Although the new East Village art scene and its legitimators in the press ignore the workings of gentrification, they have, in fact, allowed themselves to become enmeshed in its mechanism. Galleries and artists drive up rents and displace the poor. Artists have placed their housing needs above those of resdients who cannot choose where to live.

Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” 1984.

Tough times for 188 Ludlow Street.

Due to a collision between exorbitant LES rental rates and the Long Recession, until this Spring the ground floor of that monstrous condominium called The Ludlow looked like the above photo.

That is, until No Longer Empty got their hands on the cavernous, unrentable space, interrupting the collective sense of schadenfreude toward rampaging developers that New Yorkers were gleefully basking in.

"The middle-class's own avant-garde" hard at work.

No Longer Empty orchestrates contemporary public art exhibitions in vacated storefronts and properties. No Longer Empty’s core mission is to engage with the local community and to revitalize empty spaces by bringing site-specific, high-caliber, curated art exhibitions with accompanying programming to the public.

The exhibition, About Face, situates itself in the Festival of Ideas for the New City by the New Museum and looks at alternative ways an exhibition can be created and received.   In the heart of the Lower East Side, About Face will reconfigure the art space into the urban sphere. The exhibition specifically elucidates various components of traditional exhibition formats so alternatives can be imagined.

Interactive and participatory works, both in the space and in the surrounding community, break down  many of the “taken for granted” aspects of how art is presented, how art is made and how the public/audience can relate to an exhibition.

Who knew that it was so easy to “reconfigure the art space into the urban sphere”?  Just take a property built in the heady days of the real estate bubble, emblematic of all the forces that has been pushing out out long-time residents and businesses for about thirty years, add an economic crisis that temporarily parks the gravy train, and mix with some established artists* craving an unconventional space to show their unconventional art.

*You didn’t think that exhibition sponsors including the owners of The Ludlow itself would take chances on some unknown, unreliable rabble did you?

Most gallery dealers and artists…are all to eager to avoid the implications of their place in the neighborhood’s recent history and to present themselves as potential victims of gentrification.  This is  the trap that Craig Owens falls  into when he claims that “Artists are not, of course, responsible for ‘gentrification’; they are often its victims, as the closing of any number of the East Village galleries, forced out of the area by rents they helped to inflate, will sooner or later demonstrate.”  To portray artists as the victims of gentrification is to mock the plight of the neighborhood’s real victims.

-Deutsche and Ryan

While a number of artists today continue contextualist practices that demonstrate an understanding of the material bases of cultural production, they are a minority in a period of reaction. The specific form this reaction takes in the art world is an unapologetic embrace of commercialism, opportunism, and a concomitant rejection of the radical art practices of the past twenty years. The art establishment has resurrected the doctrine that aestheticism and self-expression are the proper concerns of art and that they constitute realms of experience divorced from the social.

-Deutsche and Ryan.

Perhaps Deutsche and Ryan did not give enough credit to artists.  Or at least if they were to re-write “The Fine Art of Gentrification” in 2011, they might say that there is an acute “understanding of the material bases of cultural production,” on the behalf of artists who have internalized the same logic that real estate developers labor under.  Artists working in New York City could easily see their career success as being linked with the success of their benefactor’s enterprises.  In less profitable times, art can serve as a life raft, filling spaces temporarily abandoned by capital with life and energy to maintain a facade of the property’s desirability in the event that another investment boom comes along.

Here’s an artist volunteering his services off of the island where he first became famous, to desperate developers while a bemused community looks on:

Kenny Scharf at work at the Flatbush Avenue Extension in Brooklyn

Striking examples of this culture industry phenomenon may be seen in the cases of painter Kenny Scharf and writer Tama Janowitz.  In both instances national and sometimes international publicity was directed at artists whose works themselves are not particularly exemplary, in a manner which illustrates the distored and fetishized values of the culture industry.  In the case of Scharf, who paints wild and colorful images as well as customizing mass-produced objects in the same style, a feature-length cover story in the September 1985 issues of Artnews is representative of culture industry ‘plugging’ and labeling processes which produce the art world ‘star system’ (Marzoratti, 1985).

-Anne Bowler and Blaine McBurney, “Gentrification and the Avant Garde in New York’s East Village: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” 1991.

Ms. Hayes, who is pregnant, stood outside to escape the spray-paint fumes while her daughter, Danisia Peterson, 12, who likes to draw faces, chatted with Mr. Scharf inside and watched him work.

“A lot of people, especially kids, like to work like that through art,” Ms. Hayes said, “and to show how easy it is to just draw on the wall hopefully shows them they can do it and be creative, too.”

-NYTimes, 10/2009:  “Luring Artists to Lend Life to Empty Storefronts”

It’s easy to draw on walls, what won’t be so easy for Danisia is getting the right kinds of walls to draw on.  That is unless she wants to lend a helping hand to hard-luck New York City neighbors like Edison Properties or Two Trees Management.

Advertisment for The Ludlow. Image: Pietro Rizzo

In addition to the economic impact of artists and galleries, the art world functions ideologically to exploit the neighborhood for its bohemian or sensualist connotations while deflecting attention away from underlying social, economic, and political processes. The attitudes that permit this exploitation are the same as those that allow the city and its affluent residents to remain indifferent to the fate of the displaced poor: assessments of poverty as natural and gentrification as inevitable and in some ways even desirable.

-Deutsche and Ryan.