Essays

We Need to Start Now: A Personal Case for the Art Strike

Why the #J20 Art Strike is important and why those of us who can should take part.

(graphic by the author for Hyperallergic, original photograph via flickr.com/tonythemisfit)

Editor’s note: This part of a series of essays published 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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The first time the US government forced those of us from Muslim-majority countries to register, the art community was silent. I don’t mean there was little dissent; rather, there was none. In 2002, the Bush administration concocted the NSEERS program to register non-citizens like me from 25 countries, 24 of which were Muslim-majority nations. I was in group one, which included people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. By the following year, 82,581 US residents had registered and at least 13,153 (16%) had been placed in deportation proceedings. I was one of the lucky ones.

You don’t forget moments like that in your life, when the world shifts upside down and the country where you reside, then consumed by post-9/11 hysteria, turns a blind eye to you and those like you. We were disposable, or at least it certainly felt that way.

Since the discussions began last month about a #J20 Art Strike, I’ve seen sparks of hope that this type of apathy won’t occur again — that a community that has long prized freedom is taking a stand and ensuring its readiness to respond. But those signs of hope are coupled with people who seek to justify their inaction — or, more accurately, their calculated replies — by standing on the sidelines with wry commentary; they imagine that new federal policies won’t touch their lives.

Resistance is a daily activity, not an event. It built to a mass scale late in the George W. Bush administration, but only after political decisions had been made and disastrous programs had already been put in place  — in other words, far too late. Many of us remember the muted media coverage of the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC) protests. The primary march was one of the largest protests in US history, but it still didn’t have the intended impact on the election. We need to start now.

The #J20 Art Strike is part of a national day of actions planned for Inauguration Day. And in fact, the notion of an “art strike” has precedence in the United States. In 1969–70, the Art Workers Coalition initiated a “Moratorium of Art to End the War in Vietnam.” At the time, museums were more pliable and willing to close, and in fact, many did for a day. Out of the major Manhattan art museums, only the Guggenheim didn’t respond.

My desire to participate in this week’s art strike is personal. Ultimately, I can only explain why it’s important for me and sketch out what I believe to be the pressing issues at hand.

Some of us would like to believe art is transcendent, but it isn’t and it never was. Art has always been weighed down by history and our individual relationships to power and images, as well as the ability to engage with them on our own terms. Those of us with privilege ideally use it to help others gain access to opportunities to learn and grow, but the idea that bringing someone into a museum is enough is a wishful fiction.

Part of the appeal of the art strike for me came after my trip to Standing Rock last November, when I encountered many artists engaged in prayer as part of the struggle. One artist in particular made a strong impression on me, Raven Chacon of the Postcommodity collective. He explained that his experience there was helping him understand the idea of silence, because the police who provoked the water protectors knew what to do with chants and slogans, but prayers, which were often silent, confused them. “They don’t know how to respond to silence,” he told me. “It becomes a feedback loop when you start yelling. Even signs, they can be used, but when it is people standing there, all people, just standing there, then police don’t know what to do. When everyone went into a circle, you could almost feel the police wanting to do the same … ”

This strange mirroring — most famously exemplified at Standing Rock by Cannupa Hanska Luger’s mirror shields — made me think that we need to consider new tactics to fight the danger that awaits us with the incoming administration. Trump uses the static and noise of media coverage to his advantage, often conflating volume with veracity, substituting entertainment for dialogue, and appearing to get a thrill from dismissing and silencing his critics. How do we flip the script? Creating an absence seems like a particularly apt and underused weapon, particularly when there are many right-wing activists trying to sabotage #J20 events to create a false tale of chaos and anarchy.

Many critics of the art strike have argued that museums should remain open because they function as a neutral space for dialogue, or even as an escape — as if the world magically ended at the front doors of these institutions and, upon walking through them, we were all released from our burdens. That is a privileged perspective. Others are deliberately misreading or misunderstanding the parameters of the action, which promises to be only one of many; the art strike is not an end in itself, but an opportunity to begin to reimagine a community that has slowly turned into the lapdog of neoliberalism through its subservience to plutocrats and power.

One of the most vulnerable groups in our midst is undocumented immigrants, who are pushed to the margins, burdened by a sense of isolation, and often learn to mistrust public institutions. Many of them see those institutions, including museums, as a continuation of the state, and they have every right to, since museums often echo the ideologies of elites and their taxonomies of culture and value.

