in a similar situation) artists don’t then quit and get jobs that other people are actually willing to pay them for. The self-subsidy theory says that artistic work is really a form of leisure consumption enjoyed by those who can afford it, often by drawing on family resources. The tournament model theory says that the opportunity cost of low wages now is buying entry to a tournament, the winner of which enjoys the kind of decadent lifestyle that could only have been dreamt of by Caligula but is in fact enjoyed by the Rolling Stones even as they fade into vampiric living death. Interestingly, both theories make the (accurate) prediction that this is highly tied to the life course and most (unsuccessful) artists will seek more mainstream employment when they enter prime fertility years.

2. Wow, check out Ms. Calvert’s polyester dress. The elaborate and very ironic backstory for this garment writes itself.


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