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Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement protesters rallied outside the Artists’ Political Action Network meeting at 356 Mission in February 2017. (photo courtesy Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement)

LOS ANGELES — After 10 fruitful years, I am resigning from my position as a member of the editorial board of X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly because the board has agreed to schedule an event this Sunday at 356 Mission, an establishment boycotted by a long list of grass-roots organizations in Boyle Heights and that is shuttering in May. While some may argue that the issue of gentrification is complicated, the case of Boyle Heights is clear: galleries moving into the neighborhood directly correlate to rents skyrocketing and the displacement of a tight-knit, working class community, imperiled by the anti-immigration policies of the current White House.

That XTRA is holding an event at a boycotted establishment amounts to retroactive endorsement of the political stand taken by Laura Owens and Wendy Yao, who have been programming the space since January 2013, and, together with the other galleries on “gentrification row,” were asked to leave by members of the local community in July 2016.

This statement is not a personal attack on any one person. I believe that the 356 Mission founders and staff, like their supporters, are mostly sincere in their claims to virtue. The problem arises from their worldview and its political expression.

Many of 356 Mission’s supporters trace their intellectual and aesthetic genealogy to conceptualism, forgetting that conceptualism was rooted in Marxism — Marxism as opposed to liberalism, Marxism as opposed to capitalism. Supporters of 356 Mission clearly place themselves on one side of this divide. Take for example Bernie Sanders, whose politics are still bound by the conventions of the electoral system, but who still clarifies that he is not a capitalist. As Nathan J. Robinson elaborates in Current Affairs in 2017:

As Nancy Pelosi said of the present Democratic party: “We’re capitalist.” When Bernie Sanders is asked if he is a capitalist, he answers flatly: “No.” Sanders is a socialist, and socialism is not capitalism, and there is no possibility of healing the ideological rift between the two. Liberals believe that the economic and political system is a machine that has broken down and needs fixing. Leftists believe that the machine is not “broken.” Rather, it is working perfectly well; the problem is that it is a death machine designed to chew up human lives. You don’t fix the death machine, you smash it to bits.

The logic of Owens, as articulated in her writing and interview statements, is formed by the reformist ideology of liberal, centric capitalism, in other words, neoliberalism.

Liberalism, in its Keynesian capitalist version, held political belief in the power of reform. Since the election of Trump for office, reformists in the art world have recast themselves as the resistance. But they ignore a historical fact: liberalism has been dead since Thatcher and Reagan killed it in 1979/1980, and diverted liberalism to the free market doctrine of Friedrich Hayek. It is neoliberalism that has since reigned supreme. To be a liberal today is to take the side of economic neoliberalism, where deregulation, privatization, and financialization — which rely on globalization, militarization, and imperialism, stoked by and fueling racism, xenophobia, and nationalism — have in concert driven economic inequality to unprecedented extremes.

Owens’s statement published in Artforum in November 2017 is revealing. Painting herself as philanthropic and innocent, she renders the Boyle Heights protestors as aggressive and irrational. She, her supporters, and the mainstream journalists who have covered these events, have consistently failed to acknowledge that the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement is comprised of multiple groups, who have written scores of articles that take many approaches and tones. She ignored a letter personally addressed to her by the Women of Pico Aliso:

We, the women of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, want to communicate to you that together with other mothers from our Boyle Heights community we have fought for decades to eliminate violence and bring peace to our neighborhood. We erased the graffiti that promoted violence among our youth, we took away their weapons, and we worked together so that drugs were not sold in our streets. Meanwhile, the police treated us and our children as enemies. To improve our community, we fought to open more schools and bring more programs to educate our young people. It was many years with fear throwing ourselves to the floor because of the bullets, asking the police to respect us and looking for programs and improvements for our community.

What comes now are not the improvements we asked for. What has come are forced improvements imposed on us by people who do not know us or understand our history.

Not all of the Boyle Heights activists use threatening tactics or God-forbid, bad language.

Solidarity does not hinge on agreement. Democracy is an alliance between oppositions. To tone-police the community is to rob a disenfranchised group of a key weapon. It is not the job of the local community to speak a language amenable to the liberal ear. It is, though, the job of art-world participants to honestly articulate the political position they occupy. Many of those who claim the left philosophically, are centric neoliberals in deed.

The programing of 356 Mission could have happened anywhere else — after all, it is not as if the art people are attached to the land. Like the galleries it paved the way for, 356 Mission was in Boyle Heights for the cheap rent and convenient location. People who mourn the closing of the space should recall that Owens and Yao, in a March 30 Los Angeles Times interview, took care to underscore that their activities are coming to an end to suit their own needs.

It is easy for art people to empathize with struggles that take place 8,000 miles away, unencumbered by personal loyalties or self-interested agendas. It is harder to identify with the neighbor across the river, because it teases out the privilege of the art crowd and the stakes become concrete and material. But we have no choice. The forces embodied in the figure of Trump cannot be fought off with PowerPoint presentations and post-card campaigns. The people of Boyle Heights have better strategies than we. It is time for us to join their struggle.

