Essays

The Ebbs and Flows of Resistance in the Art World

After a moment of incredible unity around the #J20 Art Strike, the art community’s protest movements have fragmented as the reality of everyday life under Trump has set in.

The Whitney Museum's J20 event in 2017
The Whitney Museum’s J20 event in 2017 (all photos by Noah Fischer, Occupy Museums)

On January 20, 2018, I, along with hundreds of thousands, strolled down Sixth Avenue for the Women’s March. At route’s end I encountered a comrade from Occupy Wall Street who had been a facilitator of the Arts and Culture working group, the movement’s official connection between art practice and revolution. His partner works as an organizer with Planned Parenthood and she was busy getting activists on a bus back home. The anti-Trump resistance of the last year has been distinctly unlike Occupy’s direct democracy churning. Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and a lot of well-funded progressive organizations have stepped it up since the inauguration. Exciting new candidates are primed for the 2018 mid-term elections. The #MeToo uprising mostly plays out in media rather than on the streets. But that’s not to say all’s going according to plan: there’s the bundled setbacks of the Tax Bill, among countless reversals, plus fatigue from daily aggressions that make the future hard to see. And for me, there was something unsettling about the leisurely stroll of the march and silence of it — just a rare echo of chants. I’ve found the unified voice to be essential to protest, uplifting people into joyfully rhythmic bravery. One year ago, the voice was the main catalyst on the day of the current president’s inauguration as we, Occupy Museums, staged a Speakout that tried to spark the process of laying out a common political vision for the art world. One year later, can we still hear the Speakout’s echo?

Energetically, things could not have been more different a year ago. Caught in a dizzying though still totally opaque political realignment, we were contending with a new language. In particular, the word “fascism” loomed, a word whose use was quickly legitimized by Trump’s chilling inaugural speech, co-written by Steve Bannon. But there’s a silver lining to the shit hitting the fan: endorphins rush in and you get a burst of extra energy. That’s where we were a year ago: high on anti-Trump endorphins. It might have been a wave of shock, anger, and emergency, but there was a vital energy we could tap into and that made it impossible be idle. Protests and new networks bloomed in all directions. Busy co-organizing the Speakout with Occupy Museums, I remember breathlessly communicating, organizing, attending meetings, connecting with comrades all in exactly the same state of productive shock. Solidarity poured in from abroad. We had no choice but to launch a real resistance, a counter-inauguration, a strike, a shadow cabinet — whatever was needed. It seemed like the entire art world was in on this. But even during the inauguration, the art world’s anti-Trump alignment wasn’t as unified a block as it appeared — a fact made clear by revelations that art world power brokers had funded Trump’s Inauguration.  And eventually, banality set in as the stock market boomed and the powerful grew content and silent. Then there was the incongruous reality that despite the new government, things look about the same in major cities today as they did in January 2017. It wasn’t fascism like in the movies — at least not among the privileged in Brooklyn. But most of all, a frustrating truth about attention became clear: you can’t deal with everything when it comes all at once.

A rally outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017
A rally outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017

In the summer of 2016, Occupy Museums was focused on the issue of debt. We had begun working with the Whitney Museum on our project for the 2017 Biennial, Debtfair, which proposed a politics that intertwined the economic inequality focus of the Occupy movement embodied in the debtor/creditor relationship, with intersectional politics that made the conditions of Puerto Ricans struggling with state debt visible alongside student debt. In the middle of the development of this project, the unexpected election result arrived. When we got wind of the proposed art strike, our phone lines were already connected to the Whitney and we felt a responsibility to answer the call by connecting the political moment to the museum. Discussing among ourselves whether it made more sense to try to close Whitney’s doors or retool their platform into an historic civic forum, we went with the latter. Our strategy has always tended toward an abundance of experiments and engagement rather than a refusal (although we respect those tactics).

