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

The publication’s board is scheduling an event at an establishment boycotted by a long list of grass-roots organizations in Boyle Heights.

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)
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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