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During the Progressive Era, when lilies were gilded and political parties were run by corporate marauders, American novelists like Upton Sinclair, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser used creative expression to bring social issues to public consciousness. When the Black Power movement of the 1960s began gaining momentun, its political work was balanced by a host of novels, paintings, poetry, music, and dance that shifted conversations of identity, racial pride, and equality into an artistic context. Social and political movements throughout history have been tempered, expanded, and refocused by companion movements in the arts. It is only fitting, then, that the latest social movement is the rightful heir to this tradition.
From the outset, the Occupy Wall Street movement gained notoriety for its creative and witty signs. Zuccotti Park has been christened a “street art utopia” by some in the media, and a site of populist expression for the mediums of puppetry, sculpture, poetry, and performance art. The Arts and Culture Committee of the movement has utilized art, not just as a means of casting a critical eye on the status quo, but also as a means of active protest.
But five weeks after the occupation began, art made the transition from tool of protest to object of political derision when a group calling themselves Occupy Museums began a series of protests outside the MoMA and the New Museum, while also pointing to The Frick Collection as another institution worthy of their efforts.
Why? The protestors’ responses to media inquiries cited goals that ranged from more free museum nights, to using “the democratic process to bring people together and learn what a society that is not about money is like”—a comment made to the San Francisco Chronicle by Noah Fischer, a Brooklyn based artist (‘04 SoA) who instigated the protests. The protestors haven’t made clear the specific changes they would like to take place. In interviews Fischer has given, he seems disinclined to put forward any concrete requests, relying instead on vague gestures to the Occupy movement as a whole, saying things like, “Understanding Occupy Museums is understanding what Occupy is,” in an interview with Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City.
Some may contest, saying that Fischer is recruiting the movement’s buzzword for a cause that hasn’t maintained connection with its purported roots. When I spoke with Justin Stone-Diaz, the on-site information coordinator at Zuccotti Park, the moment that the words “Occupy Museums” left my lips, he laughed, declaring “I have a lot to say about that.”
“The word ‘occupy’ has become the best way to brand whatever your activism is,” Stone-Diaz says. He contends that a number of different movements have sprung up in recent weeks that have appropriated the word “Occupy” without having any real affiliation with the original movement. “It’s really unclear what their goals are and how they fit in to our organization. We haven’t really seen them here,” he says. Several articles from different sources say that Occupy Museums was, in fact, a project of the Arts and Culture Committee of Occupy Wall Street. However, no one I spoke to at Zuccotti Park could confirm this.
“Splinter groups have the capacity either to add to the principal movement’s momentum or to steal some of its thunder,” says Paula Franzese, professor of political science at Barnard. “In this case, it would seem that variations on the Occupy Wall Street theme can only add to its force. The challenge is for OWS to more coherently and strenuously put forth a prescriptive agenda for reform.”
It’s not only a prescriptive agenda that’s missing from Occupy Museums, but a focused conversation on a large scale about what issues the arts are really facing. In Fischer’s manifesto, he puts forth abstract criticisms of the “absolute equation of art with capital,” but there’s no specific mention of the sorts of problems that plague, say, art programs in the public education system, or in low-income communities.
Michele Elam, professor of literature at Stanford University, echoes this criticism. “I think it’s not just a complaint that they don’t have a plan,” she says. “It’s about connecting the dots, connecting it to a larger conversation.” Elam, who wrote a piece for CNN Opinion about the role art plays in the OWS movement, hopes that the movement will gravitate toward a more focused examination of what makes art possible in our society: for organizations and individuals to produce, for students to have in schools, and for people to experience in their daily life.
The decentralized nature of the Occupy movement creates a space in which any one person’s goals, desires, or criticisms can be voiced. Aspects of New York museum culture may, in fact, have much in common with Occupy Wall Street. It is certainly unsettling, one of MoMa’s trustees, Kathleen Fuld, is the wife of Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers this year’s symbol of Wall Street criminality. Not to mention that this year the world’s leading auction houses are taking in record revenue, generated by the same top-tier executives whose fiscal hubris tanked the economy.
But are museums really the most culpable party in the problematic relationship between art and wealth? They wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open, and certainly wouldn’t be able to provide for free nights, without the funding and support of powerful people. Furthermore, is it the most productive use of time, energy and resources to upbraid museums without submitting feasible suggestions for how they could alter the way they operate? Issuing rambling, obscure manifestos or insisting that $25 is too much to pay for admission isn’t going to endear the movement to the public. If Occupy Museums wants real change in the art world, it not only needs to identify the specific attributes of the current system that it takes issue with, but also prescriptive measures for change.
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