Culture Works

Reflections on Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility Across the Neoliberal Americas (NYU Press 2012),
Arlene Davila, NYU Anthropology
Each book has an ethos, and a lot of my work has been led by a critical angst on the mainstreaming of Latino culture, which is also reflected in Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility Across the Neoliberal Americas just published by NYU Press.  Yet in hindsight, Culture Works is mostly informed by the love, admiration and appreciation for creative workers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with for years, especially the locally-based, community-identified and informally generated creative work and workers I encountered in Puerto Rico, Latin@ New York and Buenos Aires, who are working with great difficulty in challenging times.   This a context where, more and more, culture is only appreciated as an economic engine, or as a development tool, or for the profit it can generate, and where artists are valued in terms of their entrepreneurial skills more than the work they do within communities.
Indeed, the last decades has seen a growing and uncritical boosterism around creative economies and the role of creative classes within urban policy circles, developers, and even critical scholars.  The focus, however, is mainly on creative workers in high scale industries, advertising or design, rather than on the plight of the many grassroots “barrio creatives” I encountered in New York City, Puerto Rico and Buenos Aires. These creatives are just as important to the health of global creative cities, but are regularly bypassed from most national and global considerations on urban cultural policies.  As a consequence, are quick to extend tax break and incentives to any development that comes packaged with a “cultural” component, while local community institutions linger.   Culture Works asks why this is the case and challenges us to expand definitions of what should be regarded as most centrally valuable.

Recreation of Old San Juan architecture inside Puerto Rico's largest shopping mall, while street use ordinances restrict public space of space in Old San Juan highlight the sanitization of space at play in many cities across the Americas. These restrictions are affecting the celebration of the island's most important festivals which provide some of the few outlets left for artists and vendors to make a living.

Foremost, Culture Works challenges the elitization of creative work and its use as an added-on ornament to “soften”, veil or ameliorate the social inequalities brought about by neoliberal policies, and projects.  One example discussed in the book is the inclusion of old San Juan architecture and the celebration of Puerto Rican crafts airs inside shopping malls that are intended to “puertorriquenize” these malls veiling the rapid privatization of space spurred by a bonanza in shopping mall constructions.  Another is the promotion of tango tourism as part of the neoliberal transformations behind the construction of a new Buenos Aires that has resulted in the up scaling of the city primarily for tourists and expats.
In particular, the book highlights similar dynamics around the ways in which how culture is being used across the Americas, if not globally, despite the many differences at play.  Yes, there are different philosophies of government between Argentina’s more socialist government and the overtly neoliberal administration at play in New York City, while the colonial island state of Puerto Rico may seem to have little in common with the dynamics apace in New York city, the global arts capital of the world. There are also considerable differences between the primarily Puerto Rican and minority Latino artists in New York and the artists I met in Puerto Rico and Argentina who face hardships but not around the existence of a “culture” that deserves promotion and showcasing, as Latino artists working in the United States regularly face.
These differences notwithstanding, each location evidenced an emphasis on more entrepreneurial artists, the upscalling of space and a narrowing of what counts as culturally valuable and worthy of investments. Similarly, in all three cases the use of culture for tourism, or for economic development, was accompanied by disparities that limited which cultural workers and artists could most legitimately claim the status of “creative worker”. Namely, the artists, whose merchandise looks good in the mall and ‘professional’ dancers from the better barrios in the capital who speak English and can fit comfortably with tourists.
Culture Works exposes these dynamics in order to 1) reevaluate the work, the value, and the many cultural and economic contributions of local based cultural workers. And 2) in order expands dominant definitions of who counts as creative worker and what counts as creative work. My hope is that we can finally put an end to all the boosterism surrounding discussions of creative work in most discussions of urban development and consequently be more equipped to address key questions of cultural equity.
I do this by focusing on the rubrics of space, value and mobility as three sites were tensions of creative work are especially apparent. In terms of space, I highlight the linkage between the privatization of space and the fate of growing numbers of peoples who seek their livelihoods through culture.  These dynamics are especially evident in Puerto Rico where thousands have turned to the selling of artesania after massive government layoffs, even though few people can access the rapidly diminished public space to make a living.
Issues of value are at the heart of all case studies and Culture Works shows how value is directly tied to policies and investments, in other words, I show how value is never a naturally determined but rather structured and created by urban and cultural policies and economic incentives favoring one or another cultural initiative, or one cultural product or representation over other.  Take for instance, the cultural policies that lock most of New York City’s government funding for the arts to a few institutions in the city, (primarily the largest and most tourist known) leaving most cultural organizations to compete for the remaining minimal budget.
In particular I argue that we should indeed begin to talk openly about political economy of the arts without fear that mixing art and economic realms would “pollute” the ‘sacredness’ of art.  Specifically, I suggest that delving into the economy is not only central for exposing how value is created through investments, but also for imagining alternative criteria for defining what’s valuable and worthy of investments. In particular, Culture Works exposes the racial politics of creative economies, particularly evident around the debates over whether Latinos merit the construction of a national museum in the nation’s capital, racial dynamics that inform what’s worthy of showcasing.  In other words, Culture Works argues that engage with questions of value is to engage with politics.  It demands that we expose the premises and biases in which decisions about what is valuable and worthy of promotion and preservation are regularly made.
Finally, I address matters of mobility, or the movements of peoples and things that accompany all these neoliberal restructuring of space.
These dynamics have local manifestations; for instance, in the segregation, surveillance and policing of space; but also global ones, in terms of who can travel and can access the necessary paperwork to become “global” versus others destined to remain undocumented or “alien,” because of their race, class, citizenship or nationality.
My concern is a simple one:  to expose that creative industries favor certain type of mobile bodies while circumventing the social and physical mobility of others.  For instance, I examine the mobility of North American and European creative expats: the kid who wants to finish his novel or the laid off designer who wants to make a severance check last, who can easily move and settle in Buenos Aires, and even set up to sell jewelry in the street on an impromptu basis, versus the immigrants from “pueblos limitrofes,” such as Bolivia, Peru, who are banned from accessing the city’s key centers. For expats from Europe and North America, moving to Buenos Aires on a semi permanent basis becomes one of the strategies through which creative workers maneuver economic uncertainty and achieve social mobility, but not without affecting possibilities for local artists.
In sum, Culture Works asks who benefits from the growing emphasis on creative economies, how have these industries affected the lives of the growing number of people who gain live hoods through culture.  My hope is that the book can bring attention to Issues of equity and creative economies are concerned and make us more sensitized to the plight of some many people who make a living of creative work and should be at the center of any discussion of contemporary urban and creative economies.
Arlene Davila is Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at NYU.  Her previous books include Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race and Barrio Dreams:  Puerto Ricans, Latinos and the Neoliberal City. Website:

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