Artists' Loss of Habitat

Aronowitz and Willis

Artists' Loss of Habitat

Aronowitz and Willis

Artists' Loss of Habitat
An email conversation about the news of the day.
April 8 1999 4:40 PM

Aronowitz and Willis

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About the comparison, you're right. Our mayor may be better compared to his counterpart in Singapore than to Milosevic. Yet there is no way to pronounce him a true son of a popular democracy. He read his re-election as a mandate to repression and is only now discovering that all he had was a mandate to keep the streets relatively safe.

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I used the term "weapons" or "arms" metaphorically. The powerless have only two weapons, those of criticism and those provided by social movements capable of contesting or curbing power. Before the Diallo protests gave me hope that a new freedom movement may emerge among blacks, Latinos, and their white allies, the only signs of upsurge have been a partially resurgent labor movement which, however, shows few signs that it understands that its members live in neighborhoods, pay rent or mortgages, and have to buy food and other staples. The fact is that among the more dynamic sectors of the labor movement are unions of middle-class workers--physicians, social workers, librarians, writers, and teachers, to name the most active. These are people whose hold on urban dwelling space is extremely tenuous these days.

The cultural fallout from rent gouging, condo-ization, and evictions is that there is a serious question whether artists of all kinds can claim a place in the city. Art is not chiefly an individual product but is the interaction of talented individuals with their social and physicial surroundings. Jackson Pollock was not only a genius but someone who helped make a bohemia of parts of downtown Manhattan. When these precincts are filled by Wall Street brokers, investment counselors, and corporate executives, the quaint buildings and narrow streets no longer signify art and architecture, but only business. It's a transformation that may say as much about city life in New York, Paris, and London as any tract.

Ellen Willis directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program in the department of journalism at New York University. Her latest book, Don't Think--Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial, will be published this fall. Stanley Aronowitz is author of From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future (click here to buy the book), and he teaches social and cultural theory at the City University of New York Graduate School. His forthcoming book is Knowledge Factories.