On October 12, 2017 X-TRA published an online Op-Ed by Travis Diehl titled “An Ultra-red Line,” where he addressed the protests and debates concerning the presence of galleries and new art administrations in Boyle Heights, which have been polarizing the Los Angeles art world.
Symptomatic of the liberal misunderstanding of class-based struggle and its terminologies, Diehl positions the actual middle ground in parallax, wrongly demarcating the center and any sense of fairness at a position radically skewed towards the court of the privileged. For example, Diehl writes: “In contrast to the equivocation of much of the art world, BHAAAD has made a strategy of absolute certainty. While 356 Mission has remained open to dialogue, the activists demand nothing less than the keys to their building.” Such statements echo the ways in which members of the mainstream art world misread the power balance between them and the opponents they summon to negotiations.
One of the few points of agency that the residents of Boyle Heights actually have is the capacity for refusal. Refusal will lose its thrust if a compromise is made. History tells us that when the disenfranchised come to the table they get a percentage of their demands that correlates to their lack of leverage. In other words, they lose. The residents of Boyle Heights have much more to lose than the favor of the art world. Predatory forces are already occupying the neighborhood: rents are skyrocketing and displacement is in full effect. What kind of compromise could 356 Mission possibly offer that may resolve very real threats of eviction or deportation that residents or their loved ones are facing? When requesting conversation, the galleries and art world are in effect asking the residents to disarm themselves of a primary negotiating tactic. Calls for “dialogue” mask pure self-interest. It is time for the galleries to admit that when it comes to the forces of capitalism, they are powerless. Their only righteous course of action is retreat. They should leave with poise and grace before they become monuments to the damage they have done.
Diehl compares the call for boycott with historical redlining: “The demand that all galleries leave the area is a demand that the citizens of Boyle Heights be allowed to determine the composition of their neighborhood. This absolutism has its mirror image in the discriminatory, racist policies of the Federal Housing Administration that, between 1934 and 1968, made it next to impossible for residents of certain areas to obtain loans.”
Firstly, to refer to the residents of Boyle Heights as citizens grossly mischaracterizes a population where only 68% of the population are estimated to be citizens, and where a large aspect of their disadvantage and vulnerability stems from multiple related circumstances including, but not exclusively, the fact that: “almost 40 percent of all children residing in Boyle Heights (81 percent of whom are U.S. citizens) are estimated to have at least one unauthorized parent.” The above link provides empirical evidence of the amplified hardships specifically facing the residents of Boyle Heights when it comes to income levels, housing, and access to healthcare.
Secondly, the demand that all galleries leave is resolutely not a demand to determine the composition of the neighborhood, it is in fact a demand for basic amenities such as a supermarket, a Laundromat, and a harm reduction center that has been repeated over and over again. Just as the residents of Santa Monica have the right to deny Marijuana dispensaries and fight the existence of an airport in their city, so do the residents of Boyle Heights have the right to ask for much needed services. The demand to determine which businesses should be allowed to serve the need of a community is a far cry from racist redlining that targets actual people. Characterizing one as a mirror image of the other sets up a dangerous false analogy.
Diehl is correct in writing that: “Picketing as a tactic evolved out of organized labor—organized, in particular, around a class relationship between the workers and the owners.” However, he ignores volumes of writing that has updated the descriptions of labor relations to accord with our current goods and services economy. He is therefore wrong to challenge the protestors’ use of the term picket line, and to belittle it when claiming that: “Short of a true picket line, the protests outside 356 Mission were a rhetorical form.” Working class people and their allies have better things to do than play with rhetorical forms outside of galleries. The persistence of the protests is evidence of desperation and necessity.
The terms chosen by the protestors display precise analysis and relevant application to the present. As I have written for Dushko Petrovich’s The Daily Gentrifier:
“Since manufacturing in the Western world has been on decline, real-estate speculation/development has increasingly become one of the few lucrative frontiers. It is also a frontier in the battle of working class communities for their rights to an affordable life.
“Scab” is a derogatory term applied to those willing to cross a picket line and work for lower wages, placing personal survival above that of the social collective. So, scab is now used for artists and intellectuals who, directly or indirectly, cut deals with real-estate speculators and developers, or provide their cultural capital for free when they participate in cultural events for exposure, recognition, or virtue signaling in the world of the dot.org. You see—there is no such thing as deferred solidarity.”
Diehl is right to identify that: “In calling their protest a picket, BHAAAD appealed to the morality of class fellows,” but is wrong in the following sentence when, as if speaking for the protestors, he says: “Side with us, your fellow art-workers, they said. Our cause is just, and if you cross this line, you side with our exploiters and subjugators, the abstracters of our wealth.” I am sure the residents of Boyle Heights would love to discover the wealth Diehl attributes to them, for the neighborhood is measured at: “$33,235 median household income (2008 dollars), low for the city of Los Angeles and low for the county.” Diehl’s opinion piece is peppered with the same errors that characterize most of the arguments posed against rapidly growing global anti-gentrification organizing. These mistakes occur when individualistic thinking applies Marxist terminology literally, without understanding the philosophical meaning or economic implications of terms. Under capitalism it is not wealth but rather labor that is abstracted. Labor is rationalized, systematized, unified, and then corralled up by violent enforcement of border regimes for workers; while money, capital, commodities, and all the people who have income and citizenship privileges are afforded free movement. The struggle of the Boyle Heights residents and their protest is material and concrete; it cannot be properly debated with art-writerly metaphors.
Dr. Nizan Shaked is professor of contemporary art history, museum and curatorial studies at California State University Long Beach, where she heads the Museum Studies track. She has been a member of the X-TRA editorial board since 2008. Her book The Synthetic Proposition: Conceptualism and Political Reference in Contemporary Art (Manchester University Press, 2017) is a recipient of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art College Art Association Publication Award (2015) and a DAAD visiting faculty award (2012). She is currently working on Museums, the Public, and the Value of Art: The Political Economy of Art Collections, forthcoming with Bloomsbury Press.