What Does Occupy Wall Street Mean For Art?


What can art learn from Occupy Wall Street? I speak only for myself, but I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.

Several days into the occupation, I went to a panel discussion on the Lower East Side titled “Manifestations of Resistance.” Shortly into the discussion, a woman stood up and asked why, instead of sitting there, we didn’t head down to Wall Street. So a bunch of us did, and as we sat in a circle in Liberty Plaza, the idea of a biennial—or anti-biennial, really—began to form.

The next week saw an accelerated exchange of e-mail, creation of The Wall Street Occupennial website, a mission statement, a call to artists, a Facebook page, a database, and then: Nothing. Or, almost nothing.

What happened? For one thing, the occupation itself was gathering strength. Liberty Plaza was filling up with people and receiving media attention. It didn’t need art for publicity or legitimacy. Now it had unions, Marines, and Cornel West. Plus, we were told, Occupy Wall Street was “started by artists.” But what did this mean?

It seems more accurate to say that OWS was organized by a coalition of artists, activists, and students. Liberty Plaza, however, became a kind of art object: a living installation or social sculpture made of bodies, animals, alternative barter stations for food, clothes, and books, a kitchen with composting, literature tables, public lectures, assemblies, a “community sacred space,” drum circles, protesters, media center, press team, visiting journalists, walkways taped off for tourists, and lots and lots of text—painted, written, scrawled, and printed on every conceivable surface.

How could art—that is, the stuff made in the art world—compare with this? Artists and curators might have embraced “social practice” in recent decades. But, along with the more biennial-friendly “relational aesthetics,” social practice generally consists of symbolic actions or events. OWS actually collapsed, if not the hackneyed divide between art and life, the micro-divide between art and creative activism. The “organized by artists” claim is telling. A century ago, “social scientists” would’ve been preferred; now “social artists” fits.

But the critiques offered by the OWS General Assembly overlap heavily with the art world: corporate domination of museums; art-school debt; a 1 percent system (less, really) of funding and canonization. The ’70s and ’80s saw an accelerated process of art being absorbed into institutions, and artists tried to resist it. But Institutional Critique, as it came to be called, only reinforced the fact that “liberal” institutions can absorb just about anything, including “critique.”

In April, omni-theorist Slavoj iek—who also took the people’s mic at Liberty Plaza—asked whether “it’s time to start questioning: Is the system our ultimate horizon?” The good news, as iek saw it, was that “This is the moment when utopias emerge. You invent utopias when you’re in deep shit and cannot do otherwise.”

Art was, for a long time, a utopian model. But with bohemianism eroded by gentrification and the 1 percent end of the art spectrum devoted primarily to vapid, overfunded gestures, you wonder if a recent Columbia University symposium, which described art as “a catalyst and platform heralding justice, solidarity, and a peaceful future” is nostalgia—or just wishful thinking.

Down at Liberty Plaza, Naomi Klein observed: “We have picked a fight with the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet. That’s frightening.” But the art world has always had a weird proximity to power. Wealthy patrons and collectors mix with artists. Clement Greenberg called this “an umbilical cord of gold,” attaching artists to the rich, and Nelson Rockefeller once joked that the only reason he bought art was to keep artists from becoming revolutionaries. (And yet government funding in the ’30s was partially responsible for the “triumph” of American painting in the ’40s and ’50s.)

Contemporary art is steeped in revolutionary discourse. But there’s a major disconnect between theory and praxis. For me, the Occupennial, named in reaction to biennials, the primary vehicles for creating global markets and transcultural taste, seemed like a step toward fusing the two.

So, what happens now? As a working group of the arts and culture committee of the General Assembly, the Occupennial is just one art group among several. Maybe it’s a platform. Maybe it’s an idea. Maybe it’s a call to artists: If you haven’t plugged into this movement yet, there’s still time. It’s waiting for you.