Essays

A Showing of Art World Solidarity on Inauguration Day

Far from serving as an excuse for self-pity or left melancholy, the Occupy Museums event was an effective counter-inaugural: a ceremony marking a wider commitment to shared struggle.

The #J20 Art Strike outside the Whitney Museum of American Art (all photos courtesy Noah Fischer)

A plan to parade missile launchers through the capital; a plagiarized Potemkin village of a trophy cake, sliced by two homophobes sharing the same sword; presidential rhetoric apparently drawn from Wrestlemania broadcasts, Batman movies, and Charles Lindbergh speeches — such moments from the recent US presidential inauguration somehow seemed both surreal and all-too-real. Within these unbelievable, unbelievably toxic conditions, many felt obliged to refuse any semblance of normality, thinking that to present even the appearance of consent would be to grant the Trumpist regime the legitimacy it so blatantly lacks. Such was the logic behind the call for the #J20 Art Strike, which was criticized by some as elitist or impracticable, but was intended to be interpreted broadly as an incitement to creative resistance. The objective was not to compel others into making a superficially radical gesture, but rather to help mobilize various arts communities toward a joint struggle against the normalization and legitimation of an unjust, hostile regime.

A similarly urgent sense of purpose also motivated the collective Occupy Museums, which organized a public speak-out as part of the Whitney Museum’s alternative programming on January 20. The event was free (given the Whitney’s decision to implement pay-what-you-wish admission), and was timed to take place at the same time as the inauguration, thus functioning as a clear gesture of non-compliance. Like the art strike, the speak-out framed the day as a chance to break out of one’s everyday routine and to institute different orders of time, space, experience, and community. As some speakers remarked, many people felt a strong need to be together, to think and speak and plan together, and to do so in a place without a TV or a computer.

It was as if everyone knew what was about to happen and agreed that hate-watching the sham pageantry of the inaugural wouldn’t change anything, and would likely only make things feel worse. Instead, those present decided to commit themselves to a different kind of event, one grounded in acknowledging the coexistence of many intense and difficult emotions. This was as true of the speakers — a highly diverse group of about 30 artists, activists, arts professionals, and critics — as it was of the audience, which included a number of walk-ins, and ranged from students and organizers to tenured professors and Whitney staffers.

If I say that the event was unlike anything I’ve been a part of, I do so not to exaggerate but to try to render a feeling that I experienced strongly but have yet to fully understand. (I was one of the invited speakers, and am writing here from the standpoint of a participant-observer.) I hope that others who were lucky enough to be there feel similarly; I know that at least some do. There was a heightened attentiveness and receptivity in the room, and a palpable energy circulating between the speakers and one’s neighbors. There was also, at least for myself, the sense of a singular, highly charged moment. Perhaps that derived from the ominous sense that a terrible history was being made; it could also have stemmed from the fraught tension between the rage, disbelief, and powerlessness people brought into the room and the refuge and even enjoyment they found there. People were laughing, crying, laughing to keep from crying. At some moments it felt like a wake for the lost promise of the Obama years; at others, like an Occupy assembly or a Quaker meeting, or like the formation of the culture ministry of a government in exile.

There is plenty to say about the three dozen presentations, much more than this space allows for. Presenters were invited to speak about one relevant “value,” and reflected on such principles as inclusiveness, agency, accessibility, and solidarity. They did so in forms that ranged from anecdotes, meditations, and manifestos to poems, karaoke, and improv performances. Dread Scott produced a purpose-built “conceptual artwork”: a sign printed with the text “BY READING THIS, YOU AGREE TO OVERTHROW DICTATORS.” The presenters varied widely in their tone and style. Some spoke bravely from a place of vulnerability; others with the assurance and poise of practiced performers.

Dread Scott holds up his sign among crowds outside the Whitney Museum of American Art

Among the many memorable moments from those three hours are two that speak to this powerful variety of ideas, attitudes, and positions. The writer Pamela Sneed read a poem that moved through histories of oppression, citing Trayvon Martin, Steve Biko, and the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion. She rhythmically built her delivery with shouts, incantations, and hushed pauses, reaching a climax of almost unbearable intensity, her voice nearly breaking as she closed with the phrase “always uprising!” Immediately afterward, the artist Baseera Khan spoke softly but incisively about the tension between American, Islamic, and South Asian identities, and about the ambivalence that can leave one longing for inclusion, but fearful of it. She closed by sharing a moving recitation of a Muslim prayer, a simple, everyday act of devotion that has become highly politicized, even fraught. These two presentations exemplified the kind of relationship that any democracy worthy of that name must foster and protect — one between individuals who are incommensurable, but simultaneously interdependent and equal.