Recently, New York University professor Nick Mirzoeff reflected on the 2017 J20 Strike call, writing: “A strike is the refusal to comply with a normative regime because that norm sets the terms for existence in unacceptable ways.” However, as Mirzoeff also mentions, 21st century art institutions are not the same as 19th century factories. “Refusal to comply” is not necessarily most effective as a mechanical stopping, like jamming a wrench in a machine. In a networked social capital economy, denormalizing the regime doesn’t necessarily mean shutting institutional doors. It can mean dancing through and around them, perhaps taking them off their hinges and reshaping their function. J20 programs were being cooked up inside and outside of institutions by signatories of the call, from a sign-making workshop at the Queens Museum under the leadership of executive director Laura Raicovich, to a marathon reading of Langston Hughes’s 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again” at the Brooklyn Museum. However, there was no common forum proposed — no speak-out. I grew up in a Buddhist monastery in California: like anyone from a religious background, ritual and ceremony were everyday parts of my life, and their social function in gelling a community was always clear to me. Our side needed a powerful counter-ritual on that day that involved speaking truth.

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There was a specific political intention behind the Speakout: conjuring a space for the different political factions and voices of the art world to come together and face a common threat. Both the primaries and the general election campaign had revealed the likelihood of fracture on the left: by January, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters were at each others’ throats on social media; factions assigning blame along ideological, racial, and gender lines were sharply drawn. Locally, the anti-gentrification struggle that dominated art world radical politics on both coasts was pitting one of the most powerful elected progressives in the country, Bill de Blasio, against activists. The New York City Mayor works intimately with developers on his housing plans, an unforgivable and impossible position. But a year ago the shock was such that even this gap could be temporarily bridged. The first step was to come together. I hoped this unified opposition would radicalize when it realized that you couldn’t separate Trump’s ties to hyper-capitalists from his knee-jerk racism, xenophobia, transphobia, and patriarchy. The Speakout was our own display of power, a power embodied not in Trump’s strongman mode of power over, but in the collective beauty of poetic, diverse, creative, and committed voices speaking.

A rally outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017
A rally outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017

Working closely with Megan Heuer of the Whitney, Occupy Museums invited a lineup of speakers that ranged from badass Brooklyn anti-gentrification activists like Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People and the Chinatown Art Brigade to Madison Zalopany, coordinator of access and community programs at the Whitney, who delivered a powerful message of institutional inclusion. Artists Dread Scott, Mira Schor, Avram Finkelstein, Naeem Mohaiemen, Simone Leigh of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, Tracie Morris with Vijay Iyer, and many others spoke and sang out. The event was like a quilted-together manifesto: each word projected with emotion, laying out a commitment to values despite the dark road ahead. Some of the commitments were personal, and some were institutional—bringing these together into potential agreements was the point. Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center, said:

The imminent assault on our civil liberties is of such magnitude … I believe that if I want to remain effective and advance Inclusiveness, I need to turn to art and declare art itself a political practice.

Not because we can afford to turn our backs on traditional political structures; we need to be present there as well. But if we declare our artworks, our exhibitions, our critical discourse a political practice we can meet the challenges of this incoming administration — and Post Democracy in general — much more effectively because Inclusiveness will be implemented along a multitude of criteria:

If we declare art a political practice, we can operate along different timeframes simultaneously, pursuing immediate impact as well as long-term nurturing, such as education. If we declare art a political practice, we can spell out goals at different scales, from super- localized to global, and define distinct yet aligned sets of deliverables. If we focus on the formal qualities of art as well as its literal, material foundations, we can explore entirely new orders of an inclusive political practice that can reach beyond the human.

The Speakout’s theme was an accumulation of visions like Kuoni’s. This dimension was inspired by the urgent work of Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich, who was then working with her staff to create a visioning statement around the museum’s responsibility to its immigrant workers and community members in hopes of declaring the museum a sanctuary space. But the Speakout wasn’t all earnest, either. At the moment that Trump was being sworn in, Kalup Linzy was lighting up the room with a special rendition of “Asshole.”

