Essays

The 1970 New York Artists’ Strike that Prefigured #J20

The #J20 Art Strike resonates with the approach of the 1970 New York Artists’ Strike against Racism, Sexism, Repression and War, also commonly referred to as the Art Strike.

The Art Strike on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 22, 1970. Robert Morris and Poppy Johnson, strike co-chairs, at right, debate museum vice-director Joseph Noble, at left beside striking artist Art Coppedge (photo by Jan van Raay and used with permission)

Editor’s note: This part of a series of essays commissioned by Hyperallergic about the #J20 Art Strike, whose purpose and terms are articulated in a letter signed by dozens of critics, artists, curators, and gallerists. The #J20 Art Strike is proposed in solidarity with other #J20 actions taking place across the country that demand business does not proceed as usual on inauguration day. The art strike asks individuals and institutions to close or otherwise observe the day of noncompliance.

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This week’s J20 Art Strike is a decentralized call for artists, critics, art historians, dealers, curators, and museums across the US to stop work on Inauguration Day as part of the broader #J20 resistance movement protesting the incoming administration of Donald Trump. The J20 Art Strike is an opportunity to reflect on what the new administration portends for art. Announced as “An Act of Noncompliance on Inauguration Day,” it responds to the presidential transition with the assertion that “business should not proceed as usual in any realm.”

This resonates with the approach of the May 22, 1970 New York Artists’ Strike against Racism, Sexism, Repression and War, also commonly referred to as the Art Strike. The 1970 Art Strike responded to different circumstances than the upcoming one. It was called in the weeks after President Nixon announced he had expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Protesting students had been shot and killed at Kent State and Jackson State universities. Police in Augusta, Georgia had killed six black men and injured some 75 more protesting the death of a black prisoner. The strike memorialized these deaths and the three black students killed and 27 wounded by police two years earlier while demonstrating against racial segregation at the bowling alley at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Responding to the death of protesters at the hands of the police and National Guard, the strike proclaimed itself an “expression of shame and outrage at our government’s policies of racism, war and repression.”

Despite the different circumstances, many of the concerns artists expressed in 1970 continue to resonate today. During the Art Strike and in the months before and after, artists argued that trustees exploited their positions on museum boards to distract from their involvement in an oligarchy that perpetrated the Vietnam War. New York museums were asked to instead focus on the needs of more of the city’s residents, to exhibit the work of black, Puerto Rican, and women artists, and to include artists on their boards. The artists responded to an atmosphere of crisis by pointing to ways in which the institutions and structures of the art world appeared culpable and then sought to change them.

In the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration, many artists have made art to protest his presidency. While artists involved in the J20 Art Strike and in the 1970 Art Strike have explained their actions as a refusal to normalize a moment of crisis, they have taken different approaches. This week, J20 organizers are asking for a one-day work stoppage. In 1970, artists went beyond this by making the dramatic gesture of withdrawing their art from museums and asking that their exhibitions be closed indefinitely. Robert Morris announced he had closed his exhibition at the Whitney Museum “to underscore the need I and others feel to shift priorities at this time from art making and viewing to unified action within the art community against the intensifying conditions of repression, war and racism in this country.” Adrian Piper withdrew her artwork from an exhibition at the New York Cultural Center and replaced it with a statement that her action was “a protective measure against the increasingly pervasive conditions of fear … I submit its absence as evidence of the inability of art expression to have meaningful existence under conditions other than those of peace, equality, truth, trust and freedom.” In an earlier draft of her statement, Piper had described conditions of “repression, racism, hypocrisy, and murder.” Simplifying these to a single word, “fear,” suggested an overwhelmingly oppressive environment in which the government had turned against its own citizens to suppress dissent.

The withdrawal of art and closing of museum exhibitions also made the important point that these institutions were implicated in the crisis. For example, Robert Morris argued that “a reassessment of the art structure itself seems timely — its values, its policies, its modes of control, its economic presumptions, its hierarchy of existing power and administration.” J20 Art Strike organizers and those who have signed on have made similar arguments. “Could we devote some energy to thinking about how art and artists are embedded, whether we like it or not, in economic and social networks that surround and sustain Trump?” Coco Fusco asked recently. Hal Foster, pointing out that billionaire tycoons who finance the far right sit on prominent museum boards, asks us to consider how “the neoliberal museum has become normalized … and the art world has become an engine of inequality.”

