Is There a Way to Halt the Gentrification of the American Mind?

 “The market is a machine that is just knocking down everything in its path. It’s a mentality that does not see the value of culture, only of status. It’s financial totalitarianism.” – Penny Arcade; The Guardian, July 28, 2015

 “If you’re doing it for the money, you’re not doing art. You’re doing commerce.” – Lydia Lunch; The Guardian, July 21, 2015

 In her sublime treatise The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (University of California Press; 2012), New York-based playwright/author/professor/activist Sarah Schulman quotes the performance piece “New York Values” by iconic performance artist Penny Arcade, wherein Arcade states:

“There are people who go to work every day in a suit and tie who are bohemian and will never have a bourgeois mentality like the loads of people who graduate from art school and are completely bourgeois…. There is a gentrification that happens to buildings and neighborhoods and there is a gentrification that happens to ideas.”

Also:Exciting Black Film Retrospective ‘Tell It Like It Is’ Comes to L.A.

Schulman’s book is about many overlapping, interlocked things – the ‘80s AIDS crisis in America and the socially/politically sanctioned cruelty inflicted upon early victims of the disease; the groundbreaking queer activism sparked in response to that cruelty; the immediate and then long-term ramifications of the disease and the responses to it in both mainstream and alternative/indie/queer culture. Among the long-term consequences brilliantly mapped out in the book is how the loss of those minds and bodies in the ‘80s has resulted in a culture in which retrograde art and regressive politics and cultural practices are pushed as fresh or innovative, while true envelope-pushing art, minds and politics are met with hostility and derision – and not just from conservative or mainstream outlets and institutions.

That is just one of the persuasively made arguments in the book, which helps contextualize so much of what is happening in American culture right now. The cookie-cutter template for “revitalizing” (gentrifying) neighborhoods that has been implemented in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and is now in effect in Detroit, is but one manifestation of this virus of aesthetic and intellectual mediocrity where homogeneity and conformity are touted as forward vision.

Schulman’s analytical work in Gentrification hovers over two recently published interviews with fellow pioneering New York women artists. Both interviews are from The Guardian.

Penny Arcade (center). Photo by Tristram Kenton; The Guardian

65-year-old New York legend Arcade was the most recently profiled of the two, speaking to the paper just ahead of her new solo show Longing Lasts Longer, which plays the Edinburgh Fringe in August, London’s Soho Theater in November, and then Abron’s Art Center in New York next year. The interview is vintage Arcade: culturally insightful, witheringly succinct, and uncompromised politically. Anticipating that her critiques will be dismissed as mere nostalgia, she makes clear that it’s not just a longing for “the good old days” that fuels her dissent, but a clear picture of where we are headed collectively as every aspect of our lives succumbs to marketplace dictates.

“It’s not about whether things are better or worse,” Arcade says. “It’s that they are erasing our historical inheritance. The truth is that this destruction is meaningless. There is no public good. But the market says if you complain about it, it’s nostalgia.”

It’s an invigorating, blood-pumping read.

A week before the Arcade piece, the Guardian published a great interview with 56-year-old poet/actress/visual artist/musician/theorist/philosopher Lydia Lunch, who was launched from the New York-spawned No Wave movement of the ’70s. Lunch, who just played a gig in San Francisco a few nights ago, performs at the Teagram Ballroom tonight in Los Angeles. Tonight is also the kickoff of a two-woman art show highlighting the work of Lunch and Jasmine Hirst at Lethal Amounts Gallery in Los Angeles. An anthology of her poetry will be published later this year in France.

Just as fearless and no-holds-barred as Arcade, Lunch is a terrific interview subject who takes on everything from Madonna and Lady GaGa to larger cultural malaise:

“The celebrity of riches and being famous for doing nothing is a cycle and I hope one day there will be a cultural rebellion. People will be sick of vacant, culturally bankrupt bullshit based on how much you paid for your dress or surgery. Will there be a generational rebellion? We can hope the next cycle will be anti-corporate. Corporations have won – your worth is based on what you make, not what you do or what you say.”

Read the full Lunch interview here.

Lydia Lunch. Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images


Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New YorkTimes, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.