Occupy Museums banner for J20 2017
Occupy Museums banner for J20 2017

At the time, I knew — and I think most people in that room realized — that there were two levels of politics at stake. There was the national transition happening down in Washington, but there was also our non-neutral stage: the Whitney Museum. Occupy Museums had become specialists in opening up radical spaces in museums. For J20, our idea had been to disrupt the entire flow of the museum by staging the event in the lobby. However, the museum had insisted on the theater and a ticketed (pay as you wish) entrance, which ultimately meant throngs of people were never able to access the event. We had attempted to temporarily “rebrand” the museum with a strong political sentiment, painting a banner the night before that rephrased a famous Warhol quote, proclaimed “Resistance Against Fascism is the Best Art.” But the prevailing corporate aesthetic plus the spectacle of ultra-luxury gentrification — speakers stood in front of a massive glass window overlooking the Hudson, which screamed luxury real estate — wasn’t so easily disrupted. Sitting in the Susan and John Hess Family Gallery (the Hess Corporation is involved in fossil fuel exploration and deep-water offshore oil rigs), we knew that even as we prepared for whatever was about to come out of the Pandora’s box in Washington, we were perched inside of a nest of the domination of finance over government — a fact bolstered by the Biennial’s core sponsorship by Chase bank.

The Speakout needed to challenge Trump’s new regime and the Whitney. Martha Rosler touched on this when she grabbed the mic and addressed the Whitney directly, saying:Thank you and fuck you and we need you and you need us more.” But even this expressed a breathless J20 optimism. There was a question hanging in the air: could an extraordinary political moment like the January 2017 inauguration actually shift mainstream museums’ behaviors so that they recognized their responsibility to social, racial, and economic equity, a responsibility deeper than the need to burnish their brands by just referencing these issues? Could J20 mark a moment of choice that could end in a shift away from museums’ market-oriented drift and toward a more civic function — complete with free admission, equitable programming, and the cutting art market ties? We knew that most of the Whitney’s staff was behind the stance the institution was taking, even proud of their employer for stepping into the political ring (the Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim were dead silent about J20). But our research had shown that many trustees — the 1% of the 1% — were on another side. It was a longshot, but extreme outcomes seemed possible on J20.

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The 2018 Women's March in New York City
The 2018 Women’s March in New York City

A year later, and just a few weeks after a historically free museum announced it would resort to mandatory admission fees, calling on mainstream, corporately funded museums to become more public seems naïve — and not only because corporate funders have a long history of dismantling fertile civic spaces. The other truth is that the leverage on the Whitney to make a hard-left turn depended on the heat of the moment, and political moments are short-lived. As Mirzoeff recently wrote, J20 stands as a moment more than a movement. Just like the oft-invoked possibility of unity and healing right after 9/11, the endorphin-fueled moments around Trump’s inauguration and the talk of widespread, sustained, creative resistance, and commitment to shielding threatened communities has not materialized, despite an early win when the New York Taxi Workers Alliance successfully shut down JFK, helping to temporarily halt the Muslim ban.

A year ago, the realignment of large museums toward non-symbolic social action — as sanctuary spaces for example — was earnestly discussed by many museum professionals. Now we are living inside the reality of immigrant communities being threatened daily, and the uncomfortable truth is that it really is happening, and the pressing need for sanctuary does not equate to an automatic transformation of cultural institutions to provide it, as seemed practically self-evident a year ago. In fact, now the backlash is coming into view. Laura Raicovich just announced, almost exactly a year after J20, that she is leaving the Queens Museum. She told the New York Times that some members of the museum’s board had objected to her decision to close the institution the day of Trump’s inauguration. She also told the Times that she recently made a proposal to the board to make the museum into a kind of sanctuary space connecting immigrants to social services. “It was made very clear to me that that was not something that was of interest,” she told the Times.

