March 7, 2010

The Silence and the Fury

As Brooklyn gentrifies, the role of the “artists” goes unexplained. And more, an explanation is stymied by a conflicted feeling about this population. We want to blame them for setting gentrification in motion. At the same time, we do not want to give them credit for it. We settle for the view that the artists are the tools of the developers. And yet the developers founder in the recession, while the artists and their culture and businesses have proliferated almost without a hitch through two recessions.

We say the silence of the artists on the matter of gentrification is an instance of denial. Yet we hear from Immanuel Kant that it is the role of art to be silent — useless — in all worldly things, or it would not be art. The silence of art anchors our fury and our enterprise. And we must ask if it is not the inertia of art that is the substance of what we call “gentrification.” Would such an expression of bourgeois ideology in the outer boroughs be feasible without the ideology of art?

If it were only a matter of capitalist efficiency, wouldn’t it suffice to have the elite in Manhattan and the working class in Brooklyn? This after all is the order that business and politics had sought for the city since the age of La Guardia and the Rockefellers. And when the working class neighborhoods of Manhattan began to gentrify 30 years ago, it seemed for a while as if such an order of things would prevail. But then Park Slope out-priced the Upper West Side, and Williamsburg out-priced the Lower East Side.

A suburban model of affluence has taken hold within the city, as parts of the outer boroughs become more desirable than Manhattan. But while traditional affluent suburbs had always endured the taint of provincialism compared with any neighborhood in the city, the new “suburbs” that are the outer boroughs, in fact are invested with an inscrutable hepitude that promises to outdo Manhattan.

When the industrial outskirts of the city become its most fashionable precincts, capitalism has attained a new level of abstraction. Capitalism no longer follows “practical” considerations of geography, traffic, and centralized institutions. Rather, it seeks out a new organizing principle. Is it possible that this new organizing principle is provided by the ideology of art? We say art is a mere pretext for gentrification, and yet gentrification itself seems to organize itself around the doctrine of art. It does so in the inscrutable, sly manner of its expansion, and does not follow rational schemes of expansion.

Look at the planned pedestrian utopia of Fulton Mall, a relic of 1970s city planning that was clearly meant to be a "new Brooklyn" of some kind. Today this skeevy discount sneaker mall is put to shame by once humble bailiwicks like Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, and Courtelyou Road in the middle of nowhere.

The infuriating procession of “artists” into every warehouse and truck lot in Brooklyn, seemingly immune to the economy, blithely unaffected by the half-built carcasses of the real estate disaster all around them, suggests that art is not only the catalyst of gentrification, but also its destiny.