The pooling of artists in global cities has become a destructive anachronism; destructive to artists, working-class communities in those cities, and destructive to art itself.
The formation of art enclaves in industrial capitalism, during a century of accelerating aesthetic and conceptual innovation (1850-1950) had a progressive logic. Artists’ innovations fed off their physical proximity to each other. Moreover, these aesthetic and conceptual interventions were often in political sympathy to the industrial working-class concentrated in cities like London, New York, Paris and Berlin. Artists found a radical, and oftentimes working-class, cosmopolitanism in these artistic enclaves. Gentrification had not yet evolved to exploit artists as it does today.
That shifted in the 1960s and 1970s. As Meagan Day observes in Jacobin, citing Robert Fitch’s The Assassination of New York, in 1929 the New York City bourgeoisie decided, at first mostly for real estate reasons and personal bigotries, to remove the working-class from Manhattan. But capitalist land policy is about the overall needs of production as well as immediate land value. As Day notes, for the first half of the century, New York City boasted about 15 percent of the total U.S. industrial workforce. With the coming neoliberal shift, however, the “needs” of capital accumulation and landlords coalesced.
The bourgeoisie gutted New York’s working-class; closing the port of New York and zoning out garment and other blue-collar industrial districts. Thousands of artists moved into deindustrialized spaces.
The aesthetic, economic and political character of previous art enclaves, and their relationship to the needs of the bourgeoisie, were quite different. Montmartre was one of the centers of the Paris Commune. Founding members of the Communist Party of the United States, as well as founders of the Black Arts Movement, cut their teeth in Greenwich Village. As long as capital required a large pool of industrial workers concentrated in these cities, rents and real estate values had to be kept in check. Unintentional bohemia was a byproduct.
The material aspirations of real estate developers, bourgeois residents, landlords, and “new economy” employers, eventually found ideological expression in texts like Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, valorizing and concealing the crude material underpinnings of changed urban policy. Now the ideal is the “creative individual” who is always working and never rests. The heroic modern myth of the artist is used in this conception as a fig leaf for increasing the rate of exploitation and “justifying” the gentrification process. Moreover, artistic labor (often unpaid) adds aesthetic value to neighborhoods that is leveraged by real estate companies.
Bohemia as simulacra was born. Art magazines, real estate agents, and even The Village Voice celebrated the creation of new art enclaves in the 1970s and 1980s, pretending to witness something like 19th century Montmarte. But it was an empty image; a moral appeal for an entirely amoral, racist and anti-working-class financial process of displacement.
When today’s artists move to global cities they still dream, if ever subconsciously, of old Greenwich Village and Montmartre.
This has ceased to have any connection to reality. The innovations of modernist art and culture, the succession of different avant-garde movements, are over. Capitalist culture has moved from a state of becoming to a state of being. Concentrations of artists no longer produce aesthetic innovation but, often, its opposite; an increasingly dull and weak avant-garde.
Moreover, the relatively equal feedback between the high modern avant-garde and the “masses” has turned antagonistic due to neoliberalism and an unholy bargain between the art world and real estate interests.
Artists + Everyday Life: From Shamanism to the Weak Avant-Garde
The art enclave was, in most ways, a 19th and 20th century aberration.
The first semi-specialized artists, shamans of late hunter-gatherer societies, made art in relationship to their small bands. A few shamans, at most, accompanied each group, negotiating subjective expression with the greater needs of the collective.
With permanent settlement, agriculture, and the transition to class society, art was literally woven into people’s homes, often on the bones of dead ancestors. And of course, art was made to adorn the new ruling-classes with an aesthetic value that justified their dominance. The great empires concentrated art and monuments in their capitols to facilitate the cults and rituals of church and state. But this was most often for the “benefit” of the masses. The artists of medieval Europe and Asia adorned temples, churches and monasteries with painting and sculpture in every city and town. Throughout all this time there persisted a folk art – created by peasants and slaves for their own use and the use of their exploited siblings. And there were also intermediate forms – like the marginalia of monks in illuminated manuscripts.
But in all these art forms there was no separation of art and “daily life.” Only capitalism created that rupture, and in doing so created the “professional” art specialist separated from the rest of society. Capitalism freed the artist from the dictates of church and state. But it also freed the artist from the guarantee of patronage and the material necessities of life. The Romantic artists, born of this contradiction, rebelled against the new order. Artists began to congregate in the cities in no small part seeking mutual material and “spiritual” support.
