Thursday, October 20, 2011

#occupymuseums: An Excercise in Imbecility

This is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping the Occupy movement would not get itself into. An #OWS splinter movement (apparently with the approval of the main group) is sticking it to the Man at one of the main nerves of his plutocratic body politic: ART MUSEUMS.

Wait, what?

Let's try to wrap our heads around this one by taking a gander at Occupy Museums' call to action/manifesto:

The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities. We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken a consciousness that art can bring people together rather than divide them apart as the art world does in our current time…

Let’s be clear. Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital. The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses - stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.

For the last few decades, voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money. To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool. Such a critic was a sore loser. It is time to end that silence not in bitterness, but in strength and love! Because the occupation has already begun and the creativity and power of the people has awoken! The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market. Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!

Okay. Right.

Since I am once again short on time this evening, we'll just be looking at a few quick points.

1.) If the artists of the 99% don't want to deal with a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite, they can just, you know...find other places to exhibit their work. Small urban galleries, perhaps? Public parks? Universities? The Internet? How about their own apartments? They could clear the furniture, distribute flyers, hang work on the walls, hand out wine and cheese on platters. That definitely seems like a more constructive use of their time to me.

This immediately strikes any reader who isn't a struggling artist himself as a personal gripe disguised as a political statement. "The false hierarchy of the cultural wing of the oligarchical puppet state won't exhibit my work, so their very existence must be wrong!" One might also suspect them of hitching a ride on a highly-publicized political movement to buy themselves some media attention.

2.) For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or [sic] art, he says. How? This is not exactly a self-evident statement. Details, please? Explanations? Examples??

(When a truly persistent artist finds no market for his work, he takes it elsewhere instead of trying to burn down the market.)

3.) Why the fuck are you protesting the MoMA, of all places? It's not exactly turning tremendous profits. In fact, last I checked, it barely breaks even. What's these folks' beef, anyway?

An organizer tells a journalist that the place isn't necessarily bad, and the art isn't necessarily bad either, but he doesn't like having to pay $25 to get in.

The admissions price is a direct consequence of the MoMA's not receiving any government funding. Even if you want to put your fingers in your ears for the conversation about the United States' tremendous federal budget deficits and national debt, are you really willing to blame an institution for not wanting to exist at the mercy of Congress?

And before you bitch about its entry fee, why don't you go look at its membership plans? Hey, look! You can pay $75 a year for a membership, which allows you to support an establishment that offers great works of art for public viewing (which would probably otherwise be locked up in some billionaire's mansion), come and go as you please at no further cost, and bring a friend along at an 80% reduction in price!

Maintaining an art gallery of the MoMA's size ain't cheap. The "exorbitant" entry fees help pay for staff salaries, security, site maintenance, power (climate control is equally important for the art is it is for the comfort of the visitors), property taxes, etc. But that's what it costs to keep so many pieces by so many highly-sought artists under the same roof for public exhibition.

4.) The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs.

Oh! He played on the homonymity between the words "canon" and "cannon." Cute! (Or maybe he actually misspelled "canon" and I'm giving him too much credit.)

But still, what? I would think that an effective manifesto should give detailed reasons for a party's grievances than just assume everyone is already aware of them -- especially when they're so abstract.

5.) If you don't like the records the mainstream labels are releasing, stop buying them and look for music elsewhere. If you don't like what the museums are displaying and promoting, PATRONIZE DIFFERENT MUSEUMS. Better yet, start an art blog, find some like-minded contributors, and promote stuff that's beneath the museums' radar. (Something similar worked pretty well for a little music blog called "Pitchfork," didn't it?) This would also be much more productive (not to mention tasteful) than taking advantage of a public protest about economic injustice to draw attention to yourself.

6.) Okay, wait. Maybe what he's saying is that the wealthy have a disproportionate influence on what's hot and what's not in the art world. Probably -- but first of all, that's nothing new. If you're in the business of art and want to make money, you make art that appeals to people who have money. Otherwise, you make art for the love of it and be grateful for the chance to do it. And secondly, who gives a crap? Find different patrons, go to different museums, blah blah blah.

Economic injustice is a matter of widespread concern because all aspects of a nation's life exist in the context of its economic state. This is why #occupy is important and necessary. Not being able to find a job after ten months of looking is a pretty good reason to take to the streets. Not being able to see your and your friends' paintings on display in the Museum of Modern Art because of the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism kind of, well, isn't. And it's really no reason to get in someone's way and make a lot of noise when they're taking the day off to visit the MoMA with a friend from out of town. That's not going to endear them to your cause, and it certainly won't make them look at #occupy in a positive light.

I wouldn't care about this in the least if it didn't reflect so poorly on #occupy as a whole.

