The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

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FEB 2012 Issue

A Festival of Reason and the Art of Common Sense

Plans are underway for an Occupy arts festival in the suburbs: Occufest in the Occuburbs. The initial contacts with different cultural organizations have been promising. People are enthusiastic; there are promises of space and other resources. Often, however, certain questions arise: What is this—the festival and Occupy Wall Street—about? What point would a festival make? What would it do?

Occupy Teach-In at Washington Square (1-29-12). Photos by Zack Garlitos.

The subtext of such questions is something like this: My experience with politics has been disillusioning, will this be any different? And, my experience with art has been disappointing and puzzling, so will this be any better? By way of attempting an answer, the questions can be reframed to emphasize the central position of the 99 percent in everything that the movement does.

So, preliminary to discussing what an Occufest might be like, one might ask, what could cultural democracy look like? Under what conditions might art for the 99 emerge, and how would we recognize such work if we saw it?

The questions are daunting and carry with them suppositions that are difficult to defend: that art can be reliably associated with one social category or another, and that such art carries the markers somehow of this exclusivity so that most people walking into a gallery would know that this work is for the one percent, that work for the 99 percent.

There might be something to this idea, but who would want to take on the headache of assigning a Gursky large-scale photograph or a Murakami erotic drawing, to take a couple of examples, as belonging to the one percent or the 99? A panoramic photograph of a department addresses ordinary experience, and the Takashi Murakami riffs on manga and traditional Japanese forms blow up the very idea of ordinary; kink and eye candy may be ordinary in Japan, but what does that suggest? The art world generates endless plays and variations on reception, cultural ownership, identity, and art world politics. Try to drop a conceptual box of social and political critique over art practice and one will simply end up supplying artists with something new to embellish, distort, invert, or take apart.

But look at the price list for Gursky photographs and Murakami cartoon images, and one thing becomes clear: You can’t afford one, not even a little one. Even the catalogue is expensive. Visit another gallery and it’s the same story, and another gallery. Abandon Chelsea and go to Williamsburg and things are not much better.

It takes just a little knowledge of art world geography to locate the art spaces that attract wealthy and extremely wealthy collectors, and others that are more middle market though aspiring to sales in the five- and six-figure range. It is a lot more difficult to find legitimate galleries that sell in the range of hundreds rather than thousands of dollars. Even at this low range it is unlikely that most ordinary people would want to spend that much money on a painting or drawing, or on any art object.

Money, however, doesn’t seem to be the central issue in this reluctance to buy. Many middle and lower middle class Americans, even in this economy, have some money to spend. So if you’ll buy, say, a lamp (not that you absolutely need it) why won’t you buy a drawing? True, there are all kinds of reasons to buy the lamp, but nonetheless, why not buy the drawing? Part of the answer is that most people wouldn’t know where to begin with art. They don’t see the connections between them and…that. The threads, if they exist, that one might follow to get to that place where art matters intimately and directly for the 99 percent, aren’t visible.

What is it like when ordinary people can trace such threads? To get at a vision of art for the 99 percent, it might be useful to change the frame of reference and consider different kinds of visual objects, putting aside for a moment whether they are works of art or not. These would be publicly displayed works, not family photos or other personal objects. The point is to consider what experiencing the threads feels like. Start with a personal example from outside the art world, one that even Tea Party people might find acceptable.

Paul Revere

For generations most kids growing up in Boston took the Freedom Trail at some point, usually on a grammar school field trip. Paul Revere was a central figure in this tour of historical sites; kids took in Paul Revere’s house, the statue of Paul Revere in the North End, his grave in the Granary Burial Ground, and the Old North Church where the lanterns were hung to signal British troop movements. When they were older, the same kids would be taken to the Museum of Fine Arts and would see Revere’s silver, Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Revere, and other paintings and examples of material culture from the Revolutionary War period. This was one traditional pathway into culture in the city. One was never expected to consider whether Revere the silversmith was an artist, or whether the public memorials to him had aesthetic value, or the paintings from the Federalist period register as illustration or as formal arrangements of tone, color, and line. The Revere gestalt, including the Longfellow poem, became part of the cultural citizenship of the people of Boston. The paintings, drawings, silver work, and public monuments traced back, in the experience of these public school, working-class kids, to the churches, gravestones, bullets and guns in glass cases, and brick sidewalks they experienced on the Freedom Trail.

