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#Hashtags: Culture, Class, and the New Economy

#access #technology #gentrification #class #labor #place

The recent election of Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York was hailed by many as a sign that the trend of economic displacement in major American urban centers was coming to an end. De Blasio ran on a progressive platform of government that serves the neediest, rather than campaign donors, and won handily on that message despite the city’s twelve prior years of wealth consolidation under billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg. Even de Blasio’s art credentials are more populist than those of his philanthropist predecessor, whose namesake corporation appears on the donor boards of several major institutions in the city. While many have greeted his inauguration with a level of optimism not seen since President Obama’s first term, far fewer have raised the necessary question of what exactly defines the problems and the solutions we hope he will seek. Using current discussions of gentrification, shifting labor conditions, and the role of the arts in creativity and culture, I will attempt to do this here.

Stephanie Syjuco. Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas): John Gourley "Gringo" Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local's "Bedazzle a Tech Bus" Call for Entries.

Stephanie Syjuco. Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas): John Gourley “Gringo” Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local’s “Bedazzle a Tech Bus” Call for Entries.

Artist Martha Rosler’s recent book, Culture Class (2013), is a herculean attempt to frame the scope and the terms of the gentrification debate as it concerns artists and other laborers in the new “creative economy.” Her critique centers on the influential theories of Richard Florida, whose Rise of the Creative Class (2002) is credited with establishing that term. Rosler gained prominence in the 1970s as a conceptual photographer and video artist deconstructing the implicit social conditioning conveyed by popular images in works such as The Bowery in Two Descriptive Systems (1974-75) and House Beautiful: Bringing the War Back Home (1967-72). Her extensively researched book identifies other theorists of urban renewal, addressing their perspectives from race, gender, and class angles. Her discussion of Florida’s legacy outlines how his acolytes in business, education, and urban planning have promoted an idea of contemporary white-collar labor as a creative pursuit while promoting investment in the arts as a benefit to property values. As such, wage laborers are encouraged to consider themselves engaged in fulfilling acts of creativity rather than trading their labor for compensation. Artists are supported and valued for their ability to revitalize buildings and neighborhoods rather than for their contributions to the breadth of human experience.

Stephanie Syjuco. Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas): Dena Beard "Death Star Data Center" Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local's "Bedazzle a Tech Bus" Call for Entries.

Stephanie Syjuco. Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas): Anonymous “Death Star Data Center” Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local’s “Bedazzle a Tech Bus” Call for Entries.

This strategy has successfully reversed the long-held convention that business is politically conservative and profit-oriented while art is politically liberal and concerned with the life of the mind. Instead, today one often hears that contemporary art is a space of conservatism and profiteering while industry, particularly tech, is a haven for progressive values and invention. For example, San Francisco gallerist turned entrepreneur Raman Frey suggests in a blog post that art insiders are a “community [that] views dissenters, contrarians, and critical thinkers with disdain,” while technology leaders “see how value manifests from exactly these dissenters, contrarians, and critical thinkers.” He laments artists’ perceived lack of interest in “bigger pie” thinking but never questions what the pie might be made of, that others do not want a slice. Frey is not alone in his opinions; rather, he is articulating a view shared by many in tech who cannot see why their stratospheric acquisitions of money and influence would be understood as anything but positive. Regular readers of this column will know I am no defender of art-world elitism, and some of Frey’s criticisms of San Francisco’s art scene ring true. However, he paints with too broad a brush, faulting artists for disdaining wealth and influence, yet conflating those same artists with the old-money bloodsuckers he terms “art world bigwigs.” Meanwhile, the same tech leaders that he lauds for recognizing the value of dissent have yet to acknowledge the validity of criticisms leveled by many in the communities their employees are rapidly displacing.

