NYU Has Co-Opted the Anarchist Artist

One thing Boots Riley, NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing and myself have in common: we’re all hypocrites.

Johanna Stone, Columnist

This spring, a grandiose performance and exhibition space called The Shed will open its doors in Hudson Yards, a mass rezoning development — and an area of rapid gentrification —  near Chelsea. Put simply, The Shed is the area’s most creatively masked tax write-off yet. At its opening week, writer, director, musician and self-proclaimed Marxist Boots Riley will be one of the first speakers to grace the stage of the “new ritual space.

Though I’m sure Riley’s appearance at this event could easily be chalked up to his current public demand and an overeager publicist, his presence in this space undermines much of what made his anti-establishment summer blockbuster “Sorry to Bother You” so spot-on. Riley will be speaking about civil disobedience in a performance space whose true agenda seems to be much more about allocating wealth than using art as a mechanism for political change. And it is somewhat alarming to consider that NYU’s Drama program contains a similar inconsistency.

The Experimental Theatre Wing, one of the eight primary training studios at Tisch School of the Arts, offers a comprehensive education in a conglomeration of styles largely shaped by the downtown theater scene that grew out of New York City in the latter half of the 20th century. A prime example of this avant-garde theater scene was the Judson Dance Theater, founded in 1962 by artists such as Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton in the basement gym of Judson Memorial Church. The church is a center for liberal views and political activism located on Washington Square South across the street from what is now NYU’s Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. The artists who worked at Judson are the contemporaries and mentors of many teachers at the ETW. Much of the curriculum at an acting studio that costs upward of $70,000 to attend was created in a socially conscious church basement at no cost.

In 1964, two years after Judson Dance Theater started, NYU embarked on its own rezoning agenda by buying up much of the property on Washington Square. This privatization and increase in property value is part of what has caused the area to no longer be a viable option for the working-class artists it once attracted. This situation bears a little too much similarity to what is currently going on in Hudson Yards, and however appealing the $500 million project may seem to the socially artistic populous of Manhattan, The Shed is not necessarily the “haven for creative expression” it advertises.

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A few weeks ago, I had a class where a working experimental artist told us the ultimate goal of the postmodern artist is to be an “original anarchist” — one who assesses the current structures of the world and utilizes art as a tool to provide alternative, controversial hypotheses to these structures. A majority of the teachers at the ETW are the real deal: they built their careers in black-box downtown theaters, and NYU now offers a sustainable paycheck in what is too often a barely sustainable art form. But this anarchist narrative does not hold up well within the institution where it is being taught.

As a student of the ETW, I have become an active participant in this hypocrisy, learning more every day about an art form that does not align morally with the space in which I am learning it. Thirty blocks uptown, The Shed prepares to open its doors to a space that will hire the type of artists who graduate from this very program. It’s not easy to refuse a well-paying gig in a broke art form. Experimental theater is finally being accepted by the institutions it was created to oppose, and they’re offering artists a paycheck. The ETW has taken it and Boots Riley has taken it, whether he knows it or not. Perhaps we are all bystanders to the downfall of the anarchist narratives we so enjoy. We just don’t want to talk about it.

“The Art School Report” is a column about the trials and tribulations of art school and the New York City art scene at large. Johanna aims to document the experiences and opinions of Tisch students and the terrifying thought of graduating into the world with an arts degree.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 11th, 2019, print edition. Email Johanna Stone at [email protected] 

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