Earlier this week I wrote a piece attempting to shed a little more light on Occupy Museums, a splinter group of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and the media reaction to its call to action. Frankly, the comment thread that result isn't one of our better — many comments were left, but few were discussed — a problem only in so far that some are worth further consideration. One of the more interesting of these comes from artist John Powers at Star Wars Modern;
[OWS] is about getting a moribund political system to address the monstrous income gap that threatens to destroy the gains made by middle class Americans in the post war years. Instead of allying themselves with those most at risk the artists involved in these splinter protests are draining energy, good will, and credibility from the core group. Shame on them.
I responded to this in the comments, but I think it's worth highlighting in the main section of the blog, as I've seen the idea circulating a fair bit recently. First of all, the tenor of this argument makes me uncomfortable because it sounds a lot like those concerned about the raggedy drummers and incoherent rants giving the larger movement a bad name. The truth of the matter is, no matter how elegant the language, the movement would still be attacked. That's what power structures do when they feel threatened.
As for draining energy, I don't agree. To begin with, from a media perspective that position doesn't make much sense. It's not like the culture reporters are producing the bulk of Occupy Wall Street coverage for newspapers, so when the The New York Times' assigns Melena Ryzik to Occupy Museums, it only means she won't be covering a different arts event. Looking at the movement sociologically, there are also flaws to this line of logic; after all, splinter movements are the natural result of any grass roots protest movement and don't necessarily diminish its strength. The Christian right provides a good example here, a religious movement in which seemingly countless non-denominational groups worship, none with a common interpretation of biblical scripture.
This is a fairly easy analogy, of which there are countless, so I’m a little surprised by the amount of push back Occupy Museums has received. It’s not like uneven distribution of wealth is a problem we’ve just discovered; we’ve been talking about this since the late sixties. From Art Workers Coalition, a group of artists and critics that formed in New York between 1969 and 1971 and inspired by the Black Power and student movements to W.A.G.E., a collective of artists actively working to ensure artists are paid by institutions, each rail against a system that fails to adequately meet the needs of cultural workers. While we may not like individual works within these movements, for the most part we agree the relationship between museums and the people it serves can be improved.
A good beginning might be acknowledging the force wealth has in shaping our culture. After all, the same banks that lend students money to go to art schools are also the ones who sponsor the exhibitions at MoMA we all visit. In both cases they make something available to us that we wouldn’t other have, while at the same time exerting considerable influence on what we decide is necessary to consume. Obviously these relationships are co-dependent, but clearly deserve examination.
The connection between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Museums isat least as complicated. While both groups seek to address the increasing income gap and corrupt players, in each case, the institutional structures being critiqued are already in the business of providing platforms for discussion. Just as Occupy Wall Street may find little value in sitting down with government figures, should Occupy Museums agree to meet with Museum executives, do they gain anything they didn't already have? As was expressed by one member on the arts and culture listserve, “curious art orgs can quickly turn your meetings into moments that fetishize [Occupy’s] contemporary relevance.”
In this respect, there's some truth to the idea that Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Museums have the most power acting autonomously and executing discrete activists projects. For Occupy Wall Street this means that on November 5th, they will ask everyone who believes bigs banks are acting unethically, to switch to a credit union. The act will not only support small businesses that need it, but achieves what proper government regulation is supposed to ensure: that large corporations are ultimately working for their customers’ best interest.
Given the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Museums perhaps a little unity on a such a project wouldn’t be such a bad idea. If Occupy Museums wants to museums to hold their donors accountable, why shouldn’t they press the city’s museums to switch their accounts from the large banks most use, to a local credit union? Museums are not entities that must remain neutral as social and democratic injustice occurs; they have a voice. Surely, if the role of our cultural institutions is not just to preserve the past but shape the future, this is an opportunity to make a real statement.