OWS and The Art Workers Coalition: An Ongoing History

by Will Brand and Paddy Johnson on April 6, 2012 History

Art Workers Coalition marching on 6th street

A little extracurricular reading has introduced us to Lucy Lippard’s essay “The Art Workers Coalition: Not a History.” First published in 1970 by Studio International, the piece feels strangely familiar in light of Occupy’s work. As it happens, their Arts and Labor group uploaded the full PDF to their site, so the essay can be read in its entirety. We’ve excerpted a quote below we felt particularly relevant. History repeats itself.

At the first few open meetings of the Coalition there was a terrific atmosphere of aesthetic and economic mistrust. Eventually basic dislike of organization, innate snobbism about which artists should or could be associated with one, the reluctance to waste time, and revulsion for yelling, rhetoric, and opportunism (not unique to the AWC) broke down in favor of common excitement and, finally, even affectionate tolerance for some of the more therapeutically oriented participants. Nobody thought it was ideal; and nobody had even seen New York artists come on any other way either.

Despite the heterogeneous composition, during the winter and spring of 1969 the AWC became a community of artists within the larger art community. The honeymoon period centered around plans for the opening hearing and publication of its record and, later, around the “alternatives committee,” whose search for alternative structures ran the gamut between a trade union complete with dental care, a massive takeover of the city's abandoned Hudson River piers for studio and exhibition space (that is now being done by the establishment itself), and an information center complete with Xerox machine, ending comfortably, if a little wearily, as a discussion group covering the highest tides of idealism and philosophical foam, with which New York art is very much at home.

The weekly general meetings consisted of about sixty people, sometimes one hundred; the committees were much smaller. Both were characterized by reversals and arguments and endless bullshit (usually defined as somebody else talking), naivete, commitment, and lack of knowledge about how to implement it, a high evangelical pitch reached in the bar after meetings, not to mention the endless phone calls that plague a small organization with no efficient communication channels, all backed up by an excited realization that MoMA was, for some inexplicable reason, afraid of us.

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