Art, Activism & the Avant-Guard

Art as Counterbalance

In a rather startling development, what could in previous years  have been described as a general lack of interest in the arts appears to be blossoming into antipathy towards the arts in general & painting in particular. One of the reasons for this  is the sheer impossibility for art to capture the scale of the disaster the planet faces as the anthropocene age progresses  through mass species extinction, climate change, rising sea levels and so on. Painting is especially helpless in this regard as it cannot compete with installations designed to shock viewers into recognition of the crisis we are part of or photography that can record the disasters in relentless detail.

Cai Guo Qiang, China
Cai Guo Qiang, China
Man crushed by building; Fra Biancoshock; street installation, Prague, Czech Republic
Man crushed by building; Fra Biancoshock; street installation, Prague, Czech Republic
https://saferenvironment.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/oil-spill-adverse-effects-on-marine-environmental-bio-system-and-control-measures/
https://saferenvironment.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/oil-spill-adverse-effects-on-marine-environmental-bio-system-and-control-measures/

All artists are faced with the dilemma that the works we create are entirely unlikely to make a difference to the onslaught of late-capitalist destruction.This dilemma is nicely described by the writer, Rick Bass:
“What story, what painting, does one offer to refute Bosnia, Somalia, the Holocaust, Chechnya, China, Afghanistan or Washington DC? What story or painting does one offer up or create to counterbalance the ever-increasing sum of our destructions?”

But then he goes on to say, “Paint me a picture or tell me a story as beautiful as other things in the world today are terrible. If such stories and paintings are out there, I’m not seeing them.”

Richard Prince, “Radical New Boring Shit”. Luminous paint on canvas., 2015.
Richard Prince, “Radical New Boring Shit”. Luminous paint on canvas., 2015.

He is referring to the fact that, instead of acting as a counterbalance to the misery humans are creating, intellectual discussions  on the role of art promote the idea that creating beautiful paintings, and indeed beauty itself, is part of the problem instead of part of the solution.  Bass suggests that , “Rampant beauty will return”, but in the meantime “activism is becoming the shell, the husk or where art once was….The activist is for a real and physical thing, as the artist was once for the metaphorical; the activist, or brittle husk-of-artist, is for life, for sensations, for senses deeply touched…The activist is the artist’s ashes”. Is this true or are artist/activists arising, Phoenix-like from these ashes imbued with creativity and meaning?

Art & Gentrification

An ambivalent view of arts and activism is bolstered not only because artists themselves are rejecting the creation of art but because urban activists have focused on artists and galleries as the enemy – the thin of gentrification’s edge.  Artist-driven urban renewal typically leads to artists being priced out of the neighborhoods they have helped to revive. This is sometimes referred to as “the SoHo effect.” Artists are complicit in the gentrification process, which has an impact not only on the artists themselves, but on other residents of neighborhoods that are being gentrified. This process is called “artwashing”—a term for adding a cultural sheen to a developing neighborhood.

Image Artwashing hands Credit (on his Twitter age not sure if he is artist Stephen Pritchard@etiennelefleur PhD-Researcher-Art historian-Curator-Writer-Activist-Blogger-Community arts practitioner-Social practice-Anti art-Anti elitist-Praxis-Critical theory-Socialist
Artwashing hands
Credit (on his Twitter age not sure if he is artist)
Stephen Pritchard@etiennelefleur
PhD-Researcher-Art historian-Curator-Writer-Activist-Blogger-Community arts practitioner-Social practice-Anti art-Anti elitist-Praxis-Critical theory-Socialist

Artists find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being inadvertently complicit in driving gentrification, even as they are being victimized by the trend.

Photo credit: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/evictions-gentrification-northwest-side-leases/Content?oid=24661217
Photo credit: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/evictions-gentrification-northwest-side-leases/Content?oid=24661217

The term appears to have first been used in mainstream media in 2014 by Feargus O’Sullivan of The Atlantic, in an article about a tower in once-destitute East London that had been redeveloped for high-paying tenants. They were being enticed, in part, by suggestions that they wouldn’t be gentrifiers but, rather, original members of a new artistic community. “The artist community’s short-term occupancy is being used for a classic profit-driven regeneration maneuver,” O’Sullivan wrote. He labeled the process “artwashing.” Years leter, the conflict is escalating and omeone shot a potato gun at the attendees of an art show, and someone spray-painted “Fuck white art” on the walls of several galleries.

