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The New Usual and the Demise of the Art City

Posted: 07/21/11 04:11 PM ET

The city: sanitized, polished, monied. The urban streetscape has succumbed to a monotony of banks, global retailers, and coffee house chains. The "financialization" of a worldwide, interconnected economy, the product of a vast neo-liberal economic agenda, has fundamentally altered the social and cultural state of the metropolis as great art center.

Today, despite the pain still being felt throughout middle America and smaller communities, a too-big-to fail financial system is firmly rooted and by all accounts booming. In this masterfully constructed world of free-trade and free-flowing capital, where free-market idealism is just that, America has woken up to the reality that it no longer manufactures much of anything -- except money. Astronomical sums of it. Armed with fantastical financial models that fomented the development of abstract, debt-based products, bankers became the stewards of the new finance-driven economy peddling their 'Made in the USA' euphoria globally. Unfortunately, the implosion of the previous economic cycle, the ensuing recession, and the terror threat of a Greater Depression only served to recalibrate the American corporatist system: the final phase of the entrenchment of institutional power has been certified and the redistribution of wealth to the economic elite has been secured. So, while we continue on a chronically unstable boom-to-bust track, for now, at least in the metropolis, it is back to business as usual. The new usual.

The economy of finance and warp speed gentrification that is its by-product has wholly transformed the metropolis. Neighborhoods that have lost their identities and cities are at risk of losing their souls to mass homogeneity. In the newly-fashioned metropolis where only the monied class and the upwardly mobile can afford to live, the chance of a nascent creative moment is unlikely; a whole artistic movement, the possibility of a by-gone era. Let's face it: the SoHo House is no Artist's Club or Cedar Tavern. What can we possibly expect from a place where elitist masquerades as cool, the dance club has been destroyed by bottle service, and credit wealth has bred flagrant inauthenticity exacerbated by a pseudo-celebrity culture? This environment is empty, devoid of depth of character and like the city itself, increasingly soul-less. While there was some hope that a seminal creative moment would be borne of the economic crash, that nothing structurally nor politically has changed has dashed that hope.

Amidst rapidly shifting geo-economic plates, we are stuck in a political morass. It is an ideological battle being fought by money, for money, and being won by the Right. The counter-argument for good government, a fundamental tenant of any democracy that believes in equality and social justice, is just not there. Good government is a value now superseded by a romantic belief in the good of market leaders and of the free market. The word free itself resonating powerfully in the populist mindset and tugging at the patriotic heart string. Nothing is free of course, and the blind pursuit of the visions of Friedman and Norquist has come at a high price: a continuing loss of economic sovereignty and a self-mutilation of our social ideals. The latter largely a result of a pre-occupation with the cult of wealth and self-interest. Until that delicate but necessary balance between government role and private sector place is acknowledged and then re-asserted, China rises outstripping America's future competitiveness via massive investments in education and infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, it is the technocratic revolution and the rise of the managerial class - a class that is less creative, risk-averse, and tends to relinquish leadership in the face of external economic forces -- that is at the root of this spectacular failure of aptitude and disconnect from rationality. Economic theory as religion too emerged from this era and thanks to the proliferation of management programs at universities, management degrees have since become the best perceived educational path that money can buy. Unfortunately, our society has become an embodiment of this textbook-management mentality: along with an abject lack of vision for the future, we have accepted powerlessness in the face of free-trade agreements and speculative bankers trading money as a real, tangible good. While global money markets effectively shackle governments by linking their activity to financial-market logic, nation-states' full creative potential is undermined.

In the metropolis where finance overwhelms the presence of every other industry and is the dominant driver of prosperity, a creative void has undeniably emerged. As we adjust to living in a post-industrial America, the decline of manufacturing and the demise of the factory, the once-backbone of city's economy, compounds this condition. True, the technological revolution has repositioned moribund industrial neighborhoods into hubs of high-tech ingenuity and creativity, and low wage-paying jobs have been replaced by high-salaried ones, but there is an inherent dearth of socio-economic breadth in this new reality. In the past, manufacturing has played an especially crucial role beyond being a provider of mass employment: the sector has been a traditional draw of immigrant workers with factories serving as incubators of the new American society, a place where people of varied ethnicities and cultures mixed and worked side-by-side for the very first time. Multiculturalism in concentrated form, this private sector-run integration program of-sorts was not only providing inter-cultural exposure but also the shared experience of life in a new country. In a dense urban setting, this is especially potent.

Among the conditions that ripen any artistic movement is a high-brow, low-brow social and economic tension that the metropolis once generated in abundance. It is the intensity of that specific experience that is the expression of the totality of urban form and life. Simply put, a density of social and economic disparities has been a hallmark of the artistic city. Mid-century and 1980's Manhattan are regarded as two of the most fertile creative periods in American history. Representative of times when the artist could live in the metropolis and be inspired by its textures and countless contrasts and contradictions: the uncomfortable dissonance between rich and poor, gritty downtown and shiny uptown, old world and new world, mainstream and sub-cultures. These are the dynamics at play in the city as incubator of art; they can be an infinite set of extremes and differences that overlap, collide, and fuse that incite revelations of the human condition. Art being a product of that intellectualization.