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Nizan Shaked

Dr. Nizan Shaked is professor of contemporary art history, museum and curatorial studies, at California State University Long Beach. Her book The Synthetic Proposition: Conceptualism and the Political...

23 replies on “Why I Am Resigning from X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly and the Problem with 356 Mission’s Politics”

  1. There is an incredible value to this statement. It calls to question the contradictions that these liberals behind the artwashing of Boyle Heights can’t face: that for all the emancipatory rhetoric of art and the move of art institutions towards being the hothouse of the resistance, their actions, along with handfuls of toothless art venues/institutions/publications, weaponize the position of art in our neoliberal capitalist society against working class people – intentionally or not.

    I do hope that the author of this statement follows the words up with action, with a committed solidarity and dedication towards the anti-capitalist struggle that is championed here, and I hope that it goes beyond your suggestions to work with city council, who are more often than not complicit in gentrification and capitalist development. That said, this doesn’t negate the value of vocalizing an opposition to the willfully ignorant art washers, especially while situating it within the hypocrisy that resonates through the rotting core of the Art industry.

    1. I agree with you, I just don’t understand where you’re locating this straw man, ivory tower Marxist who thinks art institutions are to blame for generating more income inequality. Maybe I read less of these articles than you do, but this does happen to be an art website, not where the leftists organizations discuss politics and action.

      1. A little disingenuous, Ali. The letter and the discontents it lists have nothing to with anything BUT politics. Whether one agrees with its contents or not, it is primarily an anti-capitalist screed, and a smear of liberalism, accusing it, including Keynesianism, of being neo-liberal, it’s very opposite. As such, I don’t see how Antihistamine’s argument is a straw man.

        1. He alluded to some mythical character who thinks that art institutions are the primary drivers of economic inequality, which I’m not seeing anywhere in this article. That’s a straw man.

          Obviously the author of this isn’t a working class hero for this letter alone, but if you understand that the boycott against these art galleries are led by the residents who are at risk of displacement by developers, and if you understand that those residents, organized in tenants unions and community based organizations, boycott the galleries because they are basically clearing the way for developers to gentrify their neighborhoods, then you should understand the following things:

          1. there really is no point in trashing this letter for something it’s not claiming to do (be a huge material leap for the housing security of the residents of Boyle Heights)
          2. this being an art website, and art galleries being within the purview of an art website, and the political implications of art galleries moving into working class neighborhoods being so clear, this letter makes complete sense in existing on this website.

          The groups that this letter/resignation is in solidarity with ARE actively fighting against the 6th Street bridge, and are organizing for housing security. Your argument is the equivalent of me saying: If you care so much about the problems in Boyle Heights, then instead of commenting on this article, you should help them organize against slumlords and the likes. (Which you should do if you can of course, but they aren’t mutually exclusive)

          1. Than you for clarifying. I understand now what you identified as the straw man part of the argument.

            The part I had most trouble with in terms of your response is more your comment: “Maybe I read less of these articles than you do, but this does happen to be an art website, not where the leftists organizations discuss politics and action.” By your response to me, it doesn’t appear that you mean that. I hope that’s the case, since we are all aware that much of artwork these days – and certainly the art world as a whole – can’t be separated from politics. As such, discussing the politics of an art gallery and its impact on neighborhood gentrification is indeed appropriate on a website dedicated to art world issues.

            That being said, I do feel that the letter this thread is about has some problems of its own, problems that have less to do with the art world, gentrification, and the like, and more to do with the broad neo-Marxist brush it employs against liberalism itself. In the age of Trump and neo-fascist right wing Libertarianism that is the modern GOP, it unnecessarily pits factions of the left against each other, and by dividing the opposition, actually increases the likelihood that people of color and people of limited means will not prevail. It’s like voting for Jill Stein in Michigan or Ohio: it helps exactly the wrong people win.

          2. I meant in more in the sense that politics that are detached from the art world, which is what the grand majority of what leftist organizations actually discuss, shouldn’t be expected to be posted here. I would welcome a serious debate on non-art politics on this website, but of course I wouldn’t expect it, and therefore wouldn’t see it fit to demand it.

            But hey, here we are engaging in politics anyways! I see your point about the attack on liberalism, which can be quite alarming in our duopoly of politics. But if we are to narrow down the liberalism to the Democratic party, we find that they are not actually as progressive as the opposition between Dem vs Rep seems. Democrats have been just as complicit in deporting families, militarizing the border and urban policing, siding with corporations over people, trying to divide the working class, limiting union power, flip flopping on womens rights and other issues of oppression. Obama can be counted as a war criminal just like Bush should be, and regardless of how friendly the democrats seem compared to Trump, both parties are set up to manage the affairs of our nation. And because our nation is completely entangled in war abroad, destructive trade deals, and a homegrown school to prison pipeline, being a liberal in the sense of choosing the lesser evil is actually a passive (occasionally active) reinforcement of the inequality of power in our country (and in every country for that matter).

