If the Goldilocks story was set in New York, she’d say “Ughh. This city is too expensive, too corporate, too bougie, too crowded, too noisy.” To which I would reply, “Yea, I’ve heard all those before. I’ve lived here for fifteen years. Have you ever tried our porridge? The fact is, Goldilocks, that the best porridge, like great art, is made by limitations.”
Great artists, like chessmasters, are formed by restriction. The more times a chess player is cornered, the more times unforeseen moves become seen. The more trapped an artist is by circumstance, the more seconds, minutes, and hours become vessels for ingenuity. Of course, we all need to eat. We all need a roof. And if artists are fortunate enough to check these two major boxes, his, her, or their experience in New York can be fully activated with little more than a vivid imagination and a temperature check.
Take the time I Occupied. The mood was so charged that city spaces turned into verbs. Did you Zuccotti? In person, in spirit, via email, in absentia? Or like many, did you hesitate all Fall until one day shedding all reasons not to show up, be vulnerable, and let things happen?
Upon arrival, whichever side of the park you were on, the restriction was space and the energy was tense. For the unique chance to speak your mind, the irony of tight quarters was not lost on the protesters, bankers, bystanders, and Ben and Jerry, who had mysteriously set up shop, scooping out free ice cream for the masses.
The two set up camp equidistant from each other like two landscape painters catching all angles of a scene. Touting quick hands, the pair became the Monet and Manet of the park, doling out flavors with impressionist fanfare. As tensions arose, they too were compelled to rise to the occasion—soothing chanters, drummers, and investors alike with their signature sweets. We as a city were talking again, if not shouting, in the streets. And if you could stomach it, there was ice cream too.
I hadn’t decided on my title for the day, but did arrive with a new 8.5 × 11 picture frame. Misgivings aside, I got in line for a cup, calculating the wait would give me enough time to make a sign. What to write? Something I could stand for and hold up. I got out a marker and began to write, “A living wage with sprinkles and debt forgiveness.”
Nearing the front of the line, a hopeful Ben reached out for a handshake offering a scoop. In classic fashion, I bungled the encounter spilling Americone Dream all over myself and the note. No matter. My real goal was to get Ben to read it. I read the words aloud and said, “Hey Ben, will you sign?” Shockingly, he did. Without hesitation, my own signature followed.
What do you do when find yourself in a public park creating text art with half of an ice cream empire? You find the other half and seal the deal. I crossed the park, skipped the treats and dropped my pitch on Jerry, a vision of kids relieving school debt through sustainable income. He nodded. “Jerry. Ben signed, so you have to.” Convincingly, he grinned and put down his imprimatur.
Was it art? The Occupy Movement revealed many known truths, most visibly that in times of economic downturn, the kids of New York always turn up, sweets or not. But all, of course, is not said in just one day. Like beat poets scanning the streets for looks, we New Yorkers have had countless days charmed by an unknowing wind or change of direction. Giving in to this impulse, we ensure our artistic futures, knowing full well that as tough as it gets, some entirely new path is on the way to make it all worthwhile. For the artist, this is salvation.
Pick an era and for all the struggle, you’ll find the havens—Birdland, Cedar Tavern, The Factory, CBGB's, The Mudd Club, Glasslands. These legendary spaces beamed as lighthouses, protecting the city's artists through social and financial crises laid bare. In and outside of these club walls, the patchwork legacies of painters, writers, rockers, and power brokers are finely imprinted on the city's proverbial forehead.
Setting foot into his own International Style, Piet Mondrian arrived in New York from Paris undaunted and ready to dance. Why? One would guess to transcend the cold sentiment exposed in his 1911 work Gray Tree, a painting steeped with the desire to escape nature’s cyclic end.
And escape he did. Not unlike the beams in David Hammons refreshing new site proposal Day’s End, the blocked shapes of what would become Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie emote a fevered scene, opaquely revealed as a need to connect within the turbulence of fragile man-made landscapes. From a revered conceptual artist typically removed from the public to one comfortably searching for it over a century earlier, the work of both heavyweights shares in the hope for the kinetic possibility of joy in the city.
And it has been that way. The artists of New York have always made it possible for discernible magic to be captured alone, in secret, or out in the open, all while high rises and rents keep on keeping on. Though not every day hits like ice cream in the park, whether indoors, outdoors, on or off the wall, it is clear in New York that signatures always set the scene.
So next time you see Goldilocks in New York say “Hey, How have you been? Have you tried our porridge?” If she says, “Finally, yes. But it's too expensive, too corporate, and too bougie,” reply with “Yea, you said all that before. The truth is Goldilocks that porridge, like great art, is sometimes too hot to wait for.”
Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh is an artist. He lives in New York.