In November 2016, João Enxuto and Erica Love wrote dispatches from the Walker’s Avant-Museology symposium, a two-day exploration of the sociopolitical implications of contemporary museology, for conference partner e-flux. To continue the conversation, we commissioned the art duo for a further consideration of the role of art museums today. Their focus: the #J20 Artstrike and its recent call for art institutions to close on Inauguration Day. While the Walker, like many of its institutional peers, is choosing to be open—and free—on January 20, we embrace this important conversation on the changing role of art, artists, and institutions in personal and electoral politics.
What will the relationship between art museums and their publics look like following recent global events like Brexit and the US elections? Less than two weeks after the American presidential election, we were at the Walker Art Center for the two-day Avant Museology symposium. The world had shifted a bit, and yet an audience filled an auditorium to engage with how contemporary museums bridge multiple, seemingly contradictory functions: to preserve cultural memory while synchronizing with the immediacy of lived experience. Museums remain consequential by staging such contradictions, most notably the persistent rift between art and real life. One of the featured speakers, art historian Boris Groys, reminded us that the Enlightenment museum was founded as a secular surrogate for divine memory, yet it remained subject to finitude like the bodies we inhabit. He explained that the initial mission of the museum “reaches an impasse: if there is a potentially infinite number of identities and memories, the museum dissolves because it is incapable of including all of them.”1 As a result, the contemporary museum attends to the temporal flow of staged events and everyday life. But the question remains whether the activity in museums is commensurable with the most consequential experiences, namely that which remains irreconcilable in political life.
As we all well know, an emergent populism of the disaffected took hold of the democratic process in 2016 to reveal that an institution of pollsters and pundits were all but useless in anticipating voting behavior. The degree to which many Americans disapproved of establishment politics slipped past the guard of technocratic risk management. What seemed like moribund conservative vestiges were reanimated by the unanticipated unfolding of an event.
Blind-sided progressives are now left to scrutinize conditions that will shape the uncertain political landscape ahead. Black-boxed algorithms that regulate social media and internet platforms received much of the blame. And yet these complaints still echo inside of filter bubbles that continue to exclude and harden. The rise of right-wing populism, Russian hacks, post-truth, and fake news–all once meaningful topics–have been denatured through accelerated tedium. We are baited by a president-elect who has weaponized Twitter trolling towards the coldest war we’ve known. These are all bullet points in the culture of participation. In his farewell speech President Obama’s message was, in part, that a threat to democracy is posed by the demos–the people–itself.2
The online media environment frames how opposition might unfold against a candidate that has galvanized popular support despite (or due to) racist, sexist, xenophobic, and authoritarian proclamations. Newly emboldened, conservatives promise to test progressive politics by undoing established laws and civil protections. Mass demonstrations and coalition building are critical steps towards protecting the most vulnerable and at-risk among us. The art field is bracing for calamity. A whirlwind of online organizing, direct assembly, activism, and protest planning has most notably materialized in the “J20” art strike to be staged today, on Inauguration Day. Hundreds of artist and critic signatories have called for mobilizing the closure of museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls, studios, nonprofits, and art schools in solidarity with a nationwide general strike.3 In a recent announcement they explain: “It is not a strike against art, theater, or any other cultural form. It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced.” By these terms, the political struggle ahead will manifest an opportunity to reshape the public-facing function of art institutions.
Such a mandate doubles down on the inviolability of public institutions as gatekeepers (or sanctuaries) for an art of uncompromised adaptability. A reconsidered notion of cultural gatekeepers might be read against its conventional relationship to the bourgeois museum. Late last year, the bow-tied editors of the New Criterion held a symposium on museums4 to continue the long mourning of postmodern relativism while introducing revelations about unhinged populism run amok through social media. In his presentation, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole, indicts museums for shifting from “sanctuaries of art into community centers.” For conservative observers, contemporary museum practices complicate fantasies of a unified museum. The general takeaway from these proceedings was that the iPhone, the global museum-building boom, and contemporary art’s dubious criteria, have been catastrophic for the bourgeois museum.