One of the foundational dreams of these modern artists was to abolish the separation of art and “daily life,” to overcome the separation that capitalism produced between art and the masses. This impulse, largely ignored by the contemporary weak avant-garde, was bound up with socialist and utopian designs on culture. The socialist dream is to return to the hunter-gatherer dynamic, the artist negotiating collective need with subjective expression; albeit with formal democracy, modernity and economic surplus.
Regardless, as long as capitalist culture was still coming into its own, and as long as the most “advanced” capitalist economies needed a concentrated industrial working-class, the art enclave could retain its progressive, if contradictory, aspect.
Modern art was supported by a hodge-podge of patronage: the individual bourgeois, the state (left, right and liberal), declassed aristocrats, and even left-wing political formations (in the early USSR and Weimer Germany for example). With the decline of the modernist avant-garde, and the consolidation of capital, we are left, for the most part, with the patronage of corporations, bourgeois individuals and the neoliberal state (and, often its municipal governments). The scope of avant-garde art has likewise narrowed; even as its cheerleaders tell us “art can now be anything.”
As I’ve argued elsewhere, borrowing from Boris Groys, we now have a “weak avant-garde.” The academic weak avant-garde avoids the “strong images” of classical and popular art and culture, as well as the “strong politics” of the modernist avant-garde. This avant-garde is defined largely by its conditioning in art schools, canonization in art institutions and acceptance by the art market. Its internal culture is reproduced in the art enclaves of global cities.
But the art spaces that valorize the objects of contemporary art have themselves been called into question; by the weakness of the art often therein, as well as the rise of new media. We can see, on our Instagram feed, that there is an “unknown” artist in Toledo, Ohio that is far superior to Jeff Koons. The Internet, despite its problems, has exposed the artificial smallness of the mainstream art world; the artificial scarcity of “genius,” mirroring the artificial scarcity of housing that inflates rents.
Art Enclaves vs. Artists
The art enclave is a geographic albatross for the contemporary artist.
With the increasing closure of middle-range art galleries there is no longer a practical, artistic or financial reason for artists to congregate in, say, New York and Los Angeles.
In these cities an overabundance of (a particular kind of) art, deformed by an art market oriented to the bourgeois, weaponizes art against the local working-class. Astronomical rents over privilege middle-class and bourgeois artists; helping ensure the dominance of the weak avant-garde in contemporary art; and producing aesthetic cul-du-sacs and dead ends like casualism and zombie formalism. There is little to no social mobility in the global cities for working-class artists; and what little there is comes with far too much artistic and political compromise.
The modern artist moved to the industrial city, first and foremost, for cheap rent. The artist could afford to live next to working-class people and still direct a decent amount of time and money toward making art, even if they too came from limited means.
Today, art is a key tool in the gentrification process in post-industrial global and coastal cities. In late 2018, the average rent for an apartment in New York rose to $3,527 a month, an almost 10 percent increase over 2017. Skyrocketing rents in Los Angeles produced an almost 30 percent increase in homelessness over the past year. In 1970 you could buy, for example, a storefront in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood for a few thousand dollars; turning it into a studio or other art space. Today, that space costs millions of dollars.
If a contemporary artist finds something affordable, anywhere near the urban core of a global city, it is only a matter of time before they will be priced out. Participating in the ongoing gentrification process contradicts even narrow self-interest.
Many artists, however, will suffer insane rents, constant displacement, and multiple part-time “second” jobs in order to be close to the “art world” and art market. Even if you can’t make art as much as you would like, the logic follows, you “need” to be close to the market. This, too, is an illusion. You are almost certainly unable to “make it” in the dominant art market. You are even less likely to “make it” holding fast to working-class, socialist or anarchist principles.
The art market, valued at nearly $64 billion in 2017, should be able to provide a livelihood to many (if not most) artists. But only a few thousand contemporary visual artists in the US are able to make a living full time at their art. A substantial percentage of that $64 billion is from auctions. Even when art by living artists is sold at auction those artists don’t see much (if any) of that money. And most of the auction market is reselling modern, post-war and other historical works.
Just as important, the nature of this market, beyond auctions, is increasingly geared toward the wealthiest collectors, ensuring a limited space for political and even meaningfully expressive works.
Finally, the art market is also polarizing; like retail more generally. The middle-level galleries, the bedrock that supported previous waves of experimental work, are in crisis. We are more and more left with Etsy on the one hand, and Saatchi, on the other.
In pursuing faux-bohemian-Horatio-Alger dreams, we add to the problem of gentrification in the global city, and we do nothing for ourselves.
