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By The Numbers

Does income inequality stifle creativity?

Chau Tu Oct 9, 2013

Musician David Byrne is the latest to weigh in on the widening wealth gap in the U.S. The author and frontman of the Talking Heads argued in an editorial for Creative Time Reports this week that New York City’s creative spirit is being crushed by a culture favoring power over art.

Byrne, a resident  since the 1970s, said he moved to  New York City because of its vibrant creative energy. “New York was legendary. It was where things happened, on the east coast, anyway. One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships.”

Since then, he’s enjoyed watching the physical improvements in the city — more bike lanes, public plazas and a functional public transportation system — as crime has gone down in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “But the cultural part of the city –– the mind — has been usurped by the top 1 percent,” he argued.

“Most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich (which, full disclosure, includes me),” wrote Byrne.  He added that “there is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore…Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.”

Byrne said the problem emerged when the city began championing the “culture of arrogance, hubris and winner-take-all” of Wall Street, and at the same time failing to support the artists, filmmakers, and writers who were struggling. And:

Unlike Iceland, where the government let misbehaving banks fail and talented kids became less interested in leaping into the cesspool of finance, in New York there has been no public rejection of the culture that led to the financial crisis. Instead, there has been tacit encouragement of the banking industry’s actions from figures like Mayor Bloomberg. The nation’s largest financial institutions are almost all still around, still “too big to fail” and as powerful as ever. One might hope that enlightened bankers might emulate the Medicis and fund culture-makers – both emerging artists and those still in school – as a way of ensuring a continued talent pool that would invent stuff and fill the world with ideas and inspiration, but other than buying blue-chip art for their walls and donating to some institutions what is, for them, small change, they don’t seem to be very much interested in replenishing the talent pool.

Byrne fears that New York City could become a place void of artistry. “If young, emerging talent of all types can’t find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been. Those places might have museums, but they don’t have culture. Ugh.”

Byrne said that if New York keeps moving in that direction, he’s ready to leave.

You can read Byrne’s full editorial here, at Creative Time Reports.

But what do you think? How much does wealth play into fostering creativity? Are there examples you’ve seen of where wealth is — or isn’t — helping support creativity and artistry? Or is Byrne misled in connecting the two? Comment below or tweet us @MarketplaceAPM.

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