Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
Does the first half of 2018 confirm that we are living in a new era of invigorated art world boycotts and museum protests? In March, photographer Nan Goldin’s activist group PAIN kicked off their series of protests against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the particular Sackler family members who are Purdue’s majority owners, by leading an anti-opioids ‘die-in’ in the Metropolitan Museum’s Sackler Wing. The following month, cleaners employed by Ernst & Young took over the Tate Modern in London, using the investment firm’s sponsorship of a Picasso exhibition to draw attention to their precarious contracts. In May alone, Greenpeace activists installed a ‘fringe exhibition’ at the V&A to protest Volkswagen’s sponsorship of an exhibition about future technologies, and back in New York, activists led chants for ‘repatriation’ and ‘reparations’ at the Brooklyn Museum, calling out ‘collections obtained through imperial plunder.’
Calls to decolonize museum holdings organized (sometimes stolen) by wealthy white men have had their Black Panther moment this year. But caustic collisions over art, artifacts and cultural labour are nothing novel. One need only revisit the protests, performances and petitions organized by Art Workers Coalition (AWC: 1969–70), a group of artists who positioned themselves as cultural labourers confronting museum managers along a partially enacted, partially conceptual picket. The AWC demanded the creation of a social benefits programme for all artists, the institution of resale rights for artists’s work, the creation of permanent MoMA galleries dedicated to women and Latino artists, and free admission for all on evenings and the weekend (the last objective is the only one that actually stuck, though ironically it is branded today by the Japanese clothing chain UNIQLO). Lest we forget, it was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who in his 1909 Manifesto called for Italian museums to be flooded by canals so as to make way for a new, futurist reality whose militaristic machismo seems perfectly at home in our own time of nationalistic crisis politics.
The revolutionary avant-garde project of merging art with life carries on apace in spite of the obvious absence of dadaists, productivists and futurists, (unless you believe as do I, that the current POTUS is himself a second-rate, manifesto-tweeting Marinetti redux). Instead this radical fusion is now made possible by the voracious appetite of neoliberal enterprise culture always in search of fresh markets, new brands and more clicks. Still, resistance is not futile. A ragtag cluster of international artists, curators, critics, and even some enlightened museum administrators, are pushing back. We can take the measure of this activism in a rash of recent books by Joanna Warsza, Yates McKee, Mel Evans, Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni, Laura Raicovich and Andrew Ross/Gulf Labor addressing the recent torrent of art world boycotts and museum interventions – from Istanbul, Brooklyn and São Paulo, to Sydney, Abu Dhabi and St. Petersburg.
Artist Mariam Ghani defines this new museum-focused art activism as ‘engagement through disengagement,’ by which she means that the artist boycott does not simply slam a door shut, but hammers out a new conduit for ongoing negotiations, a process she and I participated in as members of Gulf Labor Coalition with regard to defending the rights of mistreated migrant workers in the UAE sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi where another Frank Gehry Guggenheim is scheduled to be built. Likewise, theorists Kuba Szreder describes ‘productive withdrawal’ from institutions by cultural workers, and Yates McKee understands even the full-on ‘art strike’ not as the final curtain call between artist and museums, but as productive forces that prefigure new forms of communal organizing beyond the profoundly eroded antagonism separating public and private spheres. Curator Tirdad Zolghadr goes so far as to postulate that the art boycott ‘energizes, eroticizes, emotionalizes, mobilizes’ artists, and perhaps also the ‘ideological museum apparatus.’
Put differently, this is not our fathers’s or mothers’s, grandparents’s or distant fascist avant-garde ancestor’s art world conflict. For one thing, ‘art workers’ – the motivational premise of AWC – are now simply workers, or worse, they are unpaid interns and volunteers. Whatever privileged position the art labourer once held in a capitalist economy, whatever autonomy she or he claimed from market positioning, product branding, or from work itself, has been stripped away to reveal a bare art world in which the artist’s hyper-education does not save her from the precarious global army of surplus and redundant labourers capital no longer needs or pretends to serve. Academic and author Peter Fleming describes this situation as the ‘theatre of work,’ and anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber simply calls it ‘Bullshit Jobs’.
Likewise, museums are no longer the managers of consciousness as Hans Haacke once (correctly) observed in 1983. Even corporate sponsors seem to grasp this shift. Investing in art is not an ideological necessity when there is only one global financial system. Instead, owning and displaying cultural capital is an end in itself, regardless of whether the work is a glittering balloon dog one week and an emaciated stick-figure sculpture the next. From Jeff Koons’s glamour to Alberto Giacometti’s existential angst, museum programming is like affect-surfing between content streams on HBO, Amazon Prime, and Netflix. In an age of information-overload and continuous self-promotion, museums get to skip-over Cold War-era platitudes about art’s deep humanist value and service to individual freedom, in order to provide spectators with a uniquely embodied experience of luxury that is conspicuously linked with the world’s one percent. Does anyone blink an eye?
Mercifully, some renegade cultural institutions – The Reina Sofía in Spain, Van Abbemuseum in The Netherlands, The Queens Museum in the US, Metelkova in Slovenia, the Museum of Science and Art (MUCA) in Mexico among others, as well as many smaller, cooperative spaces, micro-institutions and informal collectives – strive to opt-out of, or at least distance themselves from naked market conditions. They serve as conduits for an informally organized ressentiment whose vibrant dark matter agency condenses within our bare art cosmos like fog hitting cold night air. Among these particulates of resistance is the Consortium for Postartistic Practices, a renegade cadre of Polish artists adopting the acronym of the former Communist Party (CCP) in order to instantiate imaginative practices outside monetized channels of mainstream, art market culture. There is also the Hackfeminist collective Laboratorio de Interconectividades in Mexico who practise digital self defence and preach open source technology sharing in a reboot of 1990s Tactical Media Art. Or consider ‘The Unbribables’ in Serbia who launched a prohibited media campaign decrying institutional surrender to corporate privatization by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade (MSUB), and were immediately arrested for wearing mocking masks of authoritarian president Aleksandar Vučić. The museum’s director later told the press ‘that such kinds of art, exceeds certain limits of civilized norms.’
Nonetheless, the intransience of these cultural outliers – both dissident museums and dark matter art activists – is typically rewarded with elevated levels of uncertainty and instability from both within and without. The revolution may be digitized, but it certainly is no dinner party. Which is why Warsza reflects in her book I Can’t Work Like This (2017) that, ‘maybe boycotts are, for now, an attempt to move on in art, without a better way of doing so …’ and it is precisely this state of speculative unknowing that may prove to be the most productive aspect when art worlds collide.
Main image: Ryan Coogler, Black Panther, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Marvel Studios
Gregory Sholette is an artist, activist and author based in New York. A member of Gulf Labor Coalition and co-founder of two artists’s collectives: Political Art Documentation and Distribution (1980–88) and REPOhistory (1989–2000), he is the author of Delirium and Resistance (Pluto, 2017), Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto, 2010) and co-editor of Art as Social Action (Allworth Press, 2018) and The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life (2004).