A crucial distinction here is the one between artist and designer, which Rosler makes but Frey does not. This is best expressed by Ben Davis in his book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (2013). He says, “The opposition between art and design here is above all a difference between two different class-based notions of creative labor.”[i] Davis suggests that we ought to define “working class” and “middle class” based not on earnings, but on relative autonomy of the worker. By his equation, a low-paid artist might be a member of the “middle class” because she sets her own schedule, decides which projects to complete and in what order of priority, and creates products (works of art) according to her own interests and specifications, only introducing them to a market when they are complete. A highly paid engineer might be a member of the “working class” because she works assigned hours, chooses and prioritizes projects based on management imperatives, puts her labor for hire on the open market, and creates products according to the needs and conditions of clients or end users. This configuration shocks many artists who have aligned themselves politically with the working class and the poor, as it surely does many engineers endowed with cars, homes, and disposable income. However, while CEOs of technology companies and their youngest employees may wholly believe in their own autonomy and their radical break from the past, many tech workers in their 30s and 40s have come up against company hierarchies and policies designed to let them know when their quest for self-determination runs counter to the will of their superiors. The lucky few have enough money put aside to quit and pursue their own agendas, including art. The majority are just barely hanging on in cities where a low six-figure salary is barely sufficient to meet middle-class expectations of home ownership and parenthood.

Michal Wisniowski. "Guard Secrets" Google Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local's "Bedazzle a Tech Bus" Call for Entries.

Michal Wisniowski. “Guard Secrets” Google Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local’s “Bedazzle a Tech Bus” Call for Entries.

Historian Michael Parenti says, “You will have no sensation of a leash around your neck if you sit by the peg. It is only when you stray that you feel the restraining tug.” Perhaps the most resonant criticism of gentrification’s effects on urban communities is that the increased wealth of new arrivals is matched by increasing ethnic and social homogeneity. The new creative economy disproportionately benefits the same people who benefited from the old order: white, college-educated males from families already privy to some degree of economic and social influence. Given that the interests of this group are already aligned with the interests of the ruling class, it is no wonder that so many of them believe themselves unleashed. Their entire orbits circulate around the peg. This reality renders claims of “disruption” hollow, in that one cannot truly disrupt that on which one wholly depends. In this context, the only ethnic and gender minorities who can excel are those whose class status situates them near the peg as well, and the only critiques that gain traction are ones that position this privileged class as a solution to rather than a source of social problems.

Rebecca Solnit has written at length about the tangible effects of the creative economy on San Francisco, symbolized by the newly ubiquitous “Google Bus.” She links the imperialist underpinnings of contemporary tech with respect to privacy and data security to tech companies’ fraught relationships with the communities that surround them. She is undoubtedly correct to raise the alarm regarding Google, Facebook, and others’ relentless quest to monetize our attention and market our personal data. She is also on point with her assessment that the new, young creative professionals moving in are technologically wired but socially disconnected. She makes a few missteps as well, for example ascribing certain antisocial behaviors to technology workers as a class that could be explained equally by the relative youth and immaturity of the new arrivals. For someone with as long a history in San Francisco and the Bay Area as Solnit, it is surprising to hear her talk about the current rent boom as a wholly new phenomenon when it is clearly the second round of a cycle that began in the 1990s. Even so, Solnit has used her high profile to bring attention to the negative effects of San Francisco’s Richard Florida-esque transformation. Even more than New York, San Francisco is a city identified with the creative economy, and one where the very counterculture that gentrification has displaced is continually dangled in front of new recruits as evidence of their own ingenuity and autonomy within the corporate system.

Stephanie Syjuco. Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas): Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen "Class War" Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local's "Bedazzle a Tech Bus" Call for Entries.

Stephanie Syjuco. Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas): Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen “Class War” Bus, 2014. Digital image. Submission to Mission Local’s “Bedazzle a Tech Bus” Call for Entries.

The mythology of the creative economy explains much of why San Franciscans who have pioneered this approach to work are under-invested in the arts despite some apparent affinities. Why support artists with your hard-earned income when you are fully convinced you are an artist yourself, and a more valuable one? Why make the effort to understand artists’ concerns as grounded in history and social justice, when it is more comfortable to characterize them, as Raman Frey puts it, as encumbered by “suspicion of wealth, fame, and influence”? Rebecca Solnit takes the opposite position: “The problem is that we understand Silicon Valley’s values all too well, and a lot of us don’t like them.” While history has produced scores of artists who also sit close to the peg, the avant-garde tradition includes a healthy measure of informed political and social dissent. Technology and design entrepreneurs have engaged in politics to further industry interests such as net neutrality and looser immigration policies, but have done little to create a space for public dialogue and social critique that would rival the efforts put forth by artists in this regard.

 #Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.


[i] Ben Davis, “Art and Class,” 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (New York: Haymarket Books, 2013), 15.

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