After Trump’s election, one of the many ethical problems facing the art community took the form of a line: the U.S./Mexico border. Trump would build a wall—but who would design it? Should architects boycott the call for proposals? Or should they participate—scabs!—or somehow subvert the process? The architect Ronald Rael argued for another way. The ethical thing for artists and architects to do, he wrote, is to actively, even complicitly, reimagine the border. Only then, he reasoned, could a wall be conceived that would function not as a barrier or a limit, but as an interface. This strikes me as a useful way to reimagine another intractable, Trumpian line, this one separating activists representing the residents of Boyle Heights and the art galleries leasing industrial spaces on the neighborhood’s fringe. Is the goal of my essay “Op-Ed: An Ultra-red Line“, as Dr. Nizan Shaked asserts in her retort, to establish a middle ground tilted in favor of the privileged? No, it is to complicate the line as she and others have drawn it.
Dr. Shaked and I agree on many points. The precarity of Boyle Heights residents and the relative mobility of art galleries are not in question. The neighborhood surrounding the galleries is characterized by lower than average income, a high percentage of renters versus homeowners, and a large proportion of undocumented residents, while many of the galleries enjoy New York ties and outside backers. And where wealth is generated in Boyle Heights—through real estate speculation, for example—it is not the residents there that benefit. Therefore, the current conflict can be seen as part of the ongoing struggle by the people of Boyle Heights to determine the composition of their neighborhood—not only in demographic terms but also in terms of the kinds of businesses, services, and housing needed to maintain and improve their quality of life.
Where is our disagreement? If the activists in Boyle Heights have “better things to do than play with rhetorical forms outside of galleries,” Dr. Shaked has found the time. She has made an effort to interpret my essay in ways narrow enough to serve as pretexts to retrench her own position. What position is that? Dr. Shaked values accuracy, so let me be accurate. When she says that the urgent problems facing Boyle Heights cannot be properly debated with “art-writerly metaphors,” she means that Boyle Heights is no place for art. As long as the inequities of capitalism exist, and as long as art is polluted by capital, she argues, art has no place in any context of material urgency.
This argument is reductive no matter who makes it. Dr. Shaked insists that the activists defending Boyle Heights engage in concrete action, not figurative action, and that their activities are therefore more important than the metaphorical games artists play. But if art’s complicity makes it frivolous wherever true politics arise, then one wonders where a truly apolitical place for art can be found. Meanwhile, Dr. Shaked takes a dim view of rhetoric if she thinks a picket line, or a strike, or a march, are in any way diminished (“belittled”) by being rhetorical forms. They have never been anything but. And yet the rhetoric of the activists was material enough to keep Dr. Shaked and others from entering a political meeting, and concrete enough to force PSSST to close.
A line is not a line is not a line. Linking the present conflict to historical redlining is not equating the two, but puts bluntly what BHAAAD itself implies: that their uncompromising tactics are a response to uncompromising conditions inflicted on Boyle Heights. One generation’s tactics reflect those of the last. Yet Dr. Shaked goes further in her crisp delineation than some members of BHAAAD, even as she herself calls their absolute refusal to negotiate a “negotiating tactic.” I have quoted one Union de Vecinos member who thinks a hardline stance is a good way to reach a favorable compromise. Part of my intention was to underline the heterogeneity within both the activist and art-world positions, to the point that there are BHAAAD members with MFAs and artwork in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative; there are gallery affiliates who grew up in Boyle Heights; and there are sympathetic “establishment” artists who think leaving Boyle Heights is worth a try. It follows that there is not a single “righteous course of action” for anyone involved, although Dr. Shaked plainly sees one. If there is a dangerous thought experiment here, it is the absolute self-righteousness she advocates.
Dr. Shaked declares against art, and against dialogue. Yet if art carries the seeds of that much economic and cultural destruction, why does she make her declarations to the art world? For a simple reason: art is dialogue. This is why the activists are targeting galleries, among other places—not because they can hurt their bottom line (as may be the case with coffee shops and boutiques) but because, as Dr. Shaked herself has stated, the galleries are open to talking things out, and thus might change their minds. This is why the present exchange of letters takes place within, and for, the so-called art world. But, to be accurate, it is the “mainstream” art world which Dr. Shaked regards with a special disdain. How to draw this line? Around 356 Mission? Around X-TRA? As Ultra-red and School of Echoes point out, any delineation between insiders and outsiders in this struggle—as if, through proper critique, an artist or an art historian might position themselves outside of the art world, and negate their complicity—is a convenient fantasy. There is no outside. There is no line. No—such a line is too clear to be anything more than a metaphor.
Travis Diehl lives in Los Angeles. He serves on the editorial board of X-TRA.