Why Splinter Movements Don’t Take Away Credibility From Occupy Wall Street

by Paddy Johnson on October 28, 2011 · 13 comments Opinion

Occupy Museums protest outside of MoMA

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.


Financial Guy October 29, 2011 at 10:09 am

 “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?”
The reason why museums stay with larger banks (do we know which museums are with what banks?) is that because they are large and therefore have more capital available. As a result, they can offer better interest rates, loans, etc. That of course does not mean that museums should stay with large banks. But it explains why they do and that is exactly why Occupy Wall Street is so important. In order to have museums switch to local credit unions, you have to regulate Wall Street  to e bigger extend so that smaller banks are not disadvantaged. Does that make sense?

Paddy Johnson October 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I don’t know what it’s like here, but in Canada, Credit Unions often offer better interests rates — it’s the services the larger banks provide that Credit Unions often end up using the larger banks for – that are necessary. 

But to say that we have to look to all the people to switch from the larger banks so that Museums can afford to do the same is to miss the point. The question is, what can Museums do financially to make it known to banks that they are unhappy? 

A Blade of Grass October 29, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I think some of these cultural spinoffs work and some don’t. I am into OWS and Occupy Museums because they are hitting the right scale and understanding what we are all forced to participate in. You can’t stop participating in the economy at large. You can’t help but situate your knowledge of culture in terms of large institutions like museums–we have all bought into a system where museums function as art repositories and generators of meaning and value.

These are good arenas for understanding how to own membership and act like a citizen in the face of an enormous, abstract power structure. Occupy Artworld or Occupy Chelsea don’t hit this appropriate scale and don’t harness this sense of citizenship.  They don’t fail because galleries are not good targets. They fail because artists are not forced to participate in the gallery system. In fact, the overwhelming majority of artists *don’t* participate in the gallery system in a meaningful way–they are excluded.

It’s the difference between one bunch of high school students protesting the dungeon-like quality of the cafeteria, and another protesting the popular kids, who happen to get the only window seats in the cafeteria. The first group is powerful because they understand what they are citizens of. The second group is bitching about power, and the fact that they don’t have any. 

Steven Mesler October 29, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Advocating for musueums to switch their bank accounts to credit unions is perhaps the only sound idea I’ve read in this and the previous post.  They are not typically burdened by long term debt and lord knows, if they are credit worthy, banks will loan them money regardless of where they do their daily wash.  Most of the people I work with use a union/company sponsored credit union for their banking, yet GE Capital and Bank of America hold its long term debt.

This also would ally this “movement” with the OWS movement in a meaningful way. March down to Wall Street on November 5th having achieved a goal that they would recognize as good work and you will have honored their efforts, stood up with them, and added to the movement rather then diluted it.

Occupy Museums does not detract from the credibility of OWS, because it has none of its own.  To co-opt this movement to try and effect essentially the curatorial program of a museum: an institution that offers “Free Fridays”, educational programs that reach out to thousands every year, reasonable membership costs, fair fpay and benifits commensurate with experience and capabilities is absurd.  Furthermore, to my knowledge the Met has never ever destroyed the economy through gross negligence of the unregulated markets they advocate(d) for costing the US 8.9 million jobs, actively engaged in class warfare that pushes profits ahead of the common good at the expense of the environment and ordinary, rational functions like health care….health care for criminy sakes.

When the Met needs a $700 billion dollar bailout and stops allowing me to get in for a “donation”, maybe then, I’ll orient my discontent toward them.  Probably not, because quite frankly, it will far more valuable to see my tax dollars spent supporting the “MFA Industrial Complex” rather than the “Military Industrial Complex”, but for now that’s a long way off and so is Occupy Museums. 