 The point is not to suggest that such a particular arrangement or gestalt can be reproduced, or that it should or can replace anything—Gursky, Christo, anyone—but to look at the interrelationship of painting, material or artisanal culture, public art, and preservationist work in building, and to see how all this folds and turns and layers over time into the foundational mythos of a city, and to some degree of a nation. To the extent that an analogy to Occupy Wall Street holds, one would hope that any further loss of archival material from the movement be opposed at all costs, that some curatorial process be applied to the creative things that the movement produces—signs, posters, clothes, photos, and so on—that the movement look to its occupied and formerly occupied spaces as sites of origin or narrative beginning and to each as a creative nexus for the community in which the occupation takes place.

It didn’t take long for the sites of conflict and decisive action to be taken up into the reflexive process that accompanied the shooting and speechifying in the American Revolution, for paintings, prints, and placards to reconstitute those sites as sites of creative discourse. In France, choreographed rites of cultural and political transformation—David’s orchestration of the march accompanying the internment of the remains of Voltaire, the public viewing of remnants of the Bastille around the nation after the prison was destroyed, the Festival of Reason David had a hand in designing and realizing—memorialized and democratized revolutionary change. Everyone who took part in the rite was, in theory anyway, changed by it; everyone who came to see a relic of the storming of the Bastille was taken up, emotionally and spiritually, for want of a better word, in that revolutionary moment.

 Likewise, at some point the Occupy movement will have demonstrated its coherence and stability often enough for the people within and outside the movement to recognize that this is real, that it won’t go away. As of now the hold of the movement on its participants and followers, the threads, are largely emotional. But that is a lot. That is important.

There are no monuments to the Occupy encampments except in the mass grief that followed the police assaults in New York, Oakland, Boston, and around the country. No one who felt that grief has entirely recovered from it; the violence to our sense of fairness and justice was too great, the sense of inevitability too sad, for anyone to experience it unchanged. Art will and must respond to that grief in formal terms, restoring what was lost and the experience of loss to the status of a collective possession, something we the 99 percent have that they can’t take away.

The Festival and the Desert

To turn to another extreme that has nothing to do with patriots and history: Burning Man. This Dadaist, vaguely Situationist mirage in the Nevada desert is in some ways a precursor of the occupation movement and in others the apparent antithesis of it. The event certainly has its counterculture and political aspects but the general atmosphere is ludic, sexy, and fun. The connection between Occupy and Burning Man is occupation: situating a large group in a place and making that place a demonstration of a certain ethos. Of course, the burners aren’t occupying the commons or sites of power, they’re constructing an alternate reality. Then they take it all down, and burn that statue. Taking it down can acknowledge the illusory nature of the material world, while evoking pagan-ritualized burning of devil figures, and all that this implies of a New Age identification with the earth, the environment, the cycles of life and death. But it is important to note that Burning Man has its defiant side; the artists and architects involved build a city for 30,000 people, just as they want to, without any clothes on some of the time, then remove it. They, a varying but consistently like-minded they, have done so for 20 years or so and will continue to do so. This is an exercise in power: the power of organization, intelligence, and defiance.

Imagine if they were to build a city, in the most inhospitable environment, and stay.

And consider how powerful Burning Man would be if the festival were to acknowledge just what the desert is. If you aren’t going to acknowledge suffering in the desert then you might as well go to the beach. If you aren’t going to confront temptation and decadence in its many forms, then you might as well go to an amusement park.

The desert, for the Occupy movement, is the site of oppression: Wall Street, most notably. It is the site, moreover, of the seduction of power and greed. Buy into the terms the investment banker offers, for it has been given to me and I shall give it to anyone I choose at attractive rates and for a limited time. Now the parallels between Zuccotti and Burning Man diverge. There is a gap in the annual narrative of the gathering of burner tribes in the desert. The reality of an arbitrary, cruel law is missing here, and it is all too present in the narrative of the Occupy Movement. There are no images of police applying pepper spray or handcuffs to burners, nor is it likely that there ever will be. Yet the images of police brutality in downtown Manhattan or in Oakland were embedded in the narrative of the movement before they even occurred; this pattern of protest and violent over-response has played out through history. The new development in Occupy Wall Street was the degree to which this pattern was reflexive and thought out; the movement watched itself on YouTube and live feeds, adapted the images of oppression to its ends, and grew. This is a political process of self-creation, material and spiritual.

