October 24, 2011

Misguided Occupation

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For the past several weeks, the 99% have protested against economic disparity and corporate greed in Zuccotti Park. They’ve blocked traffic and marched on Brooklyn Bridge, all the while waving signs and relaying their demands through a human microphone. They’ve demonstrated in 70 major American cities and over 600 communities, including right here at Cornell, and they’ve inspired similar protests in hundreds of cities overseas. Occupy Wall Street — it’s kind of a big deal.

But really, demonstrating against the banks was so two weeks ago. You might as well be a member of the 1% if you’re still doing that. After all, that’s what they want you to do, you consumerist pig. If you’re up on the times — if you’re a true believer in liberty, democracy,  solidarity and all that jazz — you’ve got to occupy a museum.

Luckily for you, the opportunity has presented itself. Last week, New York artist Noah Fischer launched Occupy Museums, a splinter group from the Occupy Wall Street movement. There’s also an Occupy Writers group, which can boast the support of Salmon Rushdie, Neil Gaimon and Jennifer Egan among others. Last Thursday, about 20 others accompanied Fischer to the MoMa, New Museum and a downtown gallery to protest against the “pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%,” as the group wrote on its Facebook page. Outside the museums, the protesters chanted, using the movement’s hallmark human microphone to relay their demands.

In the Occupy Museums manifesto, Fischer railed against the “absolute equation of art with capital.” He argued that the art world was busy throwing glitzy parties and art auctions while the rest of the country struggled to make ends meet. In closing, he asked for museums to open themselves to the public and proclaimed that “Art is for everyone!”

Although Fischer’s manifesto is overly whiny and hyperbolic, he does have legitimate complaints against the art world. As art theorist and author Mira Schor wrote on her blog, museums have shifted into the “money entertainment mode … where edge & marginality [are] either commodified or taken out altogether, and with entrance fees prohibitive to the general public.” In addition to the issue of corporate funding, other contributors to Schor’s blog noted how the art world still overwhelmingly supports white male artists and panders to popular tastes to attract audiences.

These are indeed legitimate critiques. Occupy Museums’ intentions are good. But somehow, I can’t help finding the whole thing misguided. To begin with, the group has overly-general demands and lacks concrete ideas at reform. Fischer’s manifesto is an angry polemic, not a strategy. While the movement will certainly attract media attention and debate, it doesn’t propose any realistic solution to the problem. Corporations fund museums because no one else will. These museums pander to public taste to attract the widest audiences so they can generate more funds so the can keep themselves going, and the entrance fees are high for the same reason. The museums are doing what they do because they have no other choice.

At the same time, I find it disturbing that Fischer aligns his movement with Occupy Wall Street, as if having exorbitant museum entrance fees is the same thing as losing one’s job. There’s no escaping the fact that cultural commodity is a luxury. We don’t need high art in the same way we need food or shelter or clothing. It’s secondary, a luxury consumed by those who can afford to do so. Despite the stereotypical image of the “starving artist,” many contemporary artists come from privileged backgrounds, although not necessarily the top 1%. Studying and producing art is a privilege, and MFA programs aren’t  cheap. There’s something at odds with Fischer’s movement pretending to be otherwise.

More importantly, the methods are weak. Art is never politics. Sometimes, though, it functions as a critique of politics. Occupy Museums fails because it doesn’t acknowledge this difference and, indeed, loses sight of its most powerful weapon: art as critique. Rather than engaging in political protest about art, Fischer’s movement should engage in art to protest about politics. The political occupation is old, and we’ve seen it before. It’s the same complaints over and over again with the same methods. However, an activist form of art could draw attention to previously neglected aspects of the critique and show them in a new light. If Fischer thinks museums are shrines of corporate greed, he  should take art to the streets and to the people.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg