BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: "Even the Truth Needs Propaganda"

Rightly or wrongly, the above quote has been credited to Sidney Hook, a scrappy political operative who, appropriately enough, was born and bred in early 20th-century Williamsburg. Like many progressive youths during the 1920s and 30s, Hook was a true believer in the utopian visions of Communism, even publishing an essay titled “Why I Am a Communist” that was provocative enough to utz publisher William Randolph Hearst into a campaign to remove him from his N.Y.U. teaching gig. With the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and the onset of World War II, reality bites. Vast swaths of the left-leaning “New York Intellectuals” began rethinking their political allegiances, and Hook changes sides. The end of the hot war sees the start of the Cold War and his considerable talents position Hook to become a major player in designing a new brand for the recently triumphant America, with Downtown New York as its beating heart.

In 1951 Hook proposes the formation of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a benign-sounding association of like-minded political activists with connections, both strategic and financial, to the C.I.A. and British Intelligence. He becomes its first chairman and sets about using the fruits of postwar American culture and a bag of devious tricks to push back the Soviet-sponsored “Popular Front.” It was hoped that the “Committee” could help convince a still-wobbly European intelligentsia to come down decisively as anti-Stalin and pro-Western. Swirling around in this Upper West Sider galaxy were the likes of Lionel and Diana Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger, Irving Kristol, and unofficial consultant to the Luce Publications empire (which included both Time and Life magazines), the editor of Commentary, Elliot Cohen. Of special interest to us is one of the “little magazines” that received support: Partisan Review, edited by Philip Rahv and William Phillips, whose most prominent art critic was Clement Greenberg.

Using the ruse of “cultural bridge building,” the Committee bankrolls traveling art exhibitions, music and film festivals; publishes sympathetic books, catalogs and magazines; dispense grants; and organizes seminars. The resultant prestige was used to convince the world (or at least Europe), that America was the last beacon of true creative freedom. New York supplanting Paris as art world capital isn’t merely the consequence of an innovative new style or a native aesthetic attaining ripeness. It is, in no small account, due to these cultural “black ops,” professional cheerleaders (propagandists), and millions of dollars of C.I.A. money spread around to fund them. For those interested in further research I’d recommend Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War, Alan M. Wald’s The New York Intellectuals, and How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art by Serge Guilbaut.

Very little in the art world is a coincidence. Achieve a tipping point of consensus, by whatever means, and you’re on your way to establishing historic fact. (Was Jackson Pollock really that good, or have I been brainwashed?)

In my historiographical studies, I’ve found that advanced culture always evolves through different locations: Rome, Florence, Venice, Munich, and Paris. Each area and era comes with a list of styles, ancillary characters, boosters, critics, raconteurs, movers and shakers, and hangers-on. Each leaves behind a heading in the history books and auction catalogs, along with appreciated real estate values. As shapers of cultural consensus know, just because history has already happened, doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s an unrelenting battle for hearts and minds. Create the next “hot spot” and the world watches in anticipation.

I’ve been covering the Brooklyn art scene for well over a decade, mostly focusing on Wiliamsburg, but also visiting Greenpoint, DUMBO, Smith/lantic, Red Hook, Bed-Stuy, Park Slope, Sunset Park, and DUGO (District Under the Gowanus Overpass). About six years ago I began hearing rumblings about another trendy district called “the Wick” or “MoJo” (because it was between the Morgan and Jefferson Street stops on the L line and, let’s admit it, you just gotta have a cool name for your nabe). Young artists were flocking there, finding cheap studio space and some even buying buildings. At the time, as far as galleries were concerned, anything east of the BQE was considered no man’s land. I popped into spaces like Patty Martori’s Holiday at 118 Powers Street, Jan Mollet and Elizabeth Cooper’s Morsel Gallery at 81A Olive Street, and Tastes Like Chicken, a studio/gallery space founded in 2004 by Michael and Sherry Rader at 300 Morgan Avenue (unfortunately all have since closed), and wrote some of the first reviews featuring the “Wick.”

The post-9/11 boomlet, and Mayor Bloomberg’s unrelenting push for development, had by this time put severe upward price pressure on Williamsburg real estate. A few venues, like NURTUREart, headed east, opening new digs at 910 Grand Street. I’d made visits to some MoJo buildings, vast rookeries of studios, and knew there was an underground mass of artists waiting to go critical, but aside from myself, the hardcore art bloggers Barry Hoggard and James Wagner, the local chronicler Hrag Vartanian, and a smattering of local voices, the area appeared to be just another in a group of wannabe districts vying for exposure. But things were changing for the “Wick.”

Hrag remembers, “I lived in Bushwick beginning in 2000 and slowly started to notice things were changing fast as more artists, writers, and others were arriving, but it wasn’t until Life Cafe opened on Flushing Avenue (I think it was 2002) that it became quite obvious there was some action. Life ignited the media narrative that Bushwick was slowly becoming a new artistic outpost…. There really didn’t seem to be much to cover in Bushwick until 2006-ish, only random events. Williamsburg still dominated north Brooklyn culture (and still does in my opinion). Bushwick Open Studios really changed everything, since it granted many of us access to studios and artists that we didn’t know existed. I started blogging about the local scene in 2006 and that online writing immediately plugged me into the scene as people would comment on my blog posts, email me info, and link to my posts.”

