February 15, 2014

Gentrification of the Imagination

Looking really closely, the most significant factor differentiating the disappeared avant-garde, destroyed by AIDS and gentrification, and the replacement artists, more closely aligned with the social structures necessary to be able to pay contemporary real estate prices, is professionalization. MFA programs. Especially MFA programs as markers of caste and brand. I came of age in the East Village in the 1980s. The freaky, faggy, outrageous, community-based, dangerous, “criminal class” was of course not the only influence, but they were a huge influence. Yes there were trust fund babies slumming, et cetera, but many artists I knew and learned from had an outlaw quality. They had illegal sex, took illegal drugs, hustled literally and figuratively for money, lived in poverty, and said fuck you to dominant cultural values, all of which made it possible for them to discover new art ideas later enjoyed by the world. Many of them died or became marginalized. And they, in part, were replaced by people who were trained in and graduated from expensive institutions. The “Downtown” that I was raised in as a young artist included real innovators, real drag queens, real street dykes, real refugees, real Nuyoricans, really inappropriate risk-taking, sexually free nihilistic utopians. Today, “Downtown” means having an MFA from Brown.

Some of them are good writers, and I’m thankful for that. But the larger cultural point is that the homogeneity of preparation, combined with the lack of opportunity for those not institutionally produced, results in an American theater profoundly complicit with and a tool of the dominant apparatus – which is the opposite of what should be if it is to provide an alternative to corporate thinking.

This is a passage from Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. A mix of memoir and polemic, it’s one of the most fearless and necessary books I’ve read in a long while. It has certainly helped my thinking about local cultural phenomena like the Boston Book Festival, Grub Street’s Muse & the Marketplace, and the so-called “literary cultural district” initiative. These examples, with their bedrock commitment to the blandest of middlebrow aesthetic values and (not coincidentally) their many ties to the region’s financial elite, amply fit Schulman’s description of a culture that has become “profoundly complicit with and a tool of the dominant apparatus.”

February 10, 2014