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The Significance of Art in the #OccupyWallStreet Movement

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st April 2012


Interesting debate. Amongst the participants is Ross Wolfe, the author of what is probably one of the best blogs of all time.

Ross Wolfe’s text is appended below.

The Significance of Art in the Occupy Movement from Platypus Affiliated Society on Vimeo.

Description of the panel:

“The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has altered conceptions of the international socio-political environment on the left, and has accordingly sent shock-waves throughout the realm of art and culture. In solidarity with OWS, artists took their work to the streets, creating on-site carnivalesque performances as forms of protest. Artists globally designed posters and logos to collectively construct the aesthetic appeal of the movement, and more significantly, diverse groups of artists organized to “Occupy Museums,” such as the MoMA, the Frick Collection, and New Museum, critiquing them as as “temples of cultural elitism.” Occupy Museums claims that the mainstream art world circuit is complicit in neoliberal capitalism and caters to the interests of the “1%.” Overall, OWS has renewed a sense of political urgency within the art world that has up to now been relegated to the margins. This panel critically investigates the role of art and culture in the Occupy movement, and how OWS has affected the infrastructure of the mainstream art world. What role does art play in the political struggles that OWS seeks to accomplish? In what ways is OWS a resource for creating change in the way art is produced, received, and distributed? These questions, among others, will act as the touchstone for artists and cultural theorists to asses how art and politics affect each other as the OWS continues to take form.

Noah Fischer is a Brooklyn-based artist originally from north of San Francisco. He has exhibited kinetic art installations, photographs, and sculpture in New York, Europe, and India. He has also worked collaboratively with the Berlin-based performance group andcompany&Co. Noah initiated Occupy Subways and Occupy Museums in the first weeks of OWS. Noah is the curator of the No-Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center.

Maria Byck is a video artist and activist. She was part of the Congress of the Collectives at Flux Factory. With the Occupy Wall Street movement, she has worked on programming RevTalks and the Empowerment and Education Open Forum series, and collaborates with the live streaming media team. She is a member of Occupy Cinema and Occupy Museums. Maria has been a member of the Paper Tiger Television video collective since 2005. She has a Masters in Media Studies from the New School.

Ross Wolfe is a graduate student at the University of Chicago focusing on early Soviet history, Marxism, critical theory, avant-garde art and architecture, contemporary political issues (activism, anticapitalism, environmentalism), and radical utopianism.”

Ross Wolfe‘s contribution:

OF GUILDS AND MUSEA: AN INQUIRY INTO THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL DIMENSIONS OF ART IN #OWS

“Early in the first chapter of his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx observes that “just as [men] seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.”

It is thus perhaps to be expected that during our present moment of political upheaval, we should look to the struggles of a bygone age for guidance. What distinguishes this crisis from the other great outpourings of popular unrest witnessed over the last few centuries, however, is the rather jumbled and confused manner in which the past is being reappropriated. The detritus of dead epochs is dug up for all to see, whereupon it is hastily sifted through in search of anything that might admit of creative reuse. Recycled revolutionary catchphrases appear hoisted above the scattered throngs of protestors. Placards demanding “All power to the General Assemblies!” are held up beside banners reading “The Oakland Commune.” Some signs advise us to “Be realistic — demand the impossible,” while others inform us that “Another world is possible.” Slogans of more recent coinage can also be seen: “People before profit!” and “We are the 99%!” Sewn together from disparate sources in the history of the Left, #Occupy almost seems to represent a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of the radical imagination. Here might lie the unconscious motivation behind the highly publicized “zombie march” that took place in those early days of #OWS, even if the marchers understood themselves as portraying the brainless dupes of corporate greed. At this point, however, the ahistorical residue of postmodern consciousness takes its revenge on history: the past becomes pastiche.

Among the more perplexing appellations to have come back into currency amongst groups affiliated with #Occupy, however, is that of the “guild,” which has been lent a new lease on life through its adoption by the Arts & Labor working group. Though it would perhaps be a mistake to place too much importance on the choice of this term, it still begs the question: Why “guilds,” instead of something else? What’s in a name? Does it not suggest some sort of crypto-atavism, the romantic longing for a precapitalist past?

