The #Occupy movement has been occupying the time of more and more protesters as each day goes by. What began as a New York city-based protest on September 17, 2011, has become a domestic and international phenomenon. The movement includes a hash tag in its name in order to identify itself as a kind of 21st-century successor to the Situationist International or Youth International Party movements. Occupy’s “We are the 99%” slogan has been inaugurated as a recent addition to the executive cabinet of internet memes.
The Yippies had poet Allen Ginsberg on their side, and the Situationists inspired numerous art movements (Fluxus and Arte Povera among them). What about Occupy? Sure, there have been some occupations outside Sotheby’s and MoMa, but the Occupy Atlanta group called for more artist participation.
Recently, Occupy Oakland took apart a barricade fence set up at Frank Ogawa Plaza and rebuilt it as a stacked, minimalist sculpture, and a poster featuring a red, white, and blue Guy Fawkes mask has been adopted by the Anonymous and Occupy movements. Attempts have been made to call attention to other notable, gear-changing Occupy art. I can’t help but notice the disconnect in Michele Elam’s article between discussing Shepard Fairey and the Obama Hope poster in one paragraph, then stating “Occupy art might just be the movement’s most politically potent tool in its dramatic reframing of the racial dynamics of a populist uprising frequently characterized as largely white and ‘hippie’” in another.
Last I checked, Shepard Fairey is white and not exactly struggling to make the rent, and the Occupy movements are taking place during President Obama’s term in office. Was this the kind of change that was expected? It is hard to read articles like this one and still take seriously Occupy activists who say they won’t be co-opted by the Democratic Party.
As it stands, I am uncertain whether the Occupy movement is inspiring a wave of political art, and it does not seem likely to spawn a new style. Bits and pieces from Fluxus and Happenings may be seen at some of the performances done at Occupy protests, but I can’t see that they are much different from the sociopolitical flash mobs that have been done before, like 2010’s Target Ain’t People.
Using Twitter, @OccupyArtWorld has posted discussion questions, including whether art dealers should provide health care coverage for their artists, and has interrogated the greed of the art market and wealthy dealers. The latter is nothing new, and the Twitter page does bring up legitimate questions that inspire worthwhile debate, but other aspects of this Occupy sub-sect appear decidedly holier and more ethically aware than thou.
Part of what troubles me is the tunnel vision involved. Would Occupy Art World like to pretend that Institutional Critique artists such as Andrea Fraser and Daniel Buren don’t exist? These artists have attacked art world elitism for years, but what recognition have they gotten from Occupy? What about David Hammons, who infamously said back in the 1980s, “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated; it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize and not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?”
As with the other Occupy movements, Occupy Museums and Occupy Art World want to democratize aspects of art institutions. Perhaps an easier way to promote “Art for the 100%” is to call for legalized graffiti and squatting in abandoned locations (communal art galleries/showrooms could be arranged in these locales). Doing so would make more of an impact than to call, say, for museums that are already struggling financially to lower their admission rates.
Historically, movements designed to step away from the art market have been reabsorbed into it. A list of such transitions could include the Earth Art of Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria, as well as the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and Carolee Schneemann, to name a few. Whether this boomerang effect is of concern is a worthy question, though it should be acknowledged that, political and ideological complaints aside, the pervasive art market has been at least partly responsible for providing wider exposure for these works. In the ironic case of Lightning Field or Double Negative, for example—a New York art enthusiast wanting to glimpse either work would have to travel way out west, and such a pilgrimage would undoubtedly come at a heftier price than the adult admission fee to MoMA.
I’m thrilled that more people are angry at the establishment, but I fear that many activists within the movement don’t really know what they are angry about and just want to be able to say that they stand with a majority of people who feel victimized. Political art is still around, which is a good thing, but whether the Occupy movements will make any lasting impacts on the art world remains to be seen.
Is the Occupy Movement saying anything new or provocative about the state and state of the arts? I don’t particularly think so, but I am just one writer and technically part of the “99%” as well.