The Battle for the Eye: Images and Politics in Harlem


We live in a world of images—television, movies, magazines, and billboards. These images float about us, weaving in and out of our planes of vision, our lines of sight. They latch onto crevices in our subconscious, molding desires, managing wants, and orienting our social relationships. These images, and their effect on modern capitalist society, create the overarching context for this paper.

I focus my attention on the upper Manhattan community of Harlem.1 Arguably New York’s most famous community, Harlem has undergone significant economic and structural changes over the past decade.2 Without downplaying the importance of Harlem’s infrastructural and demographic changes, I wish to emphasize another dimension of its transformation, namely the types of images displayed there and what these images mean for Harlem’s ability to organize itself politically as a community.3 I conclude with a discussion of how visual artists in Harlem can use their work as a catalyst for change.

Form Divorced from Matter

Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing in the mid 19th century saw in the photographic image, then still a new and somewhat crude invention, the nascent ability have more worth than the physical material it was supposed to represent. Or in Holmes’ words, images could “divorce form from matter.” Later, in the following century, with the further technological development of photography, Walter Benjamin noted that with the proliferation of these mass-produced images, the distinct nature of art, formerly rooted in tradition, was being compromised.4 Benjamin called this distinct nature of uniquely produced works of art the “aura.” With the loss of this aura, Benjamin surmised, the awe-inspiring and contemplative nature of art was compromised.5 In its place were left the docile, mass reactions to images. These reactions could be, in a sense, predetermined. Observations by Holmes and Benjamin, among others, framed the 20th-century discourse surrounding images: images often present a false depiction of reality—or a false consciousness, and these images mold the actions of those who consume them. Furthermore, while individuals exercise some control over how images affect their daily lives, it is often the case that those in positions to create and mass-reproduce the images are at a great advantage: people in power mold and shape public opinion using imagery.6 Using the works of Holmes and Benjamin as point of orientation, I employ two more contemporary critiques of imagery in mass society to make my specific argument as it pertains to Harlem. These critiques are, respectively, images as skins and images creating hyperreality.

Skinning in Harlem

In All Consuming Images, Stuart Ewen discusses the marriage between art and commerce.7 The connection is made between the need for companies to find new markets and the use of imagery to help facilitate this process. Imagery acts as a “lubricant” in the process of buying and selling. The images here are representations of real-life phenomena that have been lifted out of their historical context and used to sell a particular lifestyle. For example, images can create the impression that you don’t have to put in hard work or have natural talent to be a professional athlete—you just need to wear the shoe. Ewen calls these images skins. Advertising agencies appropriate images through this skinning of social realities in order to sell products. Implied in this appropriation is the eventual discarding of the skin in favor of new skins in the future.

Ewen cites the example of punk culture. Punk culture arose in working-class Britain in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a social statement. The punks, as they were called, conspicuously consumed their own type of clothing, rejecting the middle class dress styles worn by others. The punks were rejecting conformity. They created their own style consisting of Dr. Marten’s boots, shaved heads, big chains, and big buckles. Once this style was recognized by industry and seen as profitable, it was appropriated, and marketed to everyone.

A brand of clothing, called Punky’s Underground began to market the punk’s style. The historical significance was lost, as all classes began wearing punk style without any knowledge of how this style was initially generated—or what it really meant. In the process, the original punks could no longer claim distinction based on their clothing and it lost its symbolic power. And then, in time, the new skin of punk lost its novelty to the masses. The skin of punk was discarded by marketers in favor of new skins, and little remained of the original subculture.8

Keeping the example of punk culture in mind, I now turn to the process of skinning in Harlem. The skinning of Harlem consists of people from outside of Harlem’s boundaries coming into the neighborhood and buying “Harlem” goods and experiencing “Harlemworld.”9 I discuss this phenomenon below. With its much discussed revitalization, the Harlem community has witnessed a rise in the number of tourists—from European travelers to people from Long Island just coming to shop on the weekend. It has become hip for those not from the Harlem community to consume Harlem.10 In my view this consumption, while ostensibly a sign of economic wellbeing, has as a necessary side-effect the phenomenon of skinning. Street merchants and business use the imagery of Harlem as a lubricant in order to coax as much tourism business as possible.

While both established business and street merchants trade in Harlem imagery, I will focus on the latter, the more visible of the two. Street merchants are sometimes so numerous on 125th Street that they slow traffic to a standstill as they hawk their goods. Booksellers seem to be the most ubiquitous. Every block one can find a bookstand selling the latest in urban literature. The covers of the books leave no doubt that the subject-matter is that of a glorified, ghettoized lifestyle. In these books, Harlem itself becomes a character.11 At a single bookstand, there may be a collection of politically conscious books or videotapes with the visages of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, or other black intellectuals. Contemporary black intellectuals such as Cornel West and Randall Robinson are also displayed. The only requirement, it seems, is that books by black intellectuals must have as their express purpose the chronicling of the black condition. Thus, there is a paradox present: while reaping the benefits of the current economic climate, street merchants must continue to mine Harlem’s history as a geographical megaphone for black malaise and self-criticism.

