Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Not A Gallery: #OccupyMuseums

For those unfamiliar with my other posts pointing out alternatives to the gallery system and generally griping about the art market, this guy will fill you in. His granddaughter recently found his lecture notes in a suitcase and published them, and Murdock Pemberton's complaints from the 1920s sound depressingly contemporary.

Because of the art market capitalism on display last week in NY, the Occupy Museums people decided to protest the New York Armory Show by inviting all NY artists to show up outside the Armory and exchange artwork with other artists, the Armory visitors and the public. They requested that artists eschew profit in order to trade or give away artworks. They posted a few videos of the embarrassing public nuisance event on their site [note to Trumpet Guy: you are not helping!]. I do enjoy an equitable artistic trade but it's often not worth the social risk, in terms of rejecting an offer of my own piece for a, frankly, far inferior piece of someone else's. Also bartering is still treating art as a physical commodity. Why not simply exhibit the work?

Mierle Laderman Ukeles performs "maintenance art" at a museum, 1973. [Image: black & white photo of a young white woman cleaning a glass case with a cloth.]

GAH.... I really want to be excited about #OccupyMuseums but they need to get their shit together and provide, or at least propose, some real alternatives to the for-profit gallery system. I mean really, they want me-- a broke artist-- to produce art at my own expense (time and money, no matter how you slice it), then show up on a cold street-corner and hawk it to strangers who don't appear to want it anyway? I can do basically the same thing at a gallery, plus indoor heating and personal safety.

I think the thing that really irks me about the #OccupyMuseums people is that they don't pay their respects to the decades of art activists, cooperative galleries, critics, scholars and communities that have already been exploring this issue, the institutional critiques of feminist performance artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles or curatorial artists such as Fred Wilson (Mining the Museum, 1992). No acknowledgement or building upon what has already been tried and suggested in terms of critiquing the gallery system. No only that but no critical, art historical recognition of art movements such as conceptual art that re-interpreted art as something other than a physical object to be traded or sold, or media such as video and computer-based or web-based art that are poised to operate completely outside the market of physical art objects. In fact the contemporary art world is bursting with artists, cooperatives, organizations and even gangs seeking to subvert, critique, re-invent, or obliterate the world of galleries, museums and the art market.

Detail of Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum (1992), showing "Metalwork: 1723--1880." [Image: photograph of a display of an ornate silver tea service with a pair of iron slave handcuffs.]

So after many of the greatest talents of the contemporary art world have devoted entire careers to the issue, why is #OccupyMuseums trying to reinvent the wheel? Because they are ignoring and dismissing the work already done, or because they never bothered to look into it in the first place before swooping in to rescue us all? Additionally, as Murdock Pemberton pointed out a century ago, artists tend to act individually while bristling at collective action, which makes the Occupy movement a particularly bad fit for the role of art intervention.

I would love to see #OccupyMuseums join with artists, connect the financial critiques of OWS with institutional critique, use their networks to educate and excite ordinary people and protesters about what artists are already doing today in this realm.

7 comments:

Tal said...

Hey Ciana,

Thanks for this post. I am an active member of Occupy Museums and one of the core organizers of the Armory Show action. In reviewing our recent action I came across your post. I find your critique of this action thoughtful and appropriate, and want to thank you for sharing it. I have forwarded your post to the group, and I would like to encourage you to join one of our open meetings any Monday at 6pm at 60 Wall St. Please feel free to email me at talbeery@gmail.com if you are interested in joining the conversation.

Noah Fischer said...

Hello, my name is Noah, I am another member of Occupy Museums. Thanks for expressing your opinions. Our actions are all about getting people to think. However, I am a little concerned about you lack of proper information. It is not clear from your article if you have ever actually attended an Occupy Museums protest. We understand that with all the press out there spinning reality this way and that way, it may be hard to get a clear view of what we are doing. I would suggest visiting our website www.occupymuseums.org. Here you will learn that we quoted (paid respects to) Mierle Laderman Ukeles in our very first action at MoMA. You will see that we are aware of the Art Workers Coalition from the early 1970's and are in touch with some of them. We have also quoted Diego Rivera and many other artists in our actions. We could not mount our critique without the work of these artist activists that came before us, however the Occupy Wall Street Movement is a new and powerful context in which to talk about economic injustice in the art world. We are committed to experimenting with new strategies to transform a culture of corruption and inequality that disempowers most artists while privileging the very few.

Noah Fischer said...

Hello, my name is Noah, I am another member of Occupy Museums. Thanks for expressing your opinions. Our actions are all about getting people to think. However, I am a little concerned about you lack of proper information. It is not clear from your article if you have ever actually attended an Occupy Museums protest. We understand that with all the press out there spinning reality this way and that way, it may be hard to get a clear view of what we are doing. I would suggest visiting our website www.occupymuseums.org. Here you will learn that we quoted (paid respects to) Mierle Laderman Ukeles in our very first action at MoMA. You will see that we are aware of the Art Workers Coalition from the early 1970's and are in touch with some of them. We have also quoted Diego Rivera and many other artists in our actions. We could not mount our critique without the work of these artist activists that came before us, however the Occupy Wall Street Movement is a new and powerful context in which to talk about economic injustice in the art world. We are committed to experimenting with new strategies to transform a culture of corruption and inequality that disempowers most artists while privileging the very few.

Noah Fischer said...