The Occupy movement actually seems to be endorsing these people, which has the potential to be extremely counterproductive (provided Occupy Museums doesn't just fizzle out in a week). If #occupy wants to affect serious policy changes, it needs mainstream support, and not just the reliable backing of the young and far-left. Frivolous side-projects like Occupy Museums only add discordance to a movement that already receives enough criticism for its lack of a unified message and set of actionable demands. (Side note: a specific demand may be forthcoming.)

Having an #occupy endorsement stamped on self-indulgent abstractia like Occupy Museums just provides the CNN and FOX News personalities with ammunition. It exposes the movement to ridicule after all the work it has done to demonstrate that it represents more than just the usual protest crowds (kids, hippies, academics, privileged hipsters, etc.).

I brought this up on Occupy Wall St.'s Facebook page earlier today, but it scrolled out of sight within ten minutes. One response I got (before my post was buried) went like:

We really don't care if msm takes this seriously. Our seriousness isn't dependent on their interpretations

No, but your results are. Unless you want all your time and effort to amount to nothing more than a three-month street fair, you damn well better care how the wider public perceives you.

Occupy needs to stay on message. Economic Injustice. Economic Injustice. Economic Injustice.

The movement can't afford to be defined by the pet causes of its fringe elements -- I seem to recall something like that happening to the Tea Party around the same time it began to sink out of favor with the silent majority. Once the public begins tuning out #occupy as a bunch of manifesto-touting, overacademized weirdos, the conversation will change, policymakers will turn their attention elsewhere, and that will be that. And I don't want this to happen.


  1. It's an interesting idea, but some of their arguments seem to suggest these museums have room for a lot more works of art than they can. If there's a single gallery that has an EXTREMELY high reputation and a bunch that aren't so important, the -- let's be generous -- 2% of all artwork that is able to be displayed there is rather fixed. Without a larger gallery there is no way to be more inclusive.

    It is a similar question to what the IGF Pirate Kart is about, except the IGF Pirate Kart is really its own thing aside from the IGF; the event mainly just gives impetus to collect, distribute, and comment on all the games in that collection. In that sense I think it's much more effective, and is not merely a protest of how IGF operates but ALSO celebrates lots of lesser-known but still clever games.

  2. (Indeed, many such Pirate Kart submitters don't consider it a protest at all!)

  3. The level of stupidity of this motion has little precedent. I had to stop reading the manifesto one paragraph before the end because the pretentiousness, unwarranted pomposity and general witlessness of it all became too overwhelming.

    It is so poorly thought, so baseless and so unnecessarily belligerent that I have to honestly wonder if this is not an effort from crafty detractors of Occupy Wall Street to undermine their message by relating it to such transparent folly as this.

    Seriously? Don't want to pay the admission to a museum? Then artists shouldn't get paid either for museum-worthy showcase pieces! Or maybe you think that's something that a random rich person should pay for to made available for you gratis?...

    Ugh, just trying to rebuke this is already making me speak like one of the snarky anti-occupation rightists. This whole fiasco is truly an exercise on intelligence-lowering absurdity for everyone involved.

  4. Well said, well reported. Methinks you (and others here) are correct in assessing the Occupy Museum group as disgruntled artists who are looking for a way in to museums w/out paying the entry fee. The real revolutionaries in the artworld wash up on the fringes all the time, exhibiting, as you write, in apartments, storefronts, on the net, in phone booths and in writing clear and concise texts that fully take in the breadth of their target, not simply pictures of themselves with signs.

    My take on the "movement" is they have their heart in the right place, but their heads are somewhat up their behinds; it would be useful for these folks to fully grasp how the system works and change it from within – if that's what they want. Do they have problems with Pollock? Warhol? Cornell? Schwitters? Ray Johnson? Each of these artists has a story that is unique and rife with difficulties. But they overcame these and created something worth paying to see in a place that belongs to everyone. Paying the fee is a way to be part of the process. What's happening here is a cartoon version of the Oedipus.

  5. muteKi: Oh, wow. What's up? Been a minute!

    Well, they could try to make the galleries larger -- but that would cost money, and we already know how Occupy Museums feels about admission prices.

    Maokun: You know what? I haven't really been keeping track of these people lately. Let's see if they've fizzled out or....

    ...or not.

    Matthew: Whoa! Glancing at your name, I thought you were a cousin of mine. Your names are extremely similar.

    A cartoon version of Oedipus? Hmmmm. So the young artists are Oedipus, the MoMA is Jocasta, and the curators are Laius?

    Well, at the very least, their new demonstrations are to be on behalf of an art handlers' labor union instead of nothing. I can't really formulate an opinion since I don't know the details of the situation, but...hmm. Perhaps it is time I drop a line to my friend at the art dealership and see what the rhubarb's about.