Here it becomes necessary to consider, as Chris asked the members of this panel, “what past attempts at organizing cultural producers have worked and failed.” Nostalgia for guilds is hardly a new phenomenon (William Morris’ utopian News from Nowhere advocated something similar), but the historical reality of these institutions should be remembered before blithely deciding to take up their mantle. Most of this nostalgia, of course, stems from the feeling of disenchantment brought about by the heightened development of techniques allowing for the serial reproduction of art. This technical reproducibility of art undermined the “aura” surrounding the authentic, original work of art — “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” The loss of this aura associated with the rise of industrial and mass-production placed a new premium on the artisanal artwork, on “craftsmanship.” Toward the end of the nineteenth century, this reaction against the deadening regularity of mechanization and standardization culminated in the Arts & Crafts movement.

But we should not allow our distaste with the products of mass culture blind us to the actual conditions under which the guilds existed. Guilds were traditionally secretive and intensely hierarchical organizations. “Secrets of the trade” were kept under lock and key for generations, holding society at large hostage to their exclusive specialty. Within the guilds themselves, there was a clearly delineated structure of authority. The classic line of division in the guild ran between guildmasters and journeymen. In practice, however, there existed any number of intermediate ranks. Either way, these basic features of guilds would seem to fly in the face of both the “culture of transparency” and horizontalism championed by #Occupy. This does not even take into account the almost exclusively patriarchal nature of trade guilds. With very few exceptions, guilds were male-only.

It is therefore little wonder why revolutionary thinkers such as Smith and Rousseau would heap such scorn upon the guilds (or “corporations,” as they were often called). “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion,” remarked the former, “but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” So reactionary in the eyes of Smith were these “adulterine guilds” — i.e., “any particular class of artificers or traders [acting] as a corporation” — that he actually proposed the intervention of the crown in “the defense of the common liberty against such oppressive monopolies [i.e., the guilds].” Marx’s own estimation of the guilds was scarcely distinguishable from that of the great economist.

The question of what reform or revolution would mean for art itself is a difficult one to resolve. Here, the issue is not what role art might play in effecting general social transformation, but rather what the implications of such a transformation of society might be for art. While no one in the #Occupy movement (at least to my knowledge) has as yet attempted to provide a comprehensive vision of how artists and their work would fit into an emancipated society, it is nevertheless possible to ascertain a rough sense of the kind of world that is being imagined from some of the statements that have been made. The Occupy Museums group, in outlining its underlying rationale, has raised a number of legitimate criticisms of the way that the art world presently operates. Its indictment of the curatorial elite, the speculations and manipulations enacted by wealthy tastemakers and connoisseurs, the cult of artistic celebrity they promote, and the disproportionate influence wielded by moneyed interests on museum boards — these are all quite valid points, which have been satirized at length by authors like Tom Wolfe (in his book on The Painted Word). Clearly, to use the parlance popularized by #Occupy, the “99%” do not feel represented by either the form or content expressed by the artistic establishment.

Considering the broader historical context out of which museums emerged, however, some of these criticisms do begin to seem a bit lopsided. Museums, which are a fairly recent innovation, were originally introduced as part of an effort to democratize access to cultural artifacts and other objects of general interest (natural history, aeronautics, space expeditions). Art in ancient times was virtually inseparable from their religious or civic-imperial function. Following the rise of Christianity, art fell under the almost exclusive domain of the ecclesiastical First Estate, in which artistic production was carried out more or less anonymously, as opera Dei [works of God]. With the general secularization signaled by the European Renaissance and the self-assertion of the landed nobility, patronage of the arts largely passed into the hands of the aristocratic Second Estate. The history of museums is inextricably linked to the bourgeois epoch, the ascendancy of the Third Estate. Now it is of course true that these institutions reflected the spirit of bourgeois philanthropy and collectors’ Orientalist fascination with the culture of colonial subject-peoples.

