Friday, October 21, 2011

#occupymuseums: Counterpoint

i just read your blog post on occupy museums and was going to comment there, but it seems that i can't from my work computer, so i thought i would email you my response. i was actually really surprised that as a maker of creative work who so far has not been completely embraced by the mainstream, you could reply in such a forcefully condescending way to the issues raised. of course you are entitled to your opinion and i completely understand what you are saying about how this reflects on OWS as a whole. and admittedly, getting in the faces of innocent museum visitors is not the most effective way to get a message across, i agree there. but i thought you might be interested to hear the thoughts of someone who has worked in museums but who also agrees to some extent with the issues raised by these protesters.

to begin with, of course the manifesto itself is flawed, but a lot of what OWS churns out is rushed and flawed; there isn't time to workshop these statements too much. the sentiment, however, is worth listening to.

museums have always existed to help educate and create models of sociability for people (i can cite my primary sources here if you'd like), and they are not making good on those responsibilities in this very crucial moment (this has been going on since the rise of late capitalism in the 80's, actually, but it is more important now that it has ever been before for museums to listen up, as there is so much momentum being generated by people speaking out against the capitalist machine and all of its far-reaching effects). when an important swath of the art being made today is responding to shitty socioeconomic conditions in an activist-inspired manner, museums--and here i'm talking about institutions that exhibit contemporary art, such as MoMA--should not only be planning blockbuster shows featuring established artists (who likely have workshops and apprentices creating their art for them). museums should be listening to their surrounding communities and finding ways to work into their agendas art that speaks to contemporary social needs, so that they can provide forums for relevant discussion as well as valuable models of sociability for their unmoored constituents.

naturally, museums have a hard time turning a profit, due in large part to a lack of federal funding--which is in no way the fault of museums themselves (MoMA and the Guggenheim are notable exceptions in that respect). thus, one deduces, they have to put on blockbuster shows and hike up their admission fees. however, i don't think that's the entirety of what these protesters rail against (and with a bit more thought, i wish they would have been more eloquent about this point). the art world--like the publishing world, like the music world; we all know this is happening in every creative field--has created a celebrity system, in which art dealers, financial backers, (some) artists, and hotshots on the boards of museums rake in most of the profits, leaving museum programming, maintenance, administration, etc., to suffer. that is something that those who are higher up in museums could do something about, but it is taken as a given part of museum structure and left in place. if anything, many people working within the structures of museums hope to get to the point where they are the ones at the top reaping the benefits, leaving the needs of their constituencies to be dealt with by those at the bottom (idealistic, passionate, and underpaid), who have no control over what ends up being shown and how the museum communicates its image.

yes, these protesters could band together to put on small group shows or something along those lines, as you suggest (assuming they haven't already been doing that, though i imagine that's a road they've been down...), but that is not only an almost impossible way to get one's message across on a broader scale--who, after all, besides the artists' artist friends would pay attention?--it is also reifies the existing structure in which established museums are off the hook when it comes to showing art that reflects how many of their constituents actually feel.

yes, it is hard to take something like art seriously when there is so much else at stake right now (careers, lives, basic freedoms), but blowing this off as some whiny kids who feel entitled to have their art shown in public is ignoring an important symptom of our society's deplorable condition. with art education chopped from public schools at an alarming rate, we should at least be able to depend on museums to help us build our identities through cultural expression.

full disclosure: i've been slaving away over a phd program application these past few weeks and had been making zero headway on my personal statement until reading about the occupy museums movement, the basic sentiment of which (the unfulfilled social responsibility of cultural institutions) has always been at the heart of my academic research. so i have a whole mess of emotions tied to all of this and i'm sorry if that becomes increasingly evident as my rant goes on. but i stick with what i said, though i respect that people who are passionate about seeing OWS succeed could see this splinter movement as a hindrance. OWS and OM (does that work?) are not completely parts of the same whole. but they are related and i wish more people would give that connection the time of day.



