Friday, 5 October 2012

Are You Happy Now, Richard Florida?

This week saw the David Mirvish make a stunning statement. Standing next to a model of three 80 story high rise condominiums, he stated: "I am not building condominiums. I am building three sculptures for people to live in.”
This statement is, I would posit, not only evidently ludicrous, but a symptom of a much larger ill. I remember being very impressed -- in the days of my teenage devotion to Ayn Rand -- with her analysis of the origins of communism. She said that Stalin’s ‘statist’ philosophy did not appear out of thin air, but was, instead, a result of the general public’s complacent acceptance of many years of ‘collectivism’ and ‘mysticism,’ going back to the philosopher Kant. Far be it for me to compare David Mirvish to Joseph Stalin. But -- like the ideas of that famous dictator -- Mirvish’s nutty statement has its roots in notions that have been floating around for some time.
These ideas originated with Richard Florida.
Richard Florida is the photogenic U of T professor with the gorgeous wife and the jet set lifestyle, who, (in 2002) famously coined the term 'the creative class,’ in his bestselling The Rise of the Creative Class.
Florida’s revolutionary theory was that money and industry are not the only elements that drive cities – urban areas require a high concentration of artists, gays, and lesbians to achieve economic success. Artists, urban developers, and queers lept on Florida’s theories like cats in heat. The idea was not only revolutionary but seemed to provide a positive spin on art and artists, and give an always needed boost to  gay and lesbian self esteem.
            The problem is that by labeling queers ‘high bohemia’ Florida contributed to our demonization. Florida’s blithe, hipsterly ‘acceptance’ of our culture fed into the general misconception that gays and lesbians are more arty, creative, and rich than straight people. Straights seem to adore the homophobic fantasy that decadent queers lead luxurious lifestyles while they – the hard working heteros – quietly raise families. Florida’s generalizations not only ignore gay plumbers, but also the multitude of gay men who are passed over for positions of power and authority because they are visibly effeminate (and ‘creative’).
Now when it comes to artists, there is a grain of truth in Florida’s theories. Yes, we do often lead the vanguard of urban gentrification by moving into working class neighborhoods and creating art studios and theatres in crumbling buildings. But the efforts of artists in these situations are na├»ve and idealistic, not profit driven. And nowadays these efforts are immediately appropriated by entrepreneurs who (citing Richard Florida) claim to represent the arts community in order to make a fast buck  (recent gentrification on James Street North in Hamilton is a case in point). Ever since Richard Florida theorized that artists are a fundamental motor for urban success, those who are interested in making a profit have neatly disguised their capitalist aspirations with creative ones. Watch out for anyone who talks about the arts ‘industry,’ or the arts as an economic engine of a community; they are probably carrying an 80 story condo in their back pocket.
            I am not impressed with David Mirvish’s proposal. I am appalled by it. And any Torontonian in their right mind should be appalled too. Have you noticed that the new condos they are presently building by what used to be the O’Keefe Centre, are called  ‘Concert’ and ‘Backstage’? The problem is that at the same time these massive moneymakers are being built – using culture as a selling point  -- The World’s Biggest Bookstore is about to close down, The Princess of Wales Theatre is to be demolished, and working spaces in downtown Toronto have become prohibitively expensive for Toronto artists to afford. Toronto’s culture is, ironically, being destroyed in the name of culture.
I’m not saying that David Mirvish doesn’t hold some affection for the arts; I’m sure he does.
So does Garth Drabinsky. 
            But let me tell you something; they love money more.