But the tourist does not have to haggle with street merchants in order to consume Harlem imagery. I have often walked along 125th Street and seen tourists huddled together in tight circles for safety, or atop double-decker buses, snapping images of the indigenous natives with their digital cameras. A tourist can spend the day in Harlem, and take away a piece of it—to be relived whenever a memory reappears in the mind’s eye. But the tourist’s observation is probably not an accurate depiction of Harlem’s social realities. The constant references to cultural symbols such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the supposedly socially conscious street merchants selling historical videotapes and books do not constitute the Harlem lived by its citizens. These images are prominently placed to capitalize on the tourism influx. Tourists have created the conditions for their own entertainment! This aspect is not lost on Harlemites:

Dexter: “Whites in they little see-through buses. Just taking photos. Like, that is some shit. At the Apollo or something… They come up here to take pictures with video camera and they look right past us… We just doing our thing, living our life, and they snapping pictures. But we taking mental pictures in our head that last longer. And we check them out big time.”12

The unsuspecting tourist, simply out for enjoyment, is partaking in a trade of skinned Harlem images. They are produced to coax out tourist dollars. Because the tourist exists, the images exist. It is these skins of Harlemworld that the tourist takes back home to Queens, to suburbia, or to parts unknown.

There is a danger that the “aura” will be lost. As Ewen writes, the appropriation of something necessarily leads to its discarding in the future.14 With the flooding of the market of Harlem images, the value of those images necessarily goes down. When everybody owns a piece of Harlem, it is no longer worth anything.

Harlem in Hyperreality

People cannot be sold their own skins—being sold a skin relies on a complete ignorance of social reality. So, I find it more theoretically useful to use another concept to describe the effects of images on the insiders of Harlem. Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, argued that in contemporary society we have lost all ability to distinguish between the artificial and the real.15 This happens gradually, he argues, in four phases. First, the image is a mere reflection of reality, and those who witness the image are aware of its artificiality. In the second phase, images mask the reality they initially represented. Third, images gain the power to conceal the absence of said reality, finally leading up to an image having no relation to reality whatsoever—it reproduces models of itself. It is its own simulacrum. Individuals orient their lives to this simulacrum, or hyperreality. Baudrillard argues, “…the territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory…”16 Baudrillard was speaking of society as a whole. However, there is no reason to believe that this hyperreality does not occur in different degrees and to different aspects of people’s lives depending on their particular social and historical conditions. Harlemites are, in my view, enveloped in a parallel but distinct form of hyperreality as compared to the rest of New York City.

Harlemites have a greater choice of consumer goods than ever before. To a great degree, people who live in Harlem have been granted the ability to browse and buy with the same ease and for the same products as in more affluent areas of the city – a model of consumerism that migrated up from midtown Manhattan to 125th Street to mask what is still a very unequal distribution of wealth. Walking along, one gets the impression of vibrancy, of free-wheeling consumerism. Billboards grace the sides of buildings, new stores open each month, and street merchants clog the sidewalk. This is a distortion, a model propped up by credit and slick imagery.

Consumer choice is ostensibly a positive aspect of our society. But in some cases, it can have an illusory air of equality and social mobility. The influx of businesses and the images used to sell these new choices can mask the still wide economic and social inequalities of contemporary New York City. I argue here that Harlem is now a model—albeit a ghettoized one—of the individualistic consumer society that beseeches the rest of America to charge up their credit cards, buying goods they do not need. Indeed, this mode is recreated all over the country and all over the world. Harlem is just another zone in which this model of a model—this hyperreality—has now taken hold.

To understand the power of this distortion, we must first understand its historical antecedents. There was a time when residents of all urban minority areas, including Harlem, struggled to find comparable stores to their counterparts in more affluent areas. “Residents who remained in ‘bad’ areas of the city were underserved by too few stores and shoddy goods—and often had to pay higher prices for them,” and “With little money and few attractive stores around their homes, poor and working class blacks had a rough time shopping.”17 But, at least in the Harlem community, there is now more consumer choice and higher quality goods. This condition helps create a simulation of upward mobility, with the rungs on the ladder being the ability to buy more and more socially recognized consumer goods.

