A Ghost Ship of Tragedy and Crisis
The horrific “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood on Dec. 2, 2016 was a tragedy waiting to happen. At least
36 young lives ended in a brief moment. Any of these victims could have been my own children or friends. We will never know the rewards of the music, art and poetry which these inspired young souls promised. Their parents, families and friends will forever mourn the loss of loved ones. The tragedy of Ghost Ship will likely inspire tightening zoning enforcement and increasing disappearance of affordable artists’ spaces. Already high and rapidly escalating rents have been squeezing the working class and poor in many cities for decades. People priced out of good neighborhoods move to poorer, more dangerous and isolated neighborhoods with crumbling housing stock. That’s how capitalism works. For artists, escalating prices can be a huge burden when both work and living space are required.
Escalating costs are largely due to the existence of a global abundance of liquid capital looking for profits. This gives rise to all sorts of speculative bubbles and investment strategies. Working for a wage or making anything, let alone art, is no longer a guaranty of a roof over one’s head or worldly riches. Real estate musical chairs happen when creative people attract hipsters, upper middle class and professionals, who then price out older communities along with artists who made the neighborhood attractive for gentrification in the first place. Most property owners love it when artists and hipsters move into the hood because it means rising real estate values. There is never concern for the trail of tears left by the displaced.
Real estate speculation and resulting short- ages also change the nature of cultural output. Should artists only be cultivated from among the well off? Should we shut out the voices of the less fortunate? As affordable studio space becomes harder to find, the nature of much contemporary art has also shifted to conceptual and digital practices that don’t require as much space.
Ghost Ship is a bell warning of a crisis in the arts in the United States. How are we ever going to provide our non-commercial artists with a living wage, affordable housing and safe studio space, or any studio space at all? Everybody seems to want the arts in their communities, schools and lives, but nobody wants to pay artists. It’s like taxes, everybody wants somebody else to pick up the tab, but all want to enjoy the feast. There is currently little discussion or will to resolve this crisis. The art business crawls along because there are enough well financed players to support a rigged system.
Another elephant in the room is the near impossibility for young people to become art collectors and patrons. First they need secure and adequate jobs to live and pay off student debt and then they need homes. There just aren’t enough billionaires with egalitarian principals around to support everybody. If you don’t care about the arts to begin with, there is no crisis because life is an all-knowing marketplace.
Here’s an immediate call to action for those who do care about the arts and the lives of artists: do whatever you can to support artists whom you like. Don’t just wait for someone else to fix the system. Buy their work. If you own an empty building, make low rent space available for artists. When you are out entertaining yourself at generously offered free cultural events, after you drink the free cheap wine and beer to wash down those cheese crackers, please write a check for what- ever amount feels comfortable to you. There’s no time for lip service anymore; go to a bordello and pay for that. Please make plans to do something real for the artists whom you love, then go out and encourage your friends and acquaintances to find joy by doing the same. Thank you.
Bruce Thorn is a Chicago based painter and musician. He is also a contributing writer to Neoteric Art. Thorn studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Volume 31 number 3, January / February 2017 p 10