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May 18, 2010

Big Bad New York (Scaaary!)

Is there anymore such a thing as a national culture in this country? Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf posits that there is, and further, that New York sets what that culture is to a degree that stunts the rest of the country:

New York City's role on the American scene isn't unhealthy merely because it attracts creative, ambitious people with its dynamism, or because its residents have a healthy ego about the relative merits of their city. The problem is that along with those inevitable traits of great cities, Manhattan and certain of its surrounding boroughs happen to dominate American media, finance, and letters so thoroughly that even the most impressive achievements of other cities are routinely ignored while New Yorkers talk about local matters of comparatively smaller consequence, either tempting or forcing the whole nation to eavesdrop on their chatter depending on the day.

In Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, and San Antonio, all among the top ten most populous cities in the United States, the smallest with well over a million residents, the average person has watched countless hours of television set in various New York City apartments, and perhaps never seen their own city portrayed in a sitcom. The executives read The Wall Street Journal far more carefully than the local newspaper, the aspiring writers dream of getting a short story published in The New Yorker, the local Starbucks sells The New York Times, the romantics watch Breakfast at Tiffany's on AMC at six month intervals, and every New Years Eve people gather around to watch a tape-delayed broadcast of a ball that dropped on Times Square hours earlier.

New York is a great city, but in America today, someone who seeks out the best television or novels or magazine writing or art or newspaper reporting is confronted with an even greater degree of NYC centric stuff than is justified. The city is a legitimate giant, yet its shadow somehow reaches much farther than it should. It thereby deprives other cities of the light they need to grow half as tall.
At the risk of spinning a cliche, this seems like such a New York point of view: New York is the only place that matters. Of course people outside New York read the Times and watch the TV shows set in New York and follow New York media. Duh. Does that really mean that New York dictates national culture? Perhaps we can concede that culture from New York plays an outsized role by virtue of the density of cultural activity collected there. But is there really a New York cultural identity that still dominates the rest of the country?

Do we think of American Ballet Theatre as being particularly New York in character, aside from the fact it is located there? Do we think of CNN as having a particularly Atlanta slant on the world? Leave aside that most of the creative energy working in New York comes from outside New York. The idea that a place like NY imprints a geographically-dominant identity is largely past I think.

David Schaengold has a different complaint:

It seems inevitable that as a country we will have national newspapers and national magazines and places that loom large in the national consciousness. Isn't in much better that these national institutions retain some local savor? Isn't the New Yorker, in part because it sometimes seems like a local, even a parochial journal, superior to the tranquil no-whereness of Time magazine? Isn't the inimitable New Yorkiness of the Times, what Fr. Richard Neuhaus used to call "our parish newsletter," one its few redeeming features, especially compared with the truly national and placeless USA Today?
That seems about right. Friedersdorf's premise is only interesting if you buy the idea that New York not only has more of everything, but also sets the agenda for culture in America. That was certainly true at one time. Is it today? In this age of access to everything everywhere, I'm not so sure.
May 18, 2010 6:14 PM | | Comments (1)


New York is wonderful. It has an amazing concentration of talent, creativity, media, performance. The population of the city is greater than some states. However, it is not all that is America, nor does it reflect American culture. Consider the commentary by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, earlier this year, about a California minimalism exhibit at New York's David Zwirner gallery. Schjeldahl said of California's artists that they were part of "an under-sung movement mainly of the late 1960s that reacted to the development of minimal art in New York." But geometric minimalism was happening in Los Angeles long before New York minimalism. However, in our New York centric universe, particularly in the art world, nothing is recognized unless it happens in New York. And media is centered in New York and rarely (if ever) covers much beyond Brooklyn. We cannot pigeonhole American culture into a one-size fits all model. There are unique aspects about the West that are far different from the Midwest or Northwest. That's what makes Glasstire such a strong new media model. It focuses on the art of Texas, as broad and differing as it may be even within one state.

We may have access to everything online, everything universal and worldwide, but isn't it great to have it contextualized so that the culture and art of Texas becomes more real and tangible to someone in Portland as equally as New York City or Mumbai? New York may think they still set the agenda for what makes up culture in America--again because most of the media is based there and offers that slanted perspective. When have you picked up Art in America or Art Forum and read more reviews from outside of New York than within? But culture happens and is made in other places even if the New York centric media fails to notice. And it will continue as long as places like Denver, for example, stop trying to woo New York and focus on courting those that are interested in a long-term relationship with what Denver has to offer and what makes Denver uncommon.

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