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The WBUR Read-In: Struggling artists

WBUR arts and culture fellow Lauren Williams recommends three books to read on artist displacement. (Courtesy the publishers)
WBUR arts and culture fellow Lauren Williams recommends three books to read on artist displacement. (Courtesy the publishers)

“The panicked artists called a meeting. The idea was floated that perhaps they could collectively purchase the building,” reported WBUR’s Amelia Mason earlier this week. The struggling artist is a character that lives on in cultural imaginations all across the world. But as cities — often the best places for artists to collaborate and find work — become increasingly expensive, even artists who have carved out a space for themselves are having trouble securing studio space.

Artists in the United States have flocked to the country’s cultural centers for centuries. But Mason added, “Artists are often the harbingers of gentrification, drawn to run-down industrial areas by the cheap rent and lax oversight. They help make the neighborhood trendy… which raises rents, until the original artists and residents are priced out.” This issue is multifaceted, as where artists can comfortably live and work is often impacted by issues like race and class.

In her reporting, Mason explained that the idea of using art to improve neighborhoods is a common sentiment in Boston. Whether or not it’s sustainable, for both the artists and the communities they live in, is unclear. Artist displacement is a cyclical issue. However, as rents continue to tick up, it could reach a fever pitch. Below are recommendations for a few reads that explore cultural capital, artists in exile and artists on the search for home.

'I Can Give You Anything But Love'

By Gary Indiana

Gary Indiana’s memoir bares all. “I’m almost sixty-five, I still have practically nothing of my own, and could very well end up on the same trash heap where most old people in America get tossed, regardless of whatever ‘cultural capital’ I’ve accumulated.” The book is a retelling of the prolific artist's life from his youth on, from his sleepy hometown of Derry, New Hampshire, to Berkeley, California, Los Angeles, New York and Havana. More than an overt artist memoir, it’s a story about the human condition and what it was like to grow up as a feverishly creative gay man in America. However, infused throughout this book are artists and their search for a place they can call their own.


'Second Place'

By Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk's most recent novel, “Second Place,” is a domestic story of sorts. It’s written like a long letter to a friend, detailing the narrator's obsession with a painter called "L." A strange relationship begins to take shape after the narrator invites the painter to stay at her country home. The story deals with themes of motherhood, marriage and all things interpersonal, but there's a point in which it shifts and art takes center stage. Similar to Gary Indiana’s memoir, questions about the practicality of cultural capital arise when the painter runs into health issues, and it becomes apparent that he has nowhere to go.


'Exiled in Paris'

By James Campbell

This retelling of post-World War II Paris and the writers who flocked there is an essential read on the topic of artist displacement. The book follows behemoths like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Samuel Beckett as they work through their writing and shape their professional lives outside of their home countries. The book is a cultural history of Paris’s expatriate literati, telling the tale of how exile — due to politics, race and war — gave us world-shifting men and women of letters.


Additional reading:

Related:

Lauren Williams Arts Reporting Fellow
Lauren Williams is the arts reporting fellow at WBUR.

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