Seismic Shift on Wall Street = “Artists”???

by guest contributor Karen Wang, originally published at Scarlett Cinema

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 trains.

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.