I posted a comment here in response to the above. I wrote that if you have attended Occupy Museums actions, or did some research on the web beyond the usual layer of spin, such as the archive of actions at Occupymuseums.org you will find that we often cite activist artists whose work we appreciate and build on. For example, a Mierle Laderman Ukeles text was read through the people's mic at the first Occupy Museums action. A Diego Rivera manifesto was read in the Diego Room at MoMA for an action. We study the Art Workers Coalition and are in touch with some of them. The comment was published and I came back to find it erased. Just strange that you would want to get a misinformed opinion out there without letting the record be corrected. Very web 1.0

Ciana Pullen said...

Holy crap! If I thought anyone from Occupy Museums was going to read this I'd have made it a lot more constructive (seriously Tal, you should be a diplomat! Your response made me re-think lots of this post and wish I were in NY to come to a meeting.)-- and yes, Noah, I'd have done more thorough research. Regarding your first comment I never saw it and I have no idea what happened to it; it's not even in my "spam" thing. Feel free to re-post it or take it up with Blogger. However my piece links to your site, fair & square. The rest is clearly my opinion which you are not entitled to "correct."

I did, however, originally go to occupymuseums.org hoping to find some good solid protest from a movement purported to turn the establishment on its head. I watched the videos since I'm nowhere near NY myself and from protesting when I was younger I know you can't rely on most reporting. I read y'all's writeups about past actions, but only the ones pertaining to art museums, and yes I did miss any printed references to Mierle Laderman Ukeles. I have no quibbles with any OM actions supporting unions and workers, it's specifically the creative interpretations of the art market--the economic role of art and artists, the marketing / packaging concepts of the protest--that I was commenting on.

And in fact this piece is not a knee-jerk reaction to this specific event. News about OccupyMuseums trickles in slowly to South Carolina and over time I've been getting an uneasy feeling from the reporting on the actions at MoMA and Sotheby's: that the institutions needed protesting but that something major was being ignored but I wasn't sure what... that the protests were somehow anachronistic in their concept of what art is today. I couldn't put my finger on it until I started really thinking about this protest.

It doesn't matter to me-- and the enormous amount of non-NY people like me who can access your actions only through the coverage of them that filters in through the media-- that OM is made of really thoughtful people, that you are personally an artist dealing with gallery issues (he is, to any spectators of this thread: read this http://spectrum.columbiaspectator.com/the-eye/speaking-with-noah-fischer-occupy-museums-creator), that thoughtful names and ideas were shared amongst your members. It makes a difference to you, sure, and the people there with you. Although I personally do care about hurting people, in the bigger sense it doesn't matter to me or to spectators like me that the organizers feel attacked or that the intent is different from the reaction. This is a critique and my voice matters. You may have stellar reasons for disagreeing but this is my critique. Take it or leave it.
(to be continued in next comment...)

Ciana Pullen said...

(continued from previous comment:)

However I'm writing from the POV of someone who, like most people in the US who even manage to hear about OM in the first place, reads stories, distilled descriptions of what the action is called and what it looks like and who reacted to it. That's important because that is art history. That is where our history comes from.

Moreover I stand by the critiques. Bartering, donating, selling for cheap: this does not address the issue of art as commodity. The call to artists didn't happen in a vacuum, either, it happened in a world where artists are already *thisclose* to losing it from being asked to produce free or undervalued art by everyone from dealers to fundraisers to schools to outright opportunists. That might not bother artists under, say, 25 years old, but for older artists it rings a really familiar alarm bell. And, while you may in other actions have discussed institutional-critique-type-artists, the call to artists for this action did ignore non-object-based art and it was publicized. I'm not interested in re-writing it but I'm pointing out that the call to artists or the publicized materials about this action could have pointed to the multitude of other art fairs and actions going on that week that subverted the blue-chip gallery Armory model. Really, there was so much anti-Armory stuff going on that week that it jumped out at me that no mentions or collaborations were made; it implied that OM was either unaware of or eschewing any other anti-Armory actions. That is the exact point where it clicked for me that the thing I hadn't been able to pinpoint was the implication that OM is acting in isolation. In our non-vacuum world where contemporary non-object-based artists are routinely ignored by the vast majority of people already, that hit upon resentment. Add to that the resentment that artists are regularly expected to work for free anyway, and it instinctively created a one-two punch of resentment for me as an artist, even though I more or less agree with the critiques OM is making.

That's the most constructive way I can think to frame my criticism. As I said, take it or leave it. If that informs your understanding of how some ordinary American out there is perceiving your organization, then that's pretty cool and I'm excited to see what you do with it; and if it just pisses you off then I'm sorry to have wasted your time (and mine) but that's fair enough.

PS-Trumpet Guy, if you read this I'm sorry I was an asshole. You kind of seem like you wouldn't give a crap what I say about you anyway, but just in case, please ignore me.

Aaron Burr Society said...

It's actually a baritone bugle & I'm having way too much fun to let snarkey remarks stop me. Beside most people smile at the absurdity of the spectacle and i've even had compliments, not many but...

Anyway, though its always been part of our message, OM's Armory Show Free Art for Fair Exchange was specifically about value and its relationship to creativity. Joseph Beuys' concept of Social Sculpture declared that all people are creative in the way they live their daily lives.

Art is a more intense exchange, more specific, at times poetic. But creativity can't be limited to artists. Creativity and intensity must be a part of all people's lives. Creativity is part of our commons. To deny creativity and intensity is to deny individuals a productive life. Living as a wage slave and living in poverty denies creativity.

Returning creativity to our daily lives is not a threat to art or museums. It is a call for universal rights.