Speakers not only described the values we associate with democracy and resistance; they realized or enacted them, such that the event itself assumed a meaning greater than the sum of its parts. Far from serving as an excuse for self-pity or left melancholy, it functioned as an effective counter-inaugural: a ceremony marking the beginning of a wider commitment to shared struggle, and a chance to begin to think together about how best to operate within these new parameters of aesthetic and political practice. It was generally assumed that art cannot divorce itself from Trumpism, no matter how hard artists like Richard Prince might wish to do so. Rather, as the artist and activist Chitra Ganesh incisively pointed out, the same forces that brought Trump to power exist within the supposedly “sacrosanct” or autonomous precincts of art.

This means that the important question is not What sort of art should we make? or Will Trump somehow be good for art? or What should celebrities do? Instead, we should ask ourselves how to act in multiple capacities: first, as stakeholders in a democracy who oppose the ascendancy of an authoritarian, militaristic neo-fascism, regardless of our nationality or immigration status; second, as members of specific communities, whether local, institutional, or global; and third, as people whose affiliations with art endow us with particular abilities, privileges, and obligations. We need to understand what everyone can do and what we are best positioned to do; then we need to do these things. Most immediately, this means working together to combat the increased dangers that now threaten those who have been targeted by the new regime’s white suprematism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and nativism. Looking further into the future, it means grasping these new power relations in a way that allows us to effectively alter our strategies and tactics, and doing so in a way that successfully builds on the precedent of earlier aesthetico-political projects, while simultaneously coordinating new initiatives with ongoing ones.

The legacies of left cultural activism were poignantly manifested in talks by Martha Rosler, whose principled defiance of authoritarianism dates back to the Nixon era, and by Avram Finkelstein, who recounted how he learned to silkscreen from a classmate who wanted help duplicating posters from the French protests of May 1968, and how that laid the foundation for his later work with ACT-UP. These continuities gesture toward a broader and enduring history, one that stubbornly refuses to end. As Finkelstein emphatically put it, “no political action is futile, ever.”

Martha Rosler reads

A number of presentations offered concrete, perceptive insights regarding the tactics that cultural resistance might use in the months to come. One recurring theme was the strategic value of institutions like the Whitney, which are now potentially under threat, whether through federal defunding or the alt-right philistinism of Breitbart-incited e-harassment. Megan Heuer, Noah Fischer, and Mariam Ghani each spoke to this concern, which has recently inspired efforts to organize a national network of art institutions dedicated to the defense of democratic values. Another concern was the need for a particular kind of free speech, one that becomes necessary when democratic institutions are in crisis. As theorized by Michel Foucault, this requires a different order of commitment from the speaker, a kind of radical transparency or vulnerability. The artist and Whitney staff member Madison Zalopany thoughtfully broached this topic in her presentation, which critically questioned the ways that truth-telling depends on platforms and resources that are less accessible to people who lack certain privileges or fail to conform to normative standards.

A third tactic can be described by the rare but increasingly common term “ungovernability,” which might be understood as an effort to block the exercise and legitimation of state power wherever it is manifest; this might take the form of boycotts, strikes, and noncompliance, but also of symbolic negation (as in art) or the production of other values, desires, and spaces. Zoe Leonard’s text “I Want a President” can be read as a paean to ungovernability, as was clear in a compelling performance by the scholar Tavia Nyong’o, who read from a recent adaptation of Leonard’s text produced in a workshop as part of a public art project.

Simone Leigh reads

One question that wasn’t raised explicitly at the Whitney was how the ongoing crisis will impact the ways in which we make, view, and write or think about art. This was surely because so many people feel that art can wait, at least for now, but that the same isn’t true of the rights, lives, and dignity of those now threatened. While this is impossible to deny, the event nevertheless suggested potential paths to follow when the time is right. Speaking out against the exclusionary structures that traverse the art world, Chitra Ganesh noted that art is able to communicate with “a complexity that reality can’t take.” Not only does such complexity resist whatever forces might try to silence or reduce it; under the right conditions, it can also force reality itself to change. With this said, perhaps the most powerful takeaway from the speak-out was the way it exemplified a certain kind of collective labor. The individual presentations were coordinated but autonomous — interdependent in a way that acknowledged their own vulnerabilities as analogous but by no means identical. In this sense, they embodied the sort of mutual connection that we are likely to need moving forward: a solidarity that is impassioned, resilient, self-critical, fearless, and resolute.

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