Artists and arts organisations have always skirted the edges of gentrification. Like pretty moths, they have happily fluttered around the naked flame of accumulation by dispossession, quietly spinning intricate little cocoons in decrepit capitalist disinvestment. Precision migrants, they move on the favourable wind of financial investment, astutely drawn by the tiny new bright lights of frontier navigation beacons.
Intention is everything in this cyclical and cynical gentrification dance and artists can no longer play the role of innocent victim.
Some artists nibble away the decaying fabric of working-class community; part of a complex, multi-scalar global infrastructural web spun by transnational agents – property developers, investors, banks, big brand retailers, managed wealth funds, NGOs and the creative industries – using the fine silk state investment.
But, whilst there are few strings attached for corporate regeneration ‘partners’, the creative industries willingly trade funding and cultural status in exchange for increased state instrumentalisation, partial privatisation and new civic responsibilities. And, cajoled by the state into ever-deepening relationships with the private sector, many arts organisations and artists discovered new value in the intangible worlds of ‘community development’ and ‘community engagement’.
From community arts to placemaking, some artists coalesced under socially engaged art’s catch-all banner. Quickly and quietly depoliticised, they became, I argue, Social Capital Artists: specialists in artwashing.
And socially engaged art has happily embraced the slippery rhetoric of ‘inclusion’, ‘health and wellbeing’, the ‘civic role’, social impact and social capital.
Yet this web extends far beyond the sphere of socially engaged art. It involves projects, art fairs, artists’ studios, new landmark art buildings, exhibitions, biennials, triennials, more … Nowhere is off-limits! Art is ensnared in an exploitative web of vested interests – in neoliberal governance and transnational capitalism.
And regeneration is a game. A game played by the privileged; by those in positions of power. The regeneration game, like everything in this neoliberal hegemony, is about capital and profit. It is also about massive human loss.
For Urban geographer, Neil Smith, gentrification was a ‘dirty word’, particularly for working-class people whose lives are negated and destroyed by the process and its ‘language of revitalization, recycling, upgrading and renaissance’ (1996, pp. 25-32). Working-class communities become, in the eyes of gentrifiers, barren wildernesses devoid of anything of value or significance, barring a few ‘salvageable’ landmarks that offer a veneer of ‘authenticity’. And, when considered as part of the ideological dismantling of the welfare state and the privatisation of public services, gentrification becomes an indicator of a constantly shifting and expanding dividing line between haves and have nots.
Yet gentrification has been redefined by many policymakers and planners.
Placemaking and artwashing are their tools. Contested issues such as displacement and class relations are brushed away by positive terms such as ‘revitalisation’, ‘renaissance’, ‘revival’ and ‘creativity’.
Artwashing: a simple word. A hook. Artwashing is, however, a complex deception.
Artwashing does not only intend to deceive, it also makes untruthful assertions. Artwashing is nothing short of a breach of trust.
Artwashing uses art to smooth and gloss over social cleansing and gentrification, functioning as ‘social licence’, public relations tool, and a means of pacifying local communities. I argue that artwashing takes several different forms.
CORPORATE ARTWASHING involves big businesses using artwashing as a form of PR. Arts sponsorship, as activist Mel Evans pointed out, is about legitimising the corporate ‘social licence to operate’. A fundamental element for many businesses, it persuades the public to trust them (2015, pp. 70-84).
Specially commissioned ‘street art’ and even carefully sited art galleries are hallmarks of DEVELOPER-LED ARTWASHING, enabling developers like LondoNewcastle, to promote individuality, fashionability, luxury and even ‘edginess’ to clients.
‘Arty’ pop-up box parks are another form of developer-led artwashing. Like V22 Silvertown … Or The Artworks Elephant on the site of what was a public space - a playground on the edge of the Heygate Estate. For writer Dan Hancox: a ‘shiny bauble’ to distract from the ‘social cleansing’ of the area. Shipping containers on community land circumnavigate planning processes. Locals wanted allotments, a pond, sports facilities, etc. Instead, they got a haven for hipsters that doubles up as a sales office for global developer Lend Lease who, along with Southwark council, are behind the social cleansing of the Heygate Estate. Oh, and a colourful community mural remembering the ‘People of Southwark’ now displaced from the area.