So Noah was certainly correct to point out that

- Museums don’t follow “progressive stack” (a strategy from Occupy Wall Street that empowers underrepresented voices to be heard). Museums began as a means to display the stolen spoils of colonialism. This legacy of racism, patriarchy, and exploitation permeates many museums, and is one reason why one finds so little race, gender, and class diversity in the art canon.

Without wanting to revisit the exhausting “canon wars” that was waged over the last quarter-century, however, I think it can be it can be uncontroversially asserted that the emphasis on multicultural inclusiveness by now almost borders on overcompensation. Elif Batuman’s caustic criticism, leveled recently, that “[t]he World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of ‘universal literary value’ with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemized as ‘difference’” holds true for the art world as well.

On the subject of museums, the Futurist avant-garde of the early twentieth century was already more radical, more complete and thus more civilized in its relentless barbarism. “We intend to destroy museums, libraries, academies of every sort,” Marinetti announced, in the Founding Manifesto. Aleksei Gan, the theoretician of constructivism, took this further in 1922, declaring “uncompromising war on art.” One of his colleagues, Gollerbakh, derisively referred to museums as “the cemeteries of dead art.” Though the modernists’ nihilistic gesture towards the past was doubtless overstated, the revolutionary sentiment that lay behind it was at the same time more sincere. The old world was burning. It was time to build a new world on the ashes of the old.

The role of art in society that is envisioned by groups like Art & Labor and Occupy Museums may not be spelled out exactly in any of their documents, but some of its features may be guessed from the discontent they exhibit toward the status quo. Noah’s call to arms for Occupy Museums is illustrative in this case:

- The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning the absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities.

Nowhere is it stated explicitly, but the suggestion here seems to be that there actually is such a thing as “the artists of the 99%,” who would presumably produce art on behalf of the vast majority of the population. Objecting to the ubiquity of “big money” in the art world, the tacit suggestion contained in these lines is that the state should seek to curtail the influence of wealthy individuals and cliques on individual artists and their work. The imaginary at work in such a recommendation is that culture and the arts should receive more funding from the state. In all likelihood, the model they would be following is that of the “social-democratic paradise” of Europe, whose welfare state is now rapidly unraveling through austerity. The taxes devoted to the arts by society would fund a special caste of artists originally drawn from society, but who are ultimately set apart. Of course, what is deemed “art” and who is deemed an “artist” is left unclear. Such an approach would not necessarily liberate the production or consumption of art in society: it would only substitute the tyranny of the market for the tyranny of the state.

I do not fault groups like Art & Labor or Occupy Museums for advancing such proposals. The radical imagination, that faint intuition that the world could be otherwise than it is, has been systematically impoverished over the last century of depoliticization. In making these criticisms, then, I do not mean to imply that reforms like the ones I just sketched would not be desirable. My only point is that they do not go far enough. We must not constrain ourselves to thinking within the framework of redistributive taxation, regulation, or the state. So long as the state exists, it can only serve as a medium for the domination of one class by the other. Nor should we content ourselves with the notion that a liberated society would merely allocate provisions such that some people (but not others) could be artists. “The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in certain individuals, and its consequent suppression in the broad masses of the people, is an effect of the division of labor,” observed Marx, long ago. “In [an emancipated] society, there are no painters, but at most men who, among other things, also paint.”

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4 Responses to “The Significance of Art in the #OccupyWallStreet Movement”

  1. Ross Wolfe Says:

    Thank you again for the kind words, praise of which I am no doubt undeserving. (And this not out of false modesty, but from knowing how many great blogs there are in the world).

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Hi Ross, perhaps you can share your list of world-class blogs?

  3. Ross Wolfe Says:

    I will draw up a list, probably limited to English- and Russian-language blogs. Some of the best Russian blogs are actually on Livejournal, for whatever reason. They took over Livejournal long after the rest of the world moved on.

  4. Michel Bauwens Says:

    thanks Ross!

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