Artists embraced a tactic of direct address in 1970 by asking New York City’s art museums and galleries to not only close but also “make available their main floors to the public, free of charge, for information activities against war, racism and repression.” While the artists said that they would be present to engage with visitors and “politicize” them, they insisted that museum directors, staff, and visitors take responsibility for the crisis, as demonstrated by a handbill written by the artists addressed directly to the reader:

You are involved in the murderous devastation of S.E. Asia

You are involved in racism, in persecution of Young Lords and Black Panthers

You are involved in discrimination and exploitation of women

You are involved in political repression at home

You are involved in the support of fascist dictators abroad

You are involved in these crimes committed in your name by your government

YOU ARE INVOLVED UNLESS YOU STOP IT!

This museum is also INVOLVED.

Art Strike poster, (1970), Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s–2010, bulk, 1960s–1990 (image courtesy the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution) (click to enlarge)

The response from museums in 1970 was similar to the ways in which they have responded to the J20 Art Strike. The Whitney Museum of American Art came closest to meeting the 1970 Art Strike’s demands: It closed for the day, like the Jewish Museum and New York Cultural Center, and also created space for the display of protest materials. At the request of staff, the Whitney displayed Peter Saul’s satirical painting about the Vietnam War, “Saigon,” in the lobby. This year, the Whitney is not closing, but will host “Artists Speak Out,” organized by Occupy Museums, inviting artists, critics, and art workers to speak at the museum and carry the conversation into the streets in coordination with other #J20 events. This time, it is the Queens Museum that has decided to close its exhibitions on Inauguration Day, and instead “host … the community [for] production of signs, posters, banners, and buttons in preparation for upcoming marches and actions” of January 21, when the Women’s March on Washington and aligned regional events are scheduled.

Other museums resisted the 1970 Art Strike demand to close and, as some museums have responded to this week’s Art Strike, insisted on the constructive role they might play in an atmosphere of crisis. In 1970, Karl Katz, director of the Jewish Museum, explained that “functioning museums can serve to help in the present situation.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a move that was both sympathetic and contrary to the strike, extended its hours for the day of the strike as “a positive gesture.” Approximately 500 artists responded by picketing the Met, which issued a statement that its “responsibility to the people of New York is best served by remaining open and allowing art to work its salutary effect on the minds and spirits of all of us.”

The Art Strike pickets the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 22, 1970 (photo by Jan van Raay)

In response to the J20 Art Strike, most museums have taken a similar stance. In a Facebook post, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles announced its decision to remain open and waive the admission fee as a constructive gesture: “In celebration of the First Amendment, and our ongoing commitment to honoring the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that make The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the United States so deeply rich, MOCA will be free on Inauguration Day.” The suggestion is that the pedagogical value of art and the regular way of doing business in the art world offer only inspiration and solutions to the nation’s divisions — that museums are above criticism.

In 1970, some saw the closing of museums as a harmful act tantamount to censorship. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) director John Hightower warned that asking museums to close “puts you in the same position of Hitler in the 30s and 40s, Stalin in the 50s and more recently the Soviet repression of free expression of Czechoslovakia.” MoMA remained open, waived its admission fee, and opened a “pro-youth” exhibition of press photographs of recent student protests. The most antagonistic attitude was that of Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Messer who denounced what he regarded as the hypocrisy of the strike. Interpreting the demand to close as a threat, he had the art removed from the walls, ostensibly to protect it from violent protestors, and kept the Guggenheim open as if to display the consequences of the strike, explaining, “the museum’s empty walls are in themselves a sobering comment on violence and coercion of every kind.” The absence of art served to indict the strike.

The artists disagreed. In one of the most important parallels with this week’s Art Strike, they drew a distinction between art and the institutions that exhibited it. As Piper’s statement of withdrawal makes clear, she acted to protect her art from exploitation, not to change or destroy it. The strike served notice that the status quo would not be tolerated. This week’s Art Strike takes a similar approach. As organizers explain, “it is not a strike against art, theater, or any other cultural form. It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced.” Fusco asks whether artists can imagine “ways of refusing to provide or allow … super rich Trump backers to look cool while they make our lives impossible.” When oligarchs sit on museum boards, Foster asks, “At what cost comes the deal?” Closing the museums creates the opportunity to refuse the terms of the deal, if only for a day, and reconsider art’s role in our society. If art sometimes helps us understand each other better, does it also serve unwittingly to normalize the inequities that divide us? If art can be exploited by those who wield disproportionate power in the US, does withholding it create an opportunity to empower artists?

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