Last month, Christian Viveros-Faune started an online conversation with fellow Village Voice critics Martha Schwendener and R.C. Baker with a simple question: “If an artist had something important to say about the world, would anyone really listen?”
It prompted a fascinating discussion, during which the critics riffed on whether artists' protests are limited in their gains, whether art can make significant political progress, and whether museums are the right place to protest (Viveros-Faune thinks Sotheby's is a better target). Martha Schwendener raised the point that two of last year's Nobel Peace prize-winning women used “symbolic acts lifted straight from the art-world playbook”—sex strikes and a tent occupation—to help end Liberia's civil war, and to protest Yemen's regime, respectively. “Artists have these skills, but I think somehow our system has pushed them in the wrong direction,” she wrote.
Two weeks ago at Spring/Break, William Powhida hosted an open forum to continue the conversation, particularly in light of Occupy Wall Street. Schwendener—who has been an active presence since the movement's inception—mentioned that her life has changed after Occupy Wall Street, that galleries feel different now. Again, she mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize winners: “Those types of social interventions really smack of social practice or early performance art, so I guess it's just a question of context; these people are activists, as opposed to artists.” Here's a bit of that conversation:
Christian Viveros-Faune: “Maybe those are strategies we've forgotten to [employ in an art context.] Everything we do in the arts community seems to be limited by that precinct, the art precinct.” He then raised his objection to the “limited historic premise…that the right place to go protest is the museum. As opposed to, again, Gagosian, or the auction house.”
Powhida: “The museum's the place where it's been legitimized…the museum's a good place. The perception is that it's where you get culture, but it's been constructed around wealth. [T]he museum seems like this physical expression of wealth and power…”
Viveros-Faune: “More than the auction houses? More than Gagosian?”
Powhida: “The auction house doesn't have the public mission.”
Audience Member: “There have been protests at Sotheby's throughout the fall, and Sotheby's has been this model that won't budge an inch. [Sotheby's board member] Danny Meyer sits on the board at MoMA, and he also has restaurants there, so that's where there's a connection being made. To go there, make some noise, make it uncomfortable for the museum, trying to pressure them to get Danny Meyer to step up…it's not just some random [act].”
Viveros-Faune: “… These are [some of the few] institutions in our community that have to be clearly transparent and have some level of accountability… You're right, you did go to Sotheby's, but you didn't necessarily go in to make a larger critique, you went to talk about what they've done to the art handlers, which is grand, but it seems to me that that larger critique is absolutely necessary.”
Powhida: “Yes, but when you get to that larger critique, you're still dealing with the same people who shop at Sotheby's and are on the boards of trustees at the Whitney, at the Guggenheim…David Ganek, who ran Level Global, whose logo was designed by Ed Ruscha, shut down his hedge fund recently because he was being investigated by the [F.B.I.]
[He's one of the] trustees at the Guggenheim, and somebody, I think Andrea Fraser, pointed this out recently….I think there is an immediate overlap between the two things. Part of my own unease with calling for an end to the Whitney [Biennial] is that it also says 'stop showing art' in my mind…it may not mean stop showing art, but it may mean 'stop showing art here, stop participating here.'”
The conversation focused again on art's political impotence. Toward the end of the discussion, a self-identified “art supporter”, Amos Satterlee, said he felt that the comparison between the Nobel Peace prize winners' acts and performance art was trivializing. “I can't imagine being in a refugee camp somewhere, and [all I have is] the most basic, biological weapon,” (referring to Leymah Gbowee, the woman who initiated the sex strike.)
When we broke into discussion groups, I spoke to someone who was not particularly involved in the arts, but seemed to think of the art panels as a funny, niche culture. Something I've noticed about these meetings—and what initially made them so frustrating—was how random the participants seemed to be, and how difficult this made keeping a conversation on track. Frequently, Viveros-Faune asked if the OWS members would identify themselves so that we could have a conversation. Nobody raised their hand—possibly because there's no member certification—but this, we agreed, is the point. Being a “member,” which requires nothing more than being present, immediately gives people some cachet.
Something Schwendener addressed in one of her early Occupy pieces was what the movement means for art—the camp itself was true relational aesthetics. And I completely agree; if we're willing to expand the definition of art to include dinner parties, amusement parks, and curating, then there's plenty of room for protest, too.