Photo credit: https://longreads.com/2017/05/23/activists-fight-the-gentrifying-art-galleries-of-east-los-angeles/
Photo credit: https://longreads.com/2017/05/23/activists-fight-the-gentrifying-art-galleries-of-east-los-angeles/

As explained in the online journal Artspace, artwashing takes place “when artists and galleries move into what is branded as a “newly established art community,” they generally don’t think of themselves as gentrifiers so much as they think of themselves as pioneers of a “new community,” (as opposed to new members of the pre-existing, already culturally-rich community).

Activists in cities with the highest levels of gentrification and displacement of longstanding residents such as LA and New York disrupt exhibitions and readings in new galleries.  “It’s not that they don’t like art; rather their efforts proactively address the historically damaging effects that art spaces can have on a community’s deep-rooted residents. When developers see a neighborhood flourishing with art galleries and bougie cafes, they see a potential for exorbitant profit. art galleries are part of a broader effort by planners and politicians and developers who want to artwash gentrification.”

In the past year, across North America, artist/activists are voicing their discontent with developer-driven artwashing and displacement. The Chinatown Art Brigade, an anti-gentrification group of artists and activists in New York, protested an exhibition by a Berlin-based artist. Their banner read “RACISM DISGUISED AS ART” as the installation included a room replete with objects indicating a sparsely merchandised Chinatown business that visitors walked through in order to view an artwork screening in the back of the gallery.

https://hyperallergic.com/405812/james-cohan-gallery-omer-fast-racism/
https://hyperallergic.com/405812/james-cohan-gallery-omer-fast-racism/

In Vancouver, a member of the Chinatown Action Group likened the artwashing taking place in New York’s Chinatown to developers and new businesses in Vancouver that employ stereotypically Chinese imagery or aesthetics to gain authenticity, pay a misguided homage, or clumsily conceal an exclusionary agenda.

Though the movement is called Anti-Art, some powerful art is being created by these activists, such as the art washing hands image shown earlier, the above image and the following by an unidentified artist on the Defend Boyle Heights Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/defendboyleheights/
https://www.facebook.com/defendboyleheights/

Another compelling image emerged from Vancouver activists protesting developer Westbank’s arrogant use of art washing discussed in the blog Anti Art. This is a beautiful piece of activism art using the highly recognizable format of Westbank’s  advertising blitz and capturing its hypocrisy and contempt for neighbourhoods in a single phrase.

Mainlander-poster
http://themainlander.com/2017/12/16/fight-for-affordability-local-group-plans-alternative-tour-of-westbanks-fight-for-beauty/
WWAS protest
http://themainlander.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/ANDREI.png

The activists oppose artists and galleries that act as vehicles for gentrification & displacement but ironically, the images arising from that struggle are some of the most evocative being produced today. Perhaps that is because these images are coming from strong feeling and beliefs as opposed to what tends to be coldly intellectual and soul-less art promoted by the arts establishment.

Role of Arts Establishment

In addition to galleries,  the arts establishment contributes to gentrification & displacement in cities under pressure from development interests. A  good example of this is Artscape,  an arts and culture non-profit with a multi-million dollar budget used to “revitalize” neighborhoods and promote mixed use developments.

Artscape’s method is to purchase or lease underused properties, more often than not  in low-income neighbourhoods. The spaces are then rented out to professional artists and registered not-for-profits at below-market rates. In the case of BC Artscape, the project was also helped with $900,000 – from the City of Vancouver, the credit union, VanCity and the J.W. McConnell Foundation: a match made in real estate heaven. Over the past decade  Artscape has become a very attractive partner for developers because developers can build bigger condos if they provide “community benefits” such as arts studios.

The New Avant-Guard

Many established artists and the arts establishment continue to be guided by the pursuit of such non-issues as whether an artist should ” move away from …the imagistic and textual and toward a probing of the real and historical” as discussed in a recent work of art criticism. But the artworks that are promoted by what the arts establishment would term, “progressive debate” have done little to counterbalance “Bosnia, Somalia, the Holocaust, Chechnya, China, Afghanistan or Washington DC”. And as we have seen, the arts have been complicit in the localized class wars also called gentrification.

However, the work of the artist/activists explored in this blog are pointing the way forward and that direction is one of meaningful (as opposed to theoretical) day-to-day involvement in the ongoing struggle to protect common ecological, social and economic values from the ravages of greed and opportunism .

An article in the online journal colouringinculture.org  suggests that, “The radical avant-garde today can therefore be seen to exist in the cracks of neoliberalism as re-politicised acts of resistance against the totality of capitalism, grounded in collectivism and ‘nonaesthetic reason…in keeping with the radical avant-garde, disobedience and dissent, non-compliance and non-conformity, are what make us human and make us creative.” It is an interesting and somehow reassuring idea that anti-art activists are art’s newest avant-guard.

 

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