Furthering the demise of the art city has been the exponential rise in the value of real estate over the last two decades -- inextricably linked to financialization of the economy. While rental rates understandably have to increase to correspond with underlying asset values, a dwindling inventory of rental stock - both market rate and affordable - is not so desirable. As sophisticated developers and investors alike look for the quick returns offered by condo construction and especially condo conversions, the diversity of housing options, once a fixture of the metropolis, will continue to evaporate. Underlying this is that bankers and hedge-fund managers long ago co-opted the residential real estate market bloating apartment values and establishing a new standard of pricing tailored to their incomes tied to their bonuses.

With the affordability of city housing gone, the demise of the co-habitation of social and economic classes has been further impacted. The city and its central neighborhoods have become off-limits to newcomers while the working-class have all but disappeared from the picture except to enter the city as visiting service industry workers. The middle-class long decamped to the suburbs and now visit the city as the new Disneyland. A glossy place, aspirational for sure, but veiled in elitism, the many main streets brought to you by various corporate sponsors: Chase, Citi, and Bank of America, H&M, Nike, and Zara. Luxury is accessibly dangled with Vuitton, Dior, and Armani selling ubiquitous diffusion lines to the masses. This illusion of mass wealth is a dangerous delusion feeding the political class' relentless adherence to failed policies.

Along with the demise of the factory, the lack of affordability in the city has also altered the settling patterns of immigrants. If the first generation of urban sprawl was defined by so-called white flight, that is, white, middle-class residents fleeing urban decay, immigrants have come to characterize the following generation, this time circumventing high costs of living. That vibrant Chinese, Korean, Polish, and Russian enclaves have emerged in previously homogenous subdivisions should come as no surprise. These ethno-cultural nods are flourishing, though scattered, in the outer boroughs, the suburbs, and even the ex-urbs. These days the most authentic Chinese food is most likely found in a suburban strip mall far from the city center. Immigrants may still settle within the expansive metropolitan region but the critical mass of diversity of newcomers living in the heart of the city is lacking. An endless flow of immigrant communities used to settle in the dense urban core presenting a rich mosaic of struggle, adaptation, and integration; it is a dynamic condition for the creation of art that has been significantly diffused. It is a deficiency of enlightenment.

Culture defines us as a people and a civilization. Art outlasts even the most awesome of technological inventions: a sculpture, canvas, or motion picture never become obsolete because they tell stories and immortalize our history. They are artifacts that are a reflection of a moment, an experience, a condition, an emotion, and they are worthy of our collective support. Government support of the arts and arts programs is therefore vital to the existence of the creative city. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) for example, employed countless artists to work on public art commissions during the Great Depression and in fact can be credited with nurturing those who would go on to be known as Abstract Expressionists -- most of whom worked under the program in the 1930's; the WPA brought together formerly isolated artists with untamed ideas about form and medium and new ways of painting that some two decades later would coalesce resulting in arguably the most celebrated movement in American art history.

Given the conservative movement's success at steering the national discourse for three decades now, their espoused anti-government rhetoric has become consensus-thinking threatening support for arts funding even in good times. In times of economic distress the rhetoric is especially bristling. Continuing unabated and buttressed by Tea Party cohorts is the unwavering belief in tax cuts, massive deregulation, and the whittling-down of government as the panacea to growth. Tragically, this is proving to be the formula for the dismantling of America, the decimation of the middle class, the eradication of the social justice structure, and ultimately, a weakening of democracy.

In a world where legislators have come to see civilization only through an economic prism, that abstract constituency known as "the markets" or "investors" is the only one that really matters these days. This is especially true in the American context where all the talk of "the American People" is merely lip-service. For the metropolis redefined by the money manufacturers, the future in the medium-term therefore, looks as robust and glossy as ever. For the art city, the fertile period may yet be coming.

Taking stock, the recession did not so much as set the stage for a seminal creative moment as it provided for the pre-text to follow-through with the more radical elements of the neo-liberal ideology. Now, under the guise of a debt crisis, the next phase of this agenda has taken on blatantly anti-democratic forms: smashing the labor movement, dissolving local governments and selling entire towns to private interests, and destroying what's left of the public school system, the once-great equalizer, to say nothing of the desire to finally feed medicare and social security to the market. Short of stripping certain constituencies of the right to vote, this is a vision for a country of extremes: haves and have nots separated by the widest chasm imaginable. It is a country that resembles any number of Third World jurisdictions that come to mind. Ultimately, it is from the ruins of a wider-spread economic devastation followed by vast social disarray and decay that an artistic moment will finally emerge. Combined with the next, much worse financial meltdown as its catalyst. One even the bankers won't survive. Right now though, Detroit is looking pretty good.