After J20, amid the dissipating energy of resistance, activist tactics also shifted. The Whitney again provided a stage, this time for a shift toward the public targeting of individual artists like Jimmie Durham rather than institutions like the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Identity politics had already been on the rise for at least three years with the long overdue and powerful mobilizations of the movement for Black Lives. Numerous controversies in 2017 around identity generated public debate but at times formed wedges among activists, demobilizing large-scale protest. The turning point for the art world arrived with the opening of the 2017 Biennial and protest over Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” (2016). The controversy consumed a tremendous amount of energy, which was not necessarily intellectually unproductive, but none of it was directed against Trump’s draconian policies or the corporate beneficiaries of his policies who are funders of the museum. By spring, the anti-fascist unity we’d felt at the Whitney a few months earlier on J20 seemed incredibly distant. The callouts then shifted toward the #MeToo movement, with patriarchal heads rolling in the entertainment industry (and the art world) at lightning speed. As an uprising tactic, it’s effective and divisive at the same time. It was not a development one could have easily foreseen on J20, which held a promise of coalition-building among the many aggrieved groups rather than the single issue/single movement politics we are seeing.

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A rally outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017
A rally outside the Whitney Museum on J20 2017

My favorite thing about museums is that they are everything a smartphone isn’t: spacious and slow. You bring your body to a space and you stand in front of pictures and things with other people, and this adds up to a publicly contemplative opportunity that can have the qualities of richness and depth. This winter, in a time of mixed resistance signals, it occurs to me that reflection and vision are the essential next steps. We can’t risk fatigue by attempting to match Trump’s reactivity. Artists can’t afford to binge on social media for days or stay in the streets forever either. At the Speakout, Mira Schor spoke unexpectedly about the potential political power of a painting of a flower. Then she stated: In the months and years to come every force will militate against artists, including the duties of resistance.”

In my view, the forces aligning against artists that Schor was alluding to are primarily the forces of capital, which historically have come down the hardest on women and communities of color: life as debt, space as portfolio asset, labor as control. Our double challenge then is to emancipate ourselves from this dead-end system epitomized by Trump, while not misinterpreting the emergency resistance call as the necessity to value the protest sign or organizing campaign over the canvas and palette. Visionary images and non-images made with and for free minds are our strongest tools. But these tools become suitable for a justice warrior only when connected to the struggle to bring the framework of institutions such as museums and universities into the commons.

We are now heading into year two. Just like the last year, the news will punch our lights out every day. As artists and art-lovers we are fortunate to have a passionate community and a practice to rekindle them. But the times call for us to demand something more constructively autonomous and visionary because we clearly aren’t getting a future from those in power. Power begets power. Apple just saved more than $40 billion on taxes thanks to Trump: the company might have burnished its resistance brand a few months ago, but ultimately it will prosper under this regime while many communities are evicted and targeted. The art world is not a safe zone. Chitra Ganesh touched on this a year ago when she stated:

I am saying that, rather than seeing the current political climate as an external threat, we all have to take responsibility for the ways that this climate resonates with aspects of the art world in which we all participate. The events transpiring around us bring to light the predicament of ongoing exclusions and erasures in the art world itself, which some of the people in this room have experienced for years.

An anti-Trump poster after a protest march
An anti-Trump poster after a protest march

Our community can be a cold-hearted place that has long tolerated Trump’s brand of crass ego-dominance fueled by money and power. It’s a financially unregulated space where capital is king, where the winners win big, and where art workers are preyed upon through a normalized system of high debts and unpaid or poorly paid labor. Most of our institutions are riddled with histories of racism and elitism to which they still cling. On J20 2017, Occupy Museums offered our vision that institutions large and small could begin to operate by an updated set of values that could run on mutual support and produce bravery in the face of fear. The vision is a two-way street. It’s a commitment to valuing the practice of art and to fighting for the commonwealth of museums as much as it’s a critical call to action.

In the pain and shock of J20, a long-term vision began to be articulated. Even if Raicovich’s departure from the Queens Museum exemplifies how forcefully the powers that be are blocking that vision from being put into practice, I hope to see it develop this year as people tire of the mental distraction and reactivity that has become our everyday under Trump. We need space for a long-term political vision to come into focus that bridges art with organizing and reimagines institutions. I hope to witness the unifying of voices not only because that’s the only thing that sends terror into the heart of those who currently hold power, but because when we do that, we create worlds. That is how we can create our own institutions and economies.

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