Opinion

Let’s Use the Art Strike to Hold Cultural Institutions Accountable

The action invites us to commit to challenging our institutions to resist Trumpism and combat the conditions that allowed its emergence.

San Bruno, California, June 16, 1942. “An art school wall has been established in this Assembly center with large enrollment and a well trained, experienced Japanese staff under the leadership of Professor Chiura Obata of the University of California. This photograph shows a student in Still Life class painting a free water color.” Photo by Dorothea Lange for War Relocation Authority (image courtesy National Archives, identifier 537945)

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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The twists and turns of the 2016 US presidential election reverberated around the globe, so that, sitting with friends in Shinjuku this past autumn, we had much to discuss. Donald Trump provided particular fodder. In the course of campaigning, he commented that he might have supported the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; stated that if the US were attacked, the Japanese could “sit home and watch Sony television”; and expressed support for nuclear proliferation in East Asia. However, it was his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the US or create a registry system based on faith or ethnicity that brought chilling echoes of a suppressed chapter of US history: Japanese American internment.

“Hillary will win, right? It’s just a matter of by how much?” my friend asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. “America is a very racist country.”

Saying so was less an attempt at prediction than an effort to discourage complacency. However, coming to understand the whitelash of November 8, 2016 requires not only an analysis of demographic data, but also an acknowledgement of the election as a violent response to racial justice and expanding democratic rights. Periods of increased abuse, terror, and incarceration throughout American history highlight the ways in which white supremacy marks and encircles, controls and contains people of color through structural racism in uneven and complex ways. Memorialization of these periods in limited physical sites often serves to cut us off from the reality in which they operated: for example, the system of Japanese American internment included not only camps, but also assembly centers, prisons, INS facilities, and army sites. And current threats of a Muslim registry follow in the footsteps of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, which was implemented by the Bush administration in 2002 and dismantled by President Obama only last month. As we seek to protect valuable institutions from the threats of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism that make up Trumpism, we cannot ignore the fact that these same institutions already navigate and survive within a system of racial oppression and capitalism.

This is no less true for the institutions dedicated to arts and culture that we often hold up as antithetical to such threats. The Saint Louis Art Museum arranged for a loan of George Caleb Bingham’s painting “Verdict of the People” (1854–55) to Trump’s inaugural luncheon, prompting a petition that requested it be cancelled. Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs employee as well as the incoming administration’s Treasury Secretary, departed the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, amid protests. And, last summer, when Japan Society’s chairman, Wilbur Ross, Jr. became a public supporter and active fundraiser for the Trump presidential campaign, it raised a host of questions for the community the organization serves.

Alien identification certificate, 1942 (image courtesy the Kondo Family Collection, via the Densho Digital Repository)

As a former employee of Japan Society who continues to work with the organization as an independent film festival programmer, and as someone who believes in its mission of cultural exchange and integrity of its staff, I was deeply concerned, though I should have done more to voice my fears at the time. Election day came and went, and while tireless activists such as George Takei spoke out in solidarity with Muslims, and peer organizations such as the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles strongly condemned Trump’s dangerous comments, Japan Society remained conspicuously silent, despite complaints from members and constituents. As the transition process began, Ross was rumored to be the pick for Trump’s Commerce Secretary. Meanwhile, campaign surrogates reiterated that the incoming administration would seek to enact some of its most offensive proposals, arguing that the WWII internment of Japanese Americans would serve as “precedent” for a mass registration of Muslims. While legal experts, including the ACLU’s Carl Takei, have argued that this position has no standing, the threat remains deeply disturbing.

In late November, the organization released a holiday statement which did not mention the internment, registry, or deportations by name, nor any politicians or potential cabinet members. Instead, it offered platitudes of being “nonpolitical,” accommodating “multiple points of view,” allowing “freedom of expression,” and “values of diversity and respect.” In fact, it seemed to swell with excitement over its “unique position to engage insiders and outsiders during this historic time of change.” In response, I emailed Japan Society’s president, Motoatsu Sakurai, urging him and the rest of the organization to take an explicit stand — not against any political figure, but against hate, racism, and authoritarianism. To date, I have not received a response.

Japan itself has undergone a slide to the right in recent years, with the second government of Shinzo Abe instituting increasingly authoritarian policies, moving to dismantle the country’s pacifist constitution, clamping down on freedom of the press, normalizing WWII-era nationalism, and, in collaboration with the US military, continuing the persecution of indigenous Okinawans. In fact, while Trump outwardly campaigned against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Abe strongly supports with Obama, an affinity between the two nations becomes clear when looking at Japan’s own surveillance program targeting Muslims. An organization such as Japan Society, invested in cultural as well as business and policy exchange between the US and Japan, finds itself in a difficult and complicated situation, caught between two countries’ dangerously regressive politics; however, that only underscores the need for the institution to recommit to equality and justice while pursuing its mission.

San Francisco, California, April 4, 1942. “Civilian Exclusion Order Number 5, ordering evacuation of residents of Japanese ancestry, posted in a vacant store window on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. This establishment, like many others in Chinatown, was operated by proprietors of Japanese descent. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.” Photo by Dorothea Lange for Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority (image courtesy National Archives, identifier 536452)

In the months following 9/11, Japan Society organized a meaningful public dialogue titled “Racial Tolerance in Times of Crisis: The Japanese American & Arab American Experiences,” focusing on shared experiences of xenophobia and racism between the two communities. We are now in a time when hate crimes against Muslims have reached their highest numbers since the post-9/11 years; the need for similar initiatives that assert seemingly discreet groups’ shared contingency and political determination is urgent. Cultural institutions such as Japan Society should help lead the way. Now is the time to be radically inclusive in engaging people in resistance to Trumpism and forming greater solidarity. Diversity alone is not enough, however, as we’ve seen that representation is not incompatible with racist violence. Instead, we must aim for equity that provides access to power and works against marginalization, while remembering the legacy of historical traumas such as the internment to prevent their repetition. When one group is threatened, others must defend them, bearing in mind our unique histories and shared future.

During this long US presidential election, and indeed throughout the years of discrimination and violence that preceded it, the values of equality and free expression that many cultural institutions ostensibly stand for were threatened and brought up for debate. For institutions historically serving Latinx, Muslim, Black, LGBTQ, Asian American, and other marginalized groups, this past year has only amplified the need to reiterate their commitment to those values and provide space for communities to come together. In solidarity with calls for a general strike protesting the inauguration of Trump as the 45th president of the United States, a coalition of artists and critics last month issued an invitation to cultural institutions to participate in an “art strike,” an interruption of business as usual on January 20, 2017, and beyond. Heeding such a call could not only reinvigorate art spaces that struggle in their commitment to the values they purport to defend and the communities they claim to serve, but also pose an opportunity to imagine another world of common political determination.

While participation in and reactions to the J20 Art Strike are taking different forms, from going dark to opening doors for free with social justice programming, the action invites us to commit to a longer-term goal of challenging our institutions to resist Trumpism and to combat the conditions that allowed its emergence. Don’t be afraid to take charge and foster a culture of self-reflection; be radically inclusive in your organization and help build a more fertile space of coalition building.

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