LOCAL AUTHORITY ARTWASHING uses art to rebrand communities THEY rebranded “failing” – part of a cultural rezoning. For example, Southwark Council’s film paints over the Heygate Estate, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre – over local people.
Park Fiction, Hamburg. The St. Pauli area of Hamburg has undergone sustained gentrification, turning a decaying, edgy, once working-class, industrial area into an increasingly middle-class one. Artists appeared to be at the forefront of the struggle against gentrification.
Park Fiction - emblematic of socially engaged art as enabler of grassroots collective urban planning. This accolade appears debatable, however, because Park Fiction was part of Hamburg city government’s broader regeneration agenda – an agenda that, like so many other cities around the world, fetishised art, culture and commerce. It was, in fact, a test bed for a softer form of state-backed cultural intervention that harnessed the social capital of activists in St. Pauli on behalf of the state, which sought to pacify anti-gentrification protestors. City authorities also funded the construction of the park, giving €2.4 million to the project.
Park Fiction is now a popular location: ‘a colourful setting of subcultural chic within the on-going gentrification of St. Pauli’ surrounded by middle-class food places. The park has increased property values, ‘inadvertently supporting’ the very ‘profit-orientated, socially irresponsible redevelopment’ that the activists claimed to oppose (2014, pp. 43-44).
Art changed a demand for a park into a Park Fiction, transforming the right to public space into a brand inspired by the postmodern film Pulp Fiction (Czenki & Schäfer, 2001, p. 100).
ARTS-LED ARTWASHING. Like Bow Arts Trust and their work with property developers and housing associations. They used artists and arts events to artwash the 100% social cleansing of Balfron Tower. Balfron Social Club opposed the artwashing of this stolen council housing icon.
Lastly, COMMUNITY ARTWASHING. Like the ‘story harvesting’ of people living in social housing on the Aylesbury estate by Sticking Together SE17 – a socially engaged art commission to examine the ‘civic role of the arts’ that didn’t talk about the estate’s impending demolition. Or The People’s Bureau - commissioned by Tate Modern, Southwark council, the developers of Elephant and Castle shopping centre, etc. The artists involved designated it as an ‘opportunity area’.
Or Assemble … The story goes that Granby 4 Streets CLT happened upon a crazy not-artist/ not-architect collective and began collaborating with them to do up ten houses in Toxteth, Liverpool which, against all understanding and expectations, somehow won the 2015 Turner Prize. That’s the story. Yet the reality is very different. Posh group of mainly ex-Cambridge graduates, Assemble, were commissioned by the Community Land Trust which has a board of senior arts figures and financial investors. They were paid to do the work; to produce designs.
But the idea that the Turner Prize-winning regeneration project was led by a committed group of community members who had remained in Granby even after the devastation of New Labour’s Pathfinder programme, is unfortunately false. Funding was provided by a secret private investor from Jersey.
Community artwashing is, for me, the most pernicious form of artwash.
Socially engaged art becomes community-consultation-by-art: identifying, gathering, sanitising, archiving and exploiting the social capital of local people. It operates on the principle of trust. Socially engaged artists are specialists in gaining the trust of community members; far more likely to be trusted than business consultants!
A monopoly. Community artwashing exploits working-class people’s hopes and dreams. It ‘harnesses’ them, hope by hope and dream by dream and turns them into saleable, commodified art. And, like the state-induced notions of ‘the civic role’ and wellbeing, social capital silently
turns the benign into the terrible; interpersonal relationships and dynamics into global statistics and generic standards; people reduced to little contributions to the financial bottom line.
Artwashing isn’t about corporate social responsibility or social capital.
Artwashing eats up the lives of those most in need.
Art in the service of gentrification destroys social capital.
Artists, arts organisations and, indeed, art, become a pawn in the transnational, multi-scalar world of neoliberalism; of global capitalism. Artwashing exploits by deceit.
Artwashing exploits people’s trust.
Art plays an important role in the global challenge posed by accumulation by dispossession – by gentrification.
Yet art can offer alternatives, can be disobedient, can contest and resist this global urban challenge.
The next element of my research asks: ‘How can art and acts of creativity resist complicity with gentrification? What and where are the alternatives?’
There are alternatives.