Valet parking the Jag at New York Loft Hostel Varet Street, Bushwick

Within a year, a nexus of several venues had formed. During my initial visit to Austin Thomas’s Pocket Utopia (1037 Flushing Avenue) I picked up a funky photocopied guide showing the coordinates of three or four other galleries and bars—all located within blocks of the Flushing Avenue and Morgan Street intersection—published by something called the “Gods of Mars.” GOM turned out to be a monthly flyer put out by English Kills (114 Forest Street), founded by Chris Harding with a core group of 12 to 15 artists. Just around the corner at 43 Bogart Street was Ad Hoc Art, a prime effort by Peripheral Media Projects, featuring Graffiti and Street Art. 3rd Ward (195 Morgan Avenue), a membership-funded community center, rounded out the list. About a year later Factory Fresh encamped at 1053 Flushing Avenue with a program featuring Street Art. At a glance, the one commonality among most of these operations is a lack of foot traffic and slim possibilities of profits from sales, and so they’ve all had to come up with creative ways of paying the rent and creating publicity with a low or no budget.
Arts In Bushwick (http://bos2010.artsinbushwick.org/) is a free-form all-volunteer group printing guide maps and promoting festivals, studio tours, and community dialogue and outreach. I contacted Ali Aschman, AIB’s press manager, and co-lead producer for BETA Spaces, with some questions:

James Kalm (Rail): How long has Arts In Bushwick existed, and what and when was your first public project?

Ali Aschman: AIB was founded in 2007 around the planning of the first Open Studios, so it has existed for 4 years. There had been an open studios event in 2005 organized by a different group, who intended to do it again in 2006 but canceled it. Another group of people banded together in 2006 to put it on at the last minute, and after that about 15 community members/artists/organizers formed AIB in order to plan BOS ‘07. After that, some of the members wanted to produce a smaller, more focused festival, highlighting aspects of Open Studios that they particularly enjoyed, namely curated group shows and alternative spaces, so in December 2007, BETA Spaces (Bushwick Exhibition Triangle of Alternative Spaces) came about. BETA Spaces 2010 will take place on Sunday, November 14. We are still in the planning stages and will be open for submissions in the next few weeks. In March 2009, AIB produced SITE Fest, a three-day performance festival. All of the three festivals are now annual events.

Rail: How many members do you have?

Aschman: That’s hard to say, as there’s no membership process. AIB is run by whoever wants to run it. I’d say at least 15 “core” people were involved in organizing our last festival in terms of producing the program, the website, the press release, the budget, sponsorship, etc. AIB operates on a break-even basis, with a very small budget. There are no member dues. For Open Studios, artists must pay $35 to have their studio/event listed in our program and on our website, in order to cover printing costs. Of course we’re all volunteers in that no one gets paid, but when I say volunteers I mean artists who registered their studios and volunteer for five hours in lieu of paying the registration fee.

Rail: What do you think is your most powerful tool in spreading the word about Bushwick?

Aschman: Pretty much all we do in terms of PR is send out a press release and try to get listed in as many publications and websites as possible. I think the best thing we can do is put on really great events to showcase the quantity, quality, and diversity of creativity in Bushwick, and if it’s good, people will come tell their friends, and they’ll write articles.

That said, in terms of promoting the individual festivals locally, and especially promoting participation, flyering is a really powerful tool. We don’t want our presence to be online only—we want people to see our posters on the street so they know they can get involved in something in their own neighborhood, and we’ve had a really good response to that. We don’t curate our festivals, in that we don’t exclude anyone from participating. Obviously there is a lot of poor stuff mixed in with the good and excellent, but it’s not for us to determine what’s good or bad.

It would be impossible to generalize about a single medium or style that would characterize Bushwick, but with a robust program of performance work presented by Grace Exhibition Space at 840 Broadway, the annual Maximum Perception festival at English Kills, and the AIB-produced SITE Fest, the district has participated in the current revival of performative art. Chloë Bass of AIB opined, “The spirit of experimentation and the ability to experiment seems like a really positive thing to me for venues as well as for individual artists. I think the main difference (and this is speaking from the inside) between what’s happening in Bushwick and what’s happening in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side is that the Bushwick scene is being fostered to develop collaboration rather than competition. I think that we’ve had a little extra time, mostly because of the general economic recession, to learn to work together rather than artists feeling like we’re all competing for the same very small pool of resources.”

With his considerable online expertise blogging, and the recent launch of his website Hyperallergic (Sensitive to Art and its Discontents) (http://hyperallergic.com), Harg Vartanian is very conscious of another crucial difference: “Bushwick is truly a virtual community. It’s generally true that cultural communities are built on a common mindset and common values, and nowadays we often find our communities of like-minded people online rather than IRL

I think it’s natural that the blogosphere takes the lead in the Bushwick hype since no mainstream media sources are going to spend resources on a community that doesn’t interest their advertisers…. The other reason the blogosphere took the lead was that the community is young and young people get most of their news online. I remember loft buildings had MySpace pages and everyone’s band, art group, etc., interacted via Friendster, MySpace, and later Facebook; it was where our community ‘lived’ and still lives.”

To wrap up, although there was something in excess of 250 listings in the last BOS guide, it wasn’t until I noticed a couple of trendy European-style cafes, fashion boutiques, a loft hostel and a humongous, high-tech gym on a strip that only a couple of years ago was an industrial wasteland that it became frighteningly obvious: Bushwick had arrived. Despite galleries closing and scaling back, the openings of Storefront, a partnership of Jason Andrew, director of Norte Maar, and Debra Brown (16 Wilson Avenue); Famous Accountants, a collaboration between artists Ellen Letcher and Kevin Regan deep in the “Wick” at 1673 Gates Avenue; and the debut of Regina Rex, an artists’ collaborative at 1717 Troutman Street, signal the vibrancy of the Bushwick scene. Regardless of denials by interviewees, no fewer than five identified propaganda techniques were employed in this essay and that, at least, is the truth.

Contributor

James Kalm

JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene.  In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.

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