  1. This is a much more eloquent and well thought approach to the matter than the prior manifesto, which actually contradicts its own early statement saying that OWS needs to be excused for poorly made propaganda because lack of time. No, there always must be time for making sure your message will come out clearly and coherently. The more pressing the matter is, the more you need to control your knee-jerk passionate outbursts into something that will not make people roll their eyes and dissmiss it instantly.

    That being said, this person's statement still betrays some of the fallacies of thought present in the manifest. If museums ever were the finger on the metaphorical pulse of society issues this poster posits, that's a role they have long ago stopped playing. Nowadays we have the Internet as a public platform from which you can reach literally millions, I don't see what good would be in having such manifestations happen inside a museum nor believe people would choose to go to a museum to get their social responsibility fix.

    Museums today exist to showcase artistic talent which may or may be unrelated to current social matters. If your art has artistic merits while being influenced by a socially concerned conscience, you deserve to get showcased in a museum and it's very likely that the curators will emphasize whatever message you are trying to convey as the connecting thread of the exposition. If your deeply thought, world-changing insights have no artistic merit, they do not deserve to be inside a museum just for the principle of it. There are other much better platforms for you to express yourself and you shouldn't complain from being restricted from this particular one.

    In this same vein thought, if you are a showcase-worthy artist, you deserve to put food in your plate in exchange for your work and your work deserves to be displayed in ways that maximize its effect and preserves it for posterity. If you haven't noticed, I'm speaking about money here. Money that must come from somewhere -in most cases, admission tickets.

    This poster casually betrays a bit of of scorn for showcased artists, believing they all are only rich, decadent and lazy individuals who sign other people's works. While I'm not going to contest the existence of such people, I also know for a fact that normal, talented people, out of art school make it there too, if they're good enough.

    Sure, like in all modern institutions you'll find a certain amount of unbalance in the way profits are distributed between the staff and the higher ups, when not flat-out corruption. But making of museums the particular second target of this operation is absolutely disingenous and counterproductive. In the big scope of things is akin to targetting the shop owner next corner because he pays the delivery boy 40 dollars at the end of the day, while he pockets 500.

  2. Not really a response to this post, but about OWS stuff from earlier...

    I see the OWS movement as having a lot in common with the Tea Party. Big Government and Big Corporations go hand in hand and are self-reinforcing.

    The corporations give millions to buy government officials cheaply. The government turns around and hands out billions (whether in contracts or bailouts) back to those corporate contributors.

    That's why the "end corporate greed" and "end corporate influence in politics, so the government works for us!" Seems so quixotic to me.

    There's a three trillion dollar pie to be divvied up each year. If you've got a million dollars you can get yourself a billion dollar return on your money. What other possible outcome is there than what we have now?

    Unless the OWS protesters have some altruistic space aliens or self-aware machines (who have decided against rising up to kill us), then I don't see how that's supposed to work with human beings.

    Also, both OWS and the Tea Party (portions of it anyway) are opposed to the Financial Megacorps and their influence in government. OWS is focused on the corporate side, while the Tea Party is looking at the opposite side of the coin, the Federal Reserve side. The government doesn't divvy out just what it collects in taxes every year it creates money from thin air which causes inflation. Prices go up and regular people don't get raises to match it. And as this happens continuously the middle class sinks into nonexistence.

    An alliance between the two would create broader support. I'm not sure what either could really accomplish (the Tea Party just managed to elect more typical Republicans), but more people would be better.

  3. "museums should be listening to their surrounding communities and finding ways to work into their agendas art that speaks to contemporary social needs, so that they can provide forums for relevant discussion as well as valuable models of sociability for their unmoored constituents"

    I can relate to that, and some private galleries and many non-profit art spaces are already doing that.

    However, I'm positive that I'm not the only one in the world that has heard endless negative complaints about all the 'crap' contemporary art being displayed in those spaces trying to find the next biggest thing.

    People are hard to please and a consensus is difficult to come by. If you want what is popular to the general public, then we might as well rededicate a contemporary art museum to low-brow art or stick with big blockbuster artists. If you want something more than that then I want to know where you're going to draw you consensus from.

    Another option would be to find ourselves completely lost and display art created by some remote artists that I, personally, could never connect with, even though they've managed to have their works displayed on every subway station for a prolonged period of time.