The ludic aspects of the Occupy movement—zombies, street theater, anarchist masks, drum circles, tribal invocations, costumes of all sorts, and, of course, the encampments—are strategic, deliberate, and utterly serious. They map out public space in terms of conflict and assign social values to different positions: lots of us, few of them; we in the streets, they in the office towers; we speaking out, they quietly controlling from within. The Occupy movement is not a repetition of impromptu outbursts, anarchic venting, or self-indulgent marching-in-place-of-working as the movement has sometimes been described. Occupy is a tactical, methodical deployment of reason and social practice, of argument and occupation. To use an old-fashioned American term, it is a mass mobilization of common sense.

Anyone could see that it was not the noise or the alleged unruliness of the crowds that brought out the pepper spray and plastic bullets, it was the affront of the message the crowds conveyed. The message made too much sense for the powers that be to tolerate it. Clarity is anathema to authority.

Art in the obvious, the plain as day

When Republicans attacked the Occupy encampments as sites of drug use, dirt, and “outdoor sex,” the surface aspects of the fantasy were interesting—the projection of an anarchic sexual impulse on the 99 percent, the association of shame with protest, sexual guilt with political engagement, sexual exposure with encampment. The right-wing phantasm of protest, with its dated tropes from the ’60s, gives a keyhole image of where the right are coming from. But we don’t want to open that door. One can assert with full confidence that the 99 percent is not interested in all that.

The nightmare of the right wing, the fear too powerful for them to express publicly or “outdoors,” is that the other (the 99 percent) is not similarly warped by shame, impulse, and self-loathing but is, in fact, responsible, articulate, and self-possessed. The right-wing nightmare is that Occupy is quite willingly penetrated by reason and not by the instruments of oppression. It is excited by the power of information, not by the seduction of dismissive slogans—get a job, take a bath, occupy a desk. The passion of the Occupy movement is not sexual. It is moral, and this is moral outrage propelled by information, research, and logic—anyone marching in an Occupy demonstration can discuss global warming, income disparities, concentration of power, and mortgage-backed securities.

The primacy of reason over (and yet, within) the particulars of person, place, and identity in the Occupy movement changes everything in American political discourse. This country has seen different groups claim their dignity and power: African Americans, women, union workers, the LGBT communities, and so on. The consequences in each case have been momentous, and these struggles continue and are embraced by the Occupy movement. But here comes something different, an over-arching, worldwide social and economic cry of enough is enough. Enough of right-wing crazy-making inversions: Guns make you safe, evolution is a lie, global warming is a myth, poverty is the fault of the lazy poor.

Occupy Wall Street is, if nothing else, a movement to reclaim the obvious; look at the concentration of wealth in the one percent. Look at the corporate stranglehold over Congress; plain as day. Check out what BP did to the Gulf. Look at it! On and on it goes. What is the opposite of this empowering critique of the apparent? Crazy-making abuse of fairness and truth, one in which those who ruin the economy and lay off millions give themselves huge bonuses; because how could we do without these highly trained experts? 

Now the aggregate, the 99 percent, is claiming its dignity and power, its claim to what is verifiable and real in public life, and how else can one describe this but as revolutionary?

The art that emerges within such an environment will be nurtured by and will nurture this transformative claim on self-respect, dignity, and empowerment. The art needn’t be obvious, far from it. It needn’t be anything in particular: not David or Lissitzky, the WPA or the Leningrad School. Art does what it does. One can imagine that, on occasion, art may have a certain illustrative or programmatic quality: things to accompany or be part of a protest, a direct action, and so on. But there will be many other approaches and contexts. The important thing is to encourage art congenial to or simply congruent to the concerns and goals of the movement.

To that end, over the next nine months or so groups and individuals associated with the Occupy movement will undertake a number of alternative programs in art and culture. An Occupy film festival is planned for Huntington in the late spring, as is collaboration between a local food cooperative and art galleries in the area with the aim of rethinking comfort food for body and spirit. Plans are underway to renovate a condemned house and adjacent barn, turning the surrounding property into an outdoor art space and herb garden. Finally, in the event of social and bureaucratic roadblocks to Occupy art projects in conventional spaces, there are plans to occupy real places in virtual spaces. Occupy everything could just about happen.

Art that dwells in the socially and politically apparent (or obvious), for want of a more precise term, occupies a place of strength. The artist who declares herself for the 99 percent occupies a position of strength. Making art that raises awareness, that reinforces and deepens the common sense approach to what is right there, is a good thing to do to people. And people who have been treated well in this way will be good to the art and artist. That is the hope.


Christopher Moylan

Christopher Moylan is an artist and writer based in Centerport, Long Island.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

All Issues