I recently spoke to Laura Raicovich, director of the Queens Museum, who mentioned that her institution has noticed a post-election drop in attendance from local residents, who are predominantly Latinx and recent immigrants. Anecdotally, she has heard that growing fears of a new administration in those communities may be contributing to the dip. It should be mentioned that the borough is home to the bulk of the city’s estimated 643,000 undocumented immigrants. It’s no coincidence that the Queens Museum is perhaps the most progressive art institution in the country, with a multiyear sponsorship of Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International project in a neighborhood storefront and the integration of an artist-residency program into the museum itself. It’s also not surprising that it’s the only major museum I know of that’s truly interrupting its activities on Inauguration Day.

One of the programs at risk of being repealed by the Trump administration is DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which helps protect the children of undocumented immigrants (often called Dreamers, after the DREAM Act) and grants them the ability to work. Institutions across New York City have DACA employees, including many museums, but no officials will go on record to explain their prevalence for fear of endangering staff. Can you blame them?

And why should the city’s undocumented residents trust art museums anyway? In September 2014, the New York City ID program launched with the offer of free one-year memberships to institutions including the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim, the New Museum, El Museo del Barrio, the Museum of the Moving Image, and others. The new card offered the city’s undocumented an official form of identification (it was even endorsed by Pope Francis). It was a small promise that New York was a safe haven for everyone, and that museums were an integral part of that culture.

Earlier this month, all of the institutions listed above quietly pulled out of the program. The Guggenheim told New York Daily News: “The museum ‘plans to refocus its energy and resources on other programs that are already in place to encourage visitation by our local New York City residents and tourists alike.'” Let me translate that for you: “refocus” is consultant speak for ”some populations are more important than others.” Two years is hardly a reasonable period — particularly after a highly charged and xenophobic election campaign — in which to build trust with communities that have every reason to fear. The silver lining is that the museums can choose to reenter the program in 2018. My hope is that they will.

Maybe many New York art people don’t know any undocumented immigrants. Maybe they look around their neighborhoods and workplaces and fail to see those impacted by DACA and other governmental programs. Maybe, as a foreigner who’s struggled with immigration for over decade, I am more likely to hear these stories, which are numerous and truly exist in every industry, ethnic community, and age group.

I remember the Korean American artist who arrived in the US at a young age. Once she arrived here, she was unable to take a plane anywhere because she had no official ID. She traveled to Florida as an adult and had to take a train; her mobility was restricted for decades until she married an American citizen. Then there was the Arab American arts nonprofit worker who, in the ’90s, could only open an account at HSBC, since it was the sole bank at the time that didn’t require a local ID. After 9/11, even that changed, as new anti-terror regulations made banks largely inaccessible to many people. A lot of undocumented residents I knew turned to cash-only jobs to ensure that there was no paper trail, or they frequented predatory check-cashing places that charged exorbitant fees but asked few questions. Just yesterday, I casually mentioned my writing of this article to a new friend, who admitted that he himself had once been undocumented. As a white European immigrant, he lived in New York for almost five years without papers. “Most of my early illegal friends worked in galleries, publishing houses, and restaurants,” he said.

All of these issues are our issues. You can pretend that the art world, however you define it, is dominated by luxury retail economics, but you would be wrong. Sure, if you looked only at the art magazines and art sales platforms, which are essentially trade publications used for the marketing of baubles, you could assume the myth of luxury (and if you did, you’d find dozens of highly paid art PR people smiling back at you). But the art world is, in reality, much larger. I would bet that more artists, critics, and curators sustain their lives through teaching than through art sales, books, exhibitions, and other endeavors we conventionally think of as part of the art industry. That means education is an art issue, as are housing, taxes, health care, and everything else. As the general #J20 Art Strike call outlines, this action 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.” The art strike asks each of us to assess our relationships to various parts of the art community, challenge what it means to be part of that world, and ultimately be vocal about what to do.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an occasion to remember a man who worked his whole life for freedoms that aren’t even guaranteed today. His famous letter from Birmingham jail includes an invective against false friends, people who profess to help but don’t believe in your methods. He writes (emphasis mine):

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er [sic] or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels that he can set the time-table for another man’s freedom; who lives by a myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

These “white moderates” may not be exclusively white anymore, but they are the people who think that a day when the art community goes on strike, choosing to take to the streets instead of the galleries, is wrong. Not everyone can strike, of course, but everyone can demonstrate their support in their own way. And it’s important that those of us who can be vocal and act, do, thus sending a message that we will protect the rights of everyone in our community. Don’t worry, art will always be there — but it won’t be enough to save you, no matter what the neoliberals say.

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