Last Saturday, I heard art critic and historian Yates McKee speak at a conference about the rumblings of an art strike that had started to circulate online. The image for the strike is a stark black square whose text screams in all caps, “NO WORK NO SCHOOL NO BUSINESS,” going on to suggest that museums, theaters, concert halls, galleries, studios, art schools, and nonprofits should shutter in response to the coronation of King Trump. It’s a provocative idea.
What would it look like for the art community to shut down? Would our absence be seen or felt?
Unlike bigger cultural communities, including those around music, cinema, and publishing, the “art world” is not led by traditional corporations. It’s still dominated by galleries, museums, art schools, nonprofits, and small businesses, even if some donors and foundations are increasingly instrumentalizing them to promote various agendas. The field of art — particularly in the United States — is a sprawling and amorphous entity.
I was reading Kara Swisher’s excellent (and unnerving) article this week about the titans of Silicon Valley genuflecting to the President-elect, and I realized there could never be an equivalent convening in art.
If you were to summon the leaders of art, who would they be? Who has that type of authority in our field? Collectors? Directors? Artists? Art historians? Curators? I think an art strike could reveal the scope of our community as the beginning of a new phase of solidarity.
During his presentation, McKee was somewhat skeptical, even if he saw great potential in the idea. I reached out to him afterwards to clarify his thoughts. “It’s significant that this call is coupled with the call for a general strike on January 20 (#J20), so this is not an isolated art gesture,” he said. “Neither, though, would it be need to be an anti-art gesture; I suspect art would proliferate around such a call if it started to get legs. In terms of feasibility, I can imagine small, flexible organizations easily undertaking a de facto closure, even without officially endorsing a strike in the voice of the institution. But what about big museums? What would it look like for the workforce of that part of the artistic sector to undertake mass absenteeism, at the scale that even the large institutions would be forced to shut down?” he asked.
He wondered if this could “drive a wedge between staffs, on the one hand, and the upper echelons of institutional power — directors, boards, donors — on the other, resulting in a potentially fruitful antagonism in the long term.”
Could a strike reveal the fault lines in the art community?
Princeton professor and art theorist Hal Foster, who was also a presenter at last Saturday’s conference, was in the audience when McKee spoke. “I like the idea, and I’m all in,” he replied to my query about an art strike. “I see it not as a strike against art, theater, or any other cultural form, but as a call to motivate these activities, to make them expressive of a resistance to all the awful forces that Trump embodies and exploits.
“I take it to be a positive thing: a call to reimagine these spaces as places where new forms of political thinking, feeling, and acting can be created. If the situation were not so dire, it could almost be taken as a festive event,” he said.
The neoliberal museum has become normalized, he added, and the art world has become an engine of inequality. How did we get here?
“If we begin to target specific board members and art patrons, there will be very few museums or galleries that would go unscathed, but we have to draw an initial line somewhere,” Foster said. “Why does the Metropolitan Museum have David Koch on its board? Or, at the other end of the scale, why did Dia install James Murdoch as a trustee? We know why, of course: money for the institution, PR for the oligarch. But at what cost comes the deal?”
The unease and fear in the art community about a Trump presidency are real. There’s a feeling among many artists and various art workers that for too long we’ve been dormant in challenging the infrastructure and networks being created around art. Maybe we’ve closed our eyes because many of us have bought into the myth that more money, more opportunity, and more institutions — no matter their compositions and ideologies — are better for everyone. But what if they’re not? What if art’s “golden umbilical cord,” to use Clement Greenberg’s vivid phase denoting the connection between artists and the market, is no longer giving us life and nurturing critique, but rather choking difference in favor of fashion, affectation, branding, and decoration?
Should we demand that the art institutions we support sign onto the strike?
Tavia Nyong’o, a professor of theater and American studies at Yale University, was also in attendance at the conference and admitted the idea had piqued his interest. He thinks it could spread to the theater world, which has already had a very visible confrontation with the incoming Trump administration. “I was immediately intrigued by the notion of an art strike that would involve the actors, dancers, librettists, stagehands, and musicians of New York’s theater district, together with museums, schools, universities, and other cultural institutions. What do we have to lose?” he said.
“President-elect Trump has already felt free to use his bully pulpit to denounce the free exercise of speech from a Broadway stage. He cannot stand criticism of him or his administration, even as he constantly bullies his opponents. Theater doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Art must speak truth to power. Trump’s campaign, and now his administration, was befouled with the most rank racism, sexism, and homophobia,” Nyong’o said. “The theater is not a place we go to forget our differences, but to discover them. The theater stands against the politics of fear, hatred, and violence. This is why all tyrants fear it.”
But even Nyong’o had questions, most of which revolve around the timing of the event. He wondered if it would be seen as contesting the “legitimacy of the Trump presidency, rather than its actions.”
“Friends in Italy,” he explained, “have told me that no personal attack against Berlusconi ever persuaded the Italian electorate: he was only driven from office when an opponent focused on his policies.” Nyong’o is confident the American public will eventually turn on Trump once they see the policies in action.
Marz Saffore, who describes herself as an “artist as organizer” and has been active in the #DecolonizeThisPlace residency at Artists Space, thinks the strike should be part of a larger conversation that takes the ubiquity of white supremacy into account. She explains: “If we are to resist in a way that promotes and ensures true decolonization, we must ask ourselves, ‘What are we fighting for?’ In answering this crucial question, we must consider the intersections between race, class, and gender. We must consider who has more at stake if we are to lose. We must reimagine what winning looks like,” she said.
The conversations I’ve had over the last week included those who are arguing that a strike might disproportionately hurt the working-class individuals in the art world, but I find that hard to believe. One day will unlikely destroy anyone’s livelihood, and there would not be repercussions for those who skip the strike. People could choose to participate in any way they see fit, and the diversity of responses would be interesting. Many would undoubtedly declare their refusal to go to work openly, others would call in sick, some might refuse to spend money that day, and others would show up in DC with protest signs in hand.
I grew up in a working-class family, and my father was part of the Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU). I remember the impact that strikes had on our family — the longest one I can recall lasted roughly two months. They created unlikely connections to neighbors, many of whom were families that, like us, were vulnerable. It created a sense of community in various places, including at school, the grocery store, or the local library branch. Strikes work best when there’s something to lose, so here the key will be in imagining the absence of something — the art world, whatever that might be. We don’t yet have the infrastructure to sustain a long national art strike — maybe we never will — but the day could be symbolically important as a way to imagine a community that has never agreed on so much before. Could it be a first step?
Do we strike on January 20? I vote yes.
I will be following up on this post by asking major figures, organizations, and businesses in the art community whether they plan to close on Inauguration Day. If you want to contact me about this or add your name to a list of people and places that will take part in #J20, please email [email protected]