Art Enclaves vs. Art (+ the Working-Class)
The weak avant-garde undermines what art itself should, or could, be. Meanwhile, a deficit of experimental art afflicts newly working-class suburbs and deindustrialized rust-belt and inland cities. More important still, there is a deficit of infrastructure to aid working-class cultural self-expression generally.
Instead of serving pyrrhic art-world dreams and the aesthetic vagaries of the coastal bourgeois, socialist and anarchist artists could create art spaces for the working-class across the country, preferably in cities, towns and neighborhoods where we have organic connections, and where gentrification is less of an immediate threat.
Despite many attempts to use art to gentrify cities like St. Louis and Cleveland, for example, gentrification has mostly failed to achieve a critical mass; although millions of dollars in government money has been wasted. This is because gentrification is not really produced by artists, but by private sector real estate investment, in tandem with growth in tech, information and financial sector employment (usually middle-class employment).  In many cities and working-class neighborhoods and suburbs these factors are far less pronounced.
Left-wing and working-class artist spaces, with some consideration and planning, can be created in these (so-far gentrification resistant) cities with minimal cost and with minimal risk of aiding gentrification.
Working-class artists, in and from global cities, could orient on the suburbs and exurbs in which the urban working-class is increasingly being exiled, focusing on areas that are under no immediate threat from the real estate speculators; as well as aiding in the militant defense of working-class neighborhoods – as in recent protests in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles.
But this is not simply about finding affordable space in order to recreate the same problems in a new area.
Our work itself needs to be calibrated for a working-class audience and patronage. Of course it is fine to promote art events to other artists and art institutions. But at least as much effort should be made to promote our art in working-class neighborhoods; and making sure that consumption of our art is affordable to working-class people.
More important still, the artist should consider the content and forms of the work itself.
This does not mean abandoning experimentation, inter-textuality and art history. It means putting these things in service to the exploited and oppressed majority. It certainly does not mean “dumbing” art down. In fact, orienting on an audience that is aware of broader social conditions would “smarten up” most contemporary art.
Indeed, this is the key to overcoming the weakness of contemporary art; making the existential, political and psychological realities of working-class life the primary subject matter of our work. This doesn’t mean crude didacticism. It means art that deals, like the art of shamans, with both subjective expression and “collective needs.”
In this, our spaces and artwork need to be clearly and militantly hostile to gentrification and the bourgeois; rejecting underwriting from finance and real estate interests at a minimum.
Even in St. Louis and Cleveland, the landlords are constantly scheming against us. For example, in St. Louis, the city spends millions to destroy empty buildings and artificially inflate rents.
Care has to be taken to avoid becoming pawns of landlords and real estate interests. Avoid concentration in art districts; avoid art districts altogether. Call your art space “Dead Landlord.” Invite socialist, labor, antifascist, anarchist and activist organizations, especially anti-gentrification organizations, to use your space. Invite other anarchist and socialist musicians, artists and performers to collaborate. Create print shops, meeting rooms, and proletarian salons. Bring the social to the surface of your artwork.
“Go to the People”
The artists are over concentrated in a small number of cities. The political and material interests of working-class artists lie elsewhere. Spread out. Spread out among the real “audience” for our work. It is not the well-heeled speculators of art and real estate. Our true patrons are those whose dreams, mostly not yet conscious, spell the end of speculation and the rebirth of art.
It is time for artists to reject the weak avant-garde, to borrow from the Narodniks, and their proto-avant-garde echo, Peredvizhniki, and “go to the people.” Not as an act of liberal charity, or middle-class adventurism, but because it is in our own material interests, and it is in the interests of art itself.
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 Of course there are attempts in contemporary art to bridge this divide, in social practice art and relational aesthetics, but these are often fairly particular and mostly avoid challenging larger structures.
 This is not to say artists do not play an important role in the gentrification process. The aesthetic value, often unpaid, artists add to a neighborhood is leveraged by real estate interests. Most artists do not benefit from this process. But at this point only the willfully ignorant could be unaware of how they are being used.
Adam Turl is an artist and writer from southern Illinois (by way of upstate New York, Wisconsin, Chicago and St. Louis) living in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is art and design editor at Red Wedge and an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. Turl’s most recent exhibitions include Revolt of the Swivel Chairs at the Cube Gallery (Las Vegas 2018), The Barista Who Disappeared at Artspace 304 (Carbondale, IL 2018), The Barista Who Could See the Future at Gallery 210 as part of Exposure 19 (St. Louis, MO 2017). In 2016 he was in residency at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris. His website, which he shares with the writer Tish Markley, is evictedart.com.