The fashion industry—which owns most of the billboards in Harlem—uses the same techniques in Harlem today as it has done since the 1960s in other markets: images of individualism and rebellion are employed to give their clothes an air of distinction and uniqueness.18 Today, these images of rebellion are taken directly from urban culture. Urban culture, embodied in the young black male, is perceived to present a rejection of authority and conformity not unlike the example of punk culture discussed earlier. Zukin writes about the confluence of urban and mainstream fashion in the 1990s and how urban style became a major source of revenue for brands such as Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, and Calvin Klein.19 She argues that these clothiers recognized how white mainstream America (especially young white males) identified with what was perceived to be a rejection of social mores by black males, and began buying in droves what became urban clothing. The clothiers started marketing urban styles to white America in shopping zones such as 34th and 59th Streets in Manhattan. Eventually, they brought their marketing techniques up to one of the areas which helped generate the phenomenon in the first place—Central Harlem. Thus, you have the situation of corporations appropriating style from urban minority centers like Harlem, reformulating it into their own interpretations of rebellious individualism, and selling it right back to those same urban centers.

Options give the consumer the power of choice, of freedom. We are told, through images, that we can improve our lot not through internal changes or by the help of our fellow man, but by purchases: “When shopping is a social encounter, when it is done in the supposedly democratic air of a public space, this imagined upward mobility gives us a sharp experience of being on the edge between freedom and inequality.”20 Harlemites have the power and freedom to choose consumer goods—they are on the edge of freedom and inequality, with the express feeling that freedom (equality) is attainable with their next purchase. But this world of choice created by corporations and businesses is not freedom and opportunity in a real sense. This hyperreality of freedom has direct political consequences, which we must now explore.

The Politics of Harlem

In Harlem World, John L. Jackson, Jr., writes, “All communities police the symbolic boundaries that surround them. Harlem’s symbolic import is such, however, that even those who do no live within its ostensible borders can be heard invoking its social and symbolic significance….”21 There is a symbolic boundary surrounding Harlem, one that is recognized by both insiders and outsiders. It is this symbolic boundary that I believe is being diffused by images divorced from reality. The geographical zone of Harlem will always remain intact, but the identity of Harlem as a specific cultural zone may be in jeopardy. It is in this respect that the political entity of Harlem is being compromised.

However, as time goes on, and as images of Harlem continue to flood New York and other places, there could be a devaluation of Harlem’s symbolic currency. People may no longer view Harlem as a distinct entity. Ideas that now hold political currency – such as reserving housing for native Harlemites as development takes place – may in the future fall on deaf ears. Or in the future, the African-American Day parade may find itself on an avenue other than Lenox, or even in another area of the city such as Jamaica. Even if the parade does stay in Harlem, mayors may see no political value in marching in it. In the worst-case scenario, Harlem will dissolve into just another area of Upper Manhattan.

To the insiders of Harlem, there is still, I believe, a sense of community. However, corporate America continues to seize upon the new market of Harlem, creating a model that stresses individualism and action through consumption. This hyperreality does not have a place for collectives; individuals end up perceiving themselves as living in ahistorical vacuums. The outlet through which individuals can express their identity and exercise their autonomy is that of consumer choice. This emphasis on individual choice implies a de-emphasis on collective action.

It now seems as if the residents of Harlem are not as concerned with the dilution of their community as they once were. If the black population of New York City as a whole can act as an indicator of Harlem, then the 2005 mayoral election, in which the Republican incumbent received 50% of the black vote, shows that citizens of Harlem are less concerned with gentrification than with other issues.22 This is an indicator of the hyperreality of Harlem: residents are so satisfied with the superficial visual changes that the incumbent personifies (read: I can buy more stuff), that despite the growing income gap and rising rents leading to their displacement from the community they call home, they are still content to vote in favor of their own dissolution.

Conclusion: The Battle for the Windows to the Conscious

Harlem’s most visible art location, the Studio Museum of Harlem, examined issues of identity (or loss of identity) in a recent exhibition entitled Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor. Like the present essay, the exhibit wrestled with the idea that historical context is a necessary component of a full understanding of happenings in our world:

To a degree, these architects reverse the typical developer’s ploy of contrasting a Bleak Before (urban blight) with a Happily Ever After (cityscapes sanitized of all sense of place)…. They propose historical awareness as the most vital place of equipment…23

The Studio Museum presents an opportunity for artists to raise political awareness in Harlem. However, in my view, exhibitions like Harlemworld are not capable of raising this awareness. Admittedly, the Studio Museum did not set out to address political issues overtly.24 However, this exhibition does provide an example of what not to do for artists who wish to raise the political awareness of the masses—or partake in the battle for the public eye.

As Zukin observes, “…the revolutionary achievement of mass consumption has been to construct another space between the self and civil society—and by shopping, we place ourselves in this space.”25 In my view, artists who wish to be political have to accomplish a similar feat: construct a visual space that allows individuals to reconnect with civil society, to understand that true choice is realized not in consumption but through political action. This can be done, I believe, by grounding images with historical context. Only in this manner can meaning be reinvested in images, and can the process of skinning – and the construction of hyppereality – be curtailed.

