There is a scandalous new relationship between art and gentrification that warrants a closer look at the gentrification definition most seem to know.
Contemporary artists and gentrification artists replace bull horns with beautifully pointed picket signs. They make their voices heard via symbols and compositions at every protest, in every gallery, and on every wall. Even with rapidly changing cultures worldwide they aim to be at the forefront of an information-rich society. They process what people see and experience in their daily lives into a comprehensible and relatable visual language. Surely people are familiar with protests about Oakland gentrification. They are well aware of evictions and vanishing cultures. Ask these gentrification artists what the most pressing issue is in America right now and they might answer art and gentrification. So what is this dubious gentrification definition and why is it so hotly debated in Contemporary art and modern times?
This fiery discussion about art and gentrification is often slanted in favor of gentrification by ambiguous language. The problem with this gentrification definition starts with (obviously wealthy) dictionary panel members. The Oxford English Dictionary calls gentrification “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste” (English Oxford Living Dictionaries). They sure did get the “middle-class” part right in this slanted gentrification definition. But what about this colorful language? Do people define Oakland gentrification in this same way? Surely residents want their houses renovated and their districts beautified. A sparkling sea of Starbucks coffee with islands of fancy Whole Moods Markets sound lovely to just about any homeowner or renter. Chic new art galleries and studios seem to add value to neighborhoods. These popular additions to cities seem mysterious but the actual effect on community and culture is much more explicit.
Residents of the East and West Coasts are more privy to the negative effects of this slippery gentrification definition. There is a very negative outlook on Oakland gentrification. People in San Francisco and Los Angeles see this gentrification definition as a giant fly trap. Attractive shops only attract the wealthy and problematic. Wealthy people fly in from across the globe and get stuck in these shops while locals can’t afford to partake. The perception of gentrification in Brooklyn is just as sticky. While new shops are built and new residents come in, the older, less wealthy, and more cultured are pushed further away. Experiencing such alienation first-hand gives these residents a very real outlook on this phenomenon that the wealthy propose is so beneficial. Art and gentrification can be a very damaging battle. While the wealthy are impressed, those less fortunate are left wondering what happened to their homes, their cultures, and their community.
When things get bad the wrong people take the heat. Artists seem to be no exception as many are now accusing that they are to blame for the displacement caused from gentrification. This is supposedly because developers will target areas already rich with artists to begin their campaigns of gentrification.
Two Trees Management Company, the developers who bought the waterfront Domino Sugar Factory to turn into a condo complex, deployed a range of PR-friendly goodwill projects to help temper the local outrage about the high-profile property and its inescapable gentrifying reverberations. In addition to constructing a temporary BMX track and an organic farm, Two Trees executed a bunch of art-based events.” -ANIMAL
Dubious developers are manipulating fine artists and the general public. One such trap was recently set for the very popular Contemporary artist, Kara Walker (b. 1969). The Deceitful Two Trees Management Company offered her the Domino Sugar Factory as a space for her very successful sculpture, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (2014). (The contract was probably shorter than the title.) The developers lured her into showing her work of art and gentrification creating the illusion that the arts are on the side of big developers without her even realizing. While big developers ought to be picking on someone their own size, instead they’re preying on decent starving artists. Gentrification artists want nothing more than to show their art and message. And usually, a good commission is hard to come by for them. So offing a venue and a minuscule payment, getting gentrification artists or any artist to exhibit shows to make their new developments look beneficial to the community is like taking candy from a baby. Surely artists like Walker have the opportunity to show their powerful works of art in this way, but by doing so they absorb the stigma of the true gentrification definition from the developers.
Development companies are still the culprits. But, while they erase and quietly de-culture neighborhoods, they label gentrification artists and artists of all backgrounds as the criminal. When asking, “…artists in Peckham recently about why the area was so full of artists now. They said ‘we, all used to be in the East End but it got too expensive. Peckham was cheaper’” (Southwark Notes). While the more accurate gentrification definition banishes artists from their homes they are stigmatized in their new neighborhoods. When anyone is forced to move from their homes because of newcomers that increase rents, they themselves become newcomers elsewhere that in turn displace those people. But this vicious chain of competing art and gentrification, vanishing arts and culture, strong communities, social justice, and the stink eye from long-term residents, still starts with urban renewal. Visual arts stand by and promote the cultures of communities while developers hide the fact that they’re erasing it.
CRP advocates for the creation of cultural arts corridors decorated by vibrant public art murals which aid blight reduction, deter crime and vandalism, and help keep property values from free-falling in economically-challenged neighborhoods. Cultural arts corridors support positive transformative change in Oakland’s neighborhoods without hastening gentrification. Public art is also a reminder that our communities belong to us, and not the big banks and corporate interests” -CRP Bay Area
Unlike sky-rise developers, some urban planners still use the arts as directed on the bottle to be a tool for powerful community engagement. Certain organizations take a different approach to Oakland gentrification. The Community Rejuvenation Project Bay Area, an advocator for murals and enriching street art gentrification around Oakland, doesn’t hide behind Oakland gentrification and artworks they commission, they proudly and consciously stand by them. (This again blurs the gentrification definition, but it’s important to look at the benefits of these projects.) Here art and gentrification are not commissioned as for the intent of positive press or the appeal to a higher class. In Oakland CRP murals, positive forms of street art gentrification, are added to secure and strengthen already existing communities. Gentrification artists are changing the rules of Oakland gentrification. They simultaneously fight to keep their neighborhoods as well as use visual arts to improve their streets. It seems preposterous to even consider that artists behind such social justice and powerful change could be labeled as the cause of the more devastating results of Oakland gentrification.
The individual artist uses their visual articulation to improve society and save otherwise dying cultures. Take again the brilliant Kara Walker for example. Walker wraps her works in a joyful packaging. Sweeping silhouettes are simple, bright, whimsical, and delightful. But this Hallmark packaging is a mere ruse and conceals a bitter lesson inside. One of these silhouette works, The Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995), rips apart this delightful and glorious stereotype once enjoyed by the South and shows the viewer the truth about the culture there. Closer inspection of these colorless figures reveals details, almost hidden, that make the viewer assume a certain ethnicity: Black. The viewer suddenly feels racist. Kara Walker applies her proficient craft to reflect the culture of which they and their community are a part of, be it good or bad. An artist who has spent all their life working to improve culture would never simultaneously use art and gentrification together to abolish it. Gentrification artists, protest artists, street artists, and gallery artists like Walker work to advance strong capable cultures and communities, not annihilate them.
While bulldozers try level entire city blocks to make way for the rich, the artists with their compelling banners stand and block them. Art and gentrification are a game played by big companies of ambiguity and manipulation. It only makes sense that during tough times they would eventually get the public angry at completely the wrong people. It’s easy to pray on gentrification artists because they are desperate to show their works. They are often in need of their yearly paycheck. And they already look like bad guys as they are exiled from one neighborhood to become the enemy of the next. But art has been and continues to be used for wonderful cultural lessons. Art continues to evolve just as rapidly as speedy new technologies and a hastily growing population. While public art can be used to disguise public demolition it can also be used to deepen the roots of an existing community. Artists use images to try and show the world something beautiful. These beautiful sculptures, murals, and installations are fueling the positive and constructive social change the world needs. Artists are not to blame for gentrification; artists are to thank for standing up against it. Blaming artists for the displacement caused by gentrification is not only false, but less important compared to their valuable and insightful cultural contributions.
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