4.5 miles off to be exact:  http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=occupy+wall+street+park+location&gs_sm=c&gs_upl=1516l9008l0l15649l23l20l0l0l0l0l2097l11705l2-,or.r_gc.r_pw.,cf.osb&biw=1366&bih=647&wrapid=tlif131989939611310&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wl

Star Wars Modern October 29, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Would it kill artists to stand behind a cause, rather than insist on being front-and-center of attention?
Is it so terrible to ask those within the artworld to use their talents for drawing attention, to draw attention away from themselves, and to instead use their talents on behalf of a cause greater than the artworld?
To be clear: I think most people in the artworld that I keep track of (via twitter, blogs, and socially), have done exactly that. The artworld rallied early and loudly behind the OWS protestors. AFC and other art sites have done a great job of reporting on the Occupy movement.
But no, splintering is not good for a movement. The Religious Right has been so effective because it is not a splinter. It is a faction – they stand with the rest of the Right, adding their mass and energy to the greater cause. Ralph Nader was a splinter and he delivered the White
House to George W Bush – way to go Ralph. If splintering was such a good thing the would-be museum occupiers would not have felt it necessary to distance themselves from “Occupy 38” – which is exactly what they did.

A Blade of Grass October 29, 2011 at 6:52 pm

I see what you’re saying but just because the Religious Right has had a successful strategy for awhile, that doesn’t mean it’s the only successful strategy.

I think the Occupy movement’s success is based in large part on its flexibility and adaptability, on the fact that it’s organized around a way of being that promotes discourse and multiplicity rather than one set of answers. At Zuccotti Park the Ron Paul people are standing next to the guy decrying gun violence and the woman with a lot of debt and the guy who wants actual finance reform, and everybody is getting health care from the medic and getting food from the kitchen and sharing books at the library and taking shifts at maintenance. And this works. They are creating a demos that can sustain multiple conversations.

I question your attachment to messaging and the notion that this is a zero-sum game.

–Deborah Fisher

Star Wars Modern October 29, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Deborah, the odd bedfellows you are describing making up the crowd at Zuccotti Park are factions, not splinters. They are there at the park, not off on their own adventures. The Ron Paul guys (they are always guys) no doubt count themselves as part of the 99%. The reason they are there is to make common cause not a whole new cause.

A Blade of Grass October 30, 2011 at 12:02 pm

I think the problems you’re pointing to are design features of a movement that is not technically a protest. A protest takes two bodies and pushes them against one another in a strength contest. Structurally, the Occupy movement looks more like a net or a web that seeks to expand rather than push. It’s not engaged in a strength contest.

The OM folks are not off on their own adventure or making it all about them. They are seeing a relationship between two kinds of problems and exploring that relationship with the backing and structure of the GA. They’re expanding the net. This kind of exploration, relationship-building and meaning-making feels like exactly what the movement is about.

–Deborah Fisher

Paddy Johnson October 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm

You know, when I was writing my first piece on the subject there was a point where I had a line that read something to the effect of, “The insularity of the art world is so extreme that it only understands movements that are about itself.” There’s truth to that thought, but the more I thought about this movement, the less I was able to justify applying that label. Being part of a cause, is identifying ways in which it effects the world you live in. The art world more than other fields, has a very complicated relationship with Wall Street. We’re left leaning folk who are often supported by the spoils of Wall Street. 

Upon reflection splinter group is the wrong term for this movement, since I think it uses the core concerns of Occupy Wall Street as its basis. Splinter typically connotes dissension and that’s not what’s going on here. From this point further I won’t be using it. 

That said, I don’t see why it should be so hard to acknowledge facts when they are cited: There are countless splinter groups amongst the religious right. Christian Reconstructionism anyone? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Reconstructionism

Star Wars Modern October 30, 2011 at 6:00 pm

My fear is not that artists will, like the drummers, add to the hair-brained image of OCW being pushed by the press. The OWS protestors have proven to be canny and mature when it comes to their dealings with residents and businesses in the area around Zuccotti Park. (Anyone who doubts it should listen to the Brian Lehrer segment with Community Board 1 chairwoman Julie Menin http://bit.ly/tHJO8r ) As I told Paddy via Twitter, the OWS tactics and ethic may appear to have arisen organically, but in fact they have been carefully developed and workshopped for years by the Radical Left for decades.