This task is not to be taken lightly. It is a battle for the eye of the masses—a battle for the windows into the consciousness of individuals. Artists must use their creativity to ground the superficial, to provide weight to the fluffy and insubstantial, to provide meaning to that which has been made trivial, to reconnect history to that which has been divested of context. In this manner, people can begin seeing through the veil of consumerism, and can begin exercising their political voice through collective action.

Bourdieu’s arguments may provide some insight into this process. In writing about the sociology of photography, Bourdieu argues that for the French working class and peasants, the use of photography was a family function. Photography was used to record solemn or festive communal activities. These images were then used in future social gatherings to reaffirm one’s familial roles and ties. The image, when used to make communal records, has a tendency to strengthen ties between people. It is only when people begin to lose those ties that they begin to abstract the photograph and emphasize the aesthetic nature of the images produced—photographs become art works to be bought and sold. This line of reasoning is developed comprehensively in Distinction, where artistic tastes as a whole (not just photography) are given two broad demarcations, pure and barbarous: the former, being that possessed by classes of high cultural capital, are predisposed to abstraction and the latter, being that possessed by the middle and lower classes, have a taste for art that has a continuity with everyday life.26 Visual artists with a sense of political mission may find Bourdieu’s writings instructive. It may be that the images produced by visual artists will only have an impact if they are reconnected with the everyday lives of people as they experience them.


1. The East Harlem/El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) community stretches from First Avenue to Fifth Avenue and from East 96th Street to East 125th Street. Central Harlem stretches from Central Park North to the Harlem River and from Fifth Avenue to St. Nicholas Avenue. West Harlem, including Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill, stretches from 123rd to 155th Streets and from St. Nicholas Avenue to the Hudson River. It is usually Central Harlem that is considered the Harlem of cultural lore, and my present discussion refers to this area.

2. For a history of Harlem, including recent development and revitalization, see: Taylor Monique M., 2002. Harlem: Between Heaven and Hell: University of Minnesota Press.

3. To my knowledge, the connections I posit in the following are not discussed with specific reference to Harlem. When cultural production in Harlem is discussed, it is usually with respect to three areas: the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century, the Jazz Age musicians and clubs, and the social upheavals of the ‘60s.

4. Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” (1859). From Beaumont Newhall, Photography, Essays, and Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography. New York (Museum of Modern Art) 1992.

5. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations. New York. 1968.

6. As this paper is about images and their relation to the mass audience, I would be remiss if I did not mention the influence of LeBon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. P. David Marshall makes a compelling argument in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture that it was Le Bon’s early work on crowd behavior that influenced much of the reaction to the masses, or, as Le Bon called them, the mob.

7. Ewen, Stuart. 1990. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. Harpers.

8. Ewen, pp. 251 – 253.

9. The Harlemworld construct derives from two places. It comes most obviously from the label used by many late ‘90s rappers to describe their urban world—most notably Mason Betha (MASE) and Sean Puffy Combs of Bad Boy Entertainment. But secondly, and more substantially, it is much informed by John L. Jackson Jr., Harlem World: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America, where the term Harlem World is used extensively.

10. This is certainly correlated to race, but is not determined by it. African-Americans from the Midwest or South can also be classified as outsiders. The effects of their consumption are the same.

11. An example of this would be Harlem Girl Lost, by Treasure E. Blue.

12. Harlem World, p. 178 (emphasis added).

13. Franco the Great’s real name is Frank Gaskin. His murals cover the outside of numerous steel security gates used to cover stores on 125th Street. For more information on Gaskin (and more pictures of his murals) see the Summer 2005 edition of Studio, the magazine of the Studio Museum of Harlem.

14. Ewen, p.253

15. Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press.

16. Ibid., p.6

17. Ibid, pp. 145-169.

18. See Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, University of Chicago Press, 1997 for an excellent discussion of this point.

19. “Like rap music and professional basketball, certain designer labels have made a racial crossover. Identified as ‘black,’ they enjoy enormous commercial success among all shoppers, but especially among teenage males; their advertisements in fashion magazines play on the dubious dangers of the streets and the outward signs of criminal cultures” Zukin, p. 146 (emphasis added).

20. Ibid., p. 29.

21. Jackson, p.18

22. “Mayor crossed ethnic barrier for big victory,” New York Times, November 10, 2005.

23. Muschcamp, H. “Metaphors Rise in Harlem Sky,” New York Times, February 13, 2004.

24. Muschcamp writes that the architects at the Studio Museum “Us[ed] a model for structural analysis developed by the social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the project parodies academic efforts to link defined spatial forms to the complexities of cultural difference.”

25. Zukin, p. 32

26. See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard Press: 1984. First published in France in 1979.

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