            Neoliberalism describes more the turn after the downturn of the post war boom, which caused a restructuring of the way business was conducted. Everything must be privatized, everything must be deregulated, and we just need crafty technocrats to get the job done, and not politics as such. Neoliberalism is the global push that says there is no alternative to this international inequality (i’m sure you know what a sliver of the population owns then wealth of the whole world) and that compromise is necessary for the balance of global stability.

            To this response, the Left has to respond with a more radical take. We need a completely different arrangement in the way we produce, distribute and consume goods, and to deny this is to choose the lesser evil (or greater evil).

            Instead of thinking about how many people vote green instead of blue, and how destructive that is, think about how many people don’t vote at all because they don’t see either party actually representing the interests of the working class.

          3. “Democrats have been just as complicit in deporting families,
            militarizing the border and urban policing, siding with corporations
            over people, trying to divide the working class, limiting union power,
            flip flopping on womens rights and other issues of oppression.”

            Sorry, that’s a false equivalence, and your facts are inaccurate at best. You can certainly support your claim by cherry picking data, but it’s hardly the whole story.

            That said, I, like you, have been appalled at the rightward turn the party establishment took following Reagan. I myself was a union organizer for many years, and have pushed for a return to genuine progressivism for many decades.

            But even given that right turn, and the propensity of SOME leaders in the party moving toward SELECT neo-liberal positions, it has not done so on the whole, and certainly not in the absence of a broader political context. You must remember that while the GOP has morphed, ever since Goldwater and his acolyte Reagan, to hard right neo-fascist libertarianism, the Democratic party remained a loose collection of social advocacy groups. It has never moved in lock step, as your comment would suggest. It has, for the most part, maintained and expanded it’s advocacy of workers’ rights. (And women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights, and the rights of people of color, etc. Has it done so perfectly? Of course not. But it has still done so.) But it has promoted itself over the last few decades as the party of the professional class, which was more an error in marketing, rather than a serious problem of substance.

            As for the results of the last election, it was not working class economic issues that propelled Trump to electoral victory. According to all recent research, it was racism and authoritarianism.

            At any rate, I fear we may have gone a bit far afield of the central issue of this thread, though I still object to the poorly thought out, ideologically driven aspects of the letter that touched this discussion off. The author does no one any favors – certainly not the people he is supposedly advocating for – by bringing up his own neo-Marxist theory. He only alienates potential allies on the left and energizes right wing opposition. And he smears artists of all political stripes in the process.

  2. Oh wow! Your resignation will surely halt in its tracks the 482-million dollar 6th Street bridge redevelopment project! We did it! We beat gentrification!

    Note: Shaked wrote in X-TRA last winter, “The residents of Boyle Heights have much more to lose than the favor of the art world.” I’m sure she’d be happy to tell this to the staff at 356 Mission who will all be losing their jobs! Talk about ‘abstracted labor’!

  3. It’s well known that artists move into poor neighbourhoods, it’s all they can afford, and by their very presence gentrify it. That is surely a call for artists to do the right thing and boycott themselves.

    1. It certainly is discouraging that artists are seemingly always under attack from both the right and the far left.

  4. see the point of the person who resigned, I wonder how they can afford to do that…I agree that we need to show not tell… I think it would help everyone to know how this person was in the position to resign… we all have to eat… we all have to not support gentrification… we all are trying to pay for housing and studios… I like this article, I think this is an important conversation as we all have financial concerns and demands, the question is how does one change a system while we part of a system?

    1. She has a full time teaching job and is tenured. Not sure she was paid a significant amount by X-TRA, or at all, but your point is well taken. She is not in peril at all but doesn’t need to be to make her points. The fact is, she offers no solutions so I find this just self-righteous chest thumping.

  5. Well this is the thin end of the wedge. The current residents of Boyle Heights — along with all of the businesses they aren’t protesting — are themselves occupiers and userpers. Other peoples once lived in the area. The apartments, strip malls and gas stations now occupying the land are residue of relatively recent capitalist, colonial expropriation. Any comfort current residents take in the existing economic/land use state of affairs has grown from stolen land developed with stolen and exploited labor. The current residents of Boyle Heights are colonialists defending stolen turf.

  6. And Nizan, what is your general solution to this recurring problem? It’s nice to be able to scold from the OC, but you’ve been doing this for nearly 2 years now. You trash Laura and Amy for moving on for their own purposes. Simply because they didn’t choose to make a ‘self-congratulatory moment’ of pulling up stakes like you are, doesn’t mean that ALL THE FORCES didn’t come into play, as they did for you. BH gave you a stage, and you are on it. What have you heard from diligently working with them for the past 2 years?

  7. It can be argued the hatred against 356 Mission is because of the owners’ Euro-American race. Of course if 356 Mission is fueling violence and graffiti (except in the gallery!) and is a site for dealing drugs, then there’s a real issue.

  8. It’s hard for me to see Marxism as a good thing given how it worked out for the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, etc.

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