My fear is that artists will stand alongside those who are looking to capitalize on the protests; like MTV who is/was planning a reality TV program and Warner Brothers who is rumored to want to film Zuccotti Park as a backdrop for Batman III. It is asking very little that the artworld should behave less like the predators at MTV and Warner Brothers (How can we use this?), and more like the Labor Unions (How can we help?).
I had a long conversation about OWS with a friend who, for over a decade, has been deeply involved with the political protest culture generally and the Radical Left more specifically. He admitted that he was stunned by the success of the Occupy protests; that if you had asked him a month ago income disparity would be at the center of our political debate and that “99%” would be common place, he would have told you your crazy. My friend described OWS “the form but not the content of Radical Left.” He said for the past decade the Left has imagined themselves as the “.000001%” a small band courageous enough to stand up against corporate power. he clearly admires the rhetorical victory represented by recasting the debate in terms of the 99% – he also felt there was room for the protest to spread to museums and their financial dependence on oil companies and other forms of unsavory wealth. So faction away, but do so with care, because there is lots of room for that to turn against it self. For instance,  I am sure that Occupy 38 imagines themselves as a more radical and hardcore splinter of Occupy Museums.For myself I would love to see Museums join Occupy, rather than be Occupy. How great would it be to have the boards of the MoMA and the Met to issue a statement that they stand with the 99% ? That is the sort of faction that makes sense to me. The kind that brings together unlikely political bedfellows.

una nada luminosa October 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm


Anonymous October 29, 2011 at 8:17 pm

I don’t know how much ACTUAL TIME the critics (Winkleman, Star Wars, Vartigan, et al) have physically spent at Liberty Plaza actually protesting (as opposed to electronically ‘supporting’), but last I checked it was basically at capacity. I know Noah Fischer has put in his time there (as I suspect many of the other participants have) and I think he has a right to instigate other artists to take the protest elsewhere, and I have yet to hear a compelling case for why the protest shouldn’t be taken to other venues. The numbers are strong downtown, why not go uptown? OWS has regularly taken the protest to locations other than Wall Street proper. Starting w/ Zucotti Park…. Hats off to AFC for supporting this effort in the face of a fair amount of knee-jerk hostility, most of which seems to come from the undeniably self-absorbed ‘Art World’ as opposed to the main body of OWS itself. There are some seriously reactionary voices coming out of the NY art scene (see James Kalm….) in response to OWS that are really pretty shocking to me as an artist. The knee-jerk write off of Occupy Museums by otherwise ‘sympathetic voices’ is what is misguided.

Cameron Masters October 30, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Occupy Museums seems like the least of OWS’s concerns. What about the fringe ‘End the Fed’ component? The fact that it’s predominantly white? The tendency to oversimplify complex problems and alienate the rich, many of whom aren’t the problem? Their inability to articulate tangible improvements (with some exceptions)? It’s always easy to criticize, but not as easy to actually push for real change (see: ‘Solidarity’ in Poland). 

It seems a bit to me like it’s a group composed mainly of (and of course there are exceptions) white, college-educated urban people who feel cheated that they don’t have better jobs while richer people do. Well guess what — for any minority, it’s always been like that. And we shouldn’t have been reckless about blowing our money in the last 10 years, but a lot of us (myself included) are very in debt because of expensive college tuition that I didn’t even give any thought to. Is it the rich banker’s fault that I’m in debt? No. Do I resent the bankers for being bailed out and not changing their destructive behavior? Yes. It’s always easy to find a scapegoat, but why museums, why all rich people? It seems inaccurate, and de-legitimizes the real, progressive undertone to all of this. It’s the far left’s knee-jerk response to everything. (I’m farther left than most, but you can’t just criticize everything for the sake of it and expect to be taken seriously). 

In other words: Pick your battles, OWS. 

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