by Ciarán Finlayson and Jane Foreman
In its attempts at dematerialization, conceptual art looked for strategies to exit the market and escape the commodity form. It knew the costs of being valuable and found them inimical to art. In its opposition to the society that produced it, conceptual art sought to negate the criteria for its evaluation (aesthetic judgement) and valorization (material and institutional supports)
“Contemporary art is postconceptual art.” The history of contemporary art is the history of the failure of these attempts.
Art matters only insofar as it claims some capacity to stand apart from the world as a function and wellspring of (artistic) freedom. (The degree to which it separates itself from ‘real life’ is also the measure to which it can be said not to matter atall). In Late Capitalism, the success of an artwork (the degree to which is successfully refuses to participate in the given order) depends upon its relation to historical conceptuality, which is to say, how it navigates the historical attempt of art to liberate itself from value. The criteria for its evaluation is its resistance to valuation.
The relation of contemporary art to black radicalism is given in this conceptuality. “Enslaved persons were protected property and at the same time they constituted a threat, in their conscious activity, every minute of the day, to the very idea of property.” The dreams of emancipation, like the dreams of art, are those of the capacity to produce something other than the society that could produce you. Speaking of Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois identified as enemies not only the slavers in the south but also the “dictatorship of property and investment” up north. In the afterlife of slavery, the dictatorship remains.
In 1872, the midst of Black Reconstruction, Richard Allen, Richard Brock, Elias Dibble and Jack Yates bought a parcel of green space in black Houston and named it, for its public, Emancipation Park. The land has since been acquired by the city and was recently developed in a public-private partnership to the tune of $33.6 million. In this investment one sees the movement of wealth transfer and land speculation in the interest of gentrification.
What appears as an expansion of the park’s facilities is in fact an act of enclosure. Enclosure presupposes private control. In the case of post-colonial municipal lands, enclosure reappears as the extent to which public land’s use is determined by the surrounding property owners. Pessimistically, park improvements are driven by hedonic regression models that mathematically parcel out individual components of value, assisting property owners whose equity increases with access to amenities.
A park is a double-edged sword; it can spur municipal disinvestment when serving as evidence of blight, of a community’s ostensible failure to steward its own resources. Simultaneously, the park is holding space for potential valorization of property, the capacity for city or partnership money to bring higher rents and land values that displace previous users.
After the destruction of Reconstruction and the transfer of its ownership to city-hands, the park is made to displace what it commemorates: Emancipation turns against the emancipated.
Saidiya Hartman, historian of the 19th century, sees in the end of chattel slavery the “double-bind of emancipation”—new freedoms of the formerly enslaves included dispossession from land and displacement into cities; freedom from ownership of anything other than one’s labor-power. The park commemorating this moment now names the double-bind of our present. “Emancipation,” the park and the project (as exemplary instances of the trouble with ownership, especially in this case of land), raise the question of whether value itself may constitute a threat to black social life.
Can resistance to gentrification take any form other than the critique of valorization? The future of black and proletarian social life in the city hang in the balance. To capital, even the middle and upper classes of black society registered as sub-prime in last decade’s mortgage crisis, though not for lack of resources. The result was the financial ruination of even the black elite, just as during the heyday of urban renewal the neighborhoods of the black middle class were marked for slum clearance. In 1952, when a bourgeois African-American cattle rancher named Jack Caesar moved into Riverside Terrace, in then-white Southern Third Ward, racists firebombed his house in an effort preserve the value of their property. Like white flight, this act of race war (and the subsequent divestment from the area it facilitated) was not about the whims of white movement dictated by cultural fears, but is the result of capital’s laws of movement. Gentrification signifies the social life of class war under racial capitalism, where race, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall reminds us, “is the modality through which class is lived.”
Poet Fred Moten affirms in a perverse reversal that, “We are broken windows.” To move beyond the level of appearance, “we” must grapple with the threat posed by valorization itself in the continual act of accumulation by dispossession— gentrification. Opposition to it demands a thinking of freedom beyond the affirmation of emancipation, the terms of which were always double-edged. Insofar as the existing study of gentrification in Houston remains at the level of cultural critique and community organizing of landowners, it depends upon the racial class-consciousness of a group that can offer little in terms of resistance to transnational capital. The looming and already-present crises occasion a moment in which, for collective self-defense, it is imperative to reflect on social forms opposed to value itself, the histories of which are sedimented in every authentic work of art.