The aim, in the case of #J20, is to repurpose museums and art spaces for political action (and not simply political art). These were also the terms for protesters organized as the Art Workers Coalition5 to oppose the Vietnam War many decades ago when New York City art museums were deployed as a political staging grounds by artists: an art strike in 1969 led to a broader set of efforts to “democratize” museums over the next few years. As with previous art worker’s strikes, #J20 stands to be a significant move toward unifying the art field under a common political task–but a long road lies ahead.
In recent years, very visible museum protests have been carried out by groups such as Gulf Labor against the “1% museum” as detailed by Yates McKee, a #J20 organizer in his recent study Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. Post-Occupy’s countervailing museum politics recognize protest as accompanying the process of dismantling the foundational patriarchy and white supremacist teleology that drove the desire to colonize, collect, and order. McKee calls for the “unmaking of art as it exists within the discourses, economies, and institutions of the contemporary art system.” A reinvention of the art field as “direct action, collective affect, and political subjectivization” would require either abandoning or bootstrapping what McKee identifies as “progressive sectors nominally concerned with public participation and civic dialogue.”6 This dilemma of progressive neoliberalism impacts art institutions by authorizing an economic order to animate the tension between art and real life. The term progressive neoliberalism is offered by the critical theorist Nancy Fraser to describe the mixing together of truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of global financialization over the last 40 years. She explains that “in this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. However unwittingly, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.”
As progressive neoliberal policies have come to shape geopolitics and more particularly conditions in global museums and art centers, emerging structural contradictions have undoubtedly limited and sometimes stifled meaningful political action and reform. However, it may no longer be adequate to talk about neoliberalism’s direct causality as its effects are dispersed through a vast array of global actors and platforms. Recent direct actions and museum protests have undoubtedly served as effective tools against the Guggenheim’s global designs in Abu Dhabi7 as well as ending BP Petroleum’s partial sponsorship of Tate Britain.8 Increased nationalism and hate speech across the globe has been galvanized into mass political movements, with #J20 as an art world manifestation. The question remains whether our moment of crisis will lead to the “unmaking of art as it exists?” Or have aspects of progressive neoliberal practice already reshaped the museum as a readymade site for social action, as sites for “staging the flow” as described by Groys above?
While financial power asymmetries between museum boards and art workers have intensified in recent decades, many contemporary museums have nonetheless evolved (to varying degrees) into social hubs—as staging grounds for democracy. Factors contributing to changing museum structures are too complex to outline in detail here, but suffice it to say, it is a consequence of internal and external transformations: from the inside, museum education, marketing, and digital strategy departments have grown to support a cultural platform faced with outside pressures to both engage and entertain. Add to this the advancement of curatorial and artistic practices that stage ephemeral, time-based, performance and community-building programs.
In its relatively short history, institutionally sanctioned participatory art seems to appear at moments of political transition. Additionally, it fulfills museums’ mandate by being participatory and political. When discussing participation, art historian Claire Bishop has warned that it can be “a misleading comfort zone in which the criteria of both art and social change were rejected but nothing new was stepping in to fill its place. Without the backing of a long-term team to take these issues to the next level and press for policy change, these socially-oriented works suddenly seemed symbolic, indeed arty in their lack of focused objective.” To raise picket signs and drop banners against the backdrop of museums already engaged in the display of agit-prop and community engagement produces effects that are markedly different from other political eras. Not lacking in focused objectives, strike artists have successfully deployed interventionist tactics and visual content that might be readily circulated over digital networks.
Not coincidently, much community-building in museums has been fueled by social media and leveraged through digital strategy. Museum directors have been nearly unified in assertions that social media communicates a public desire for interaction and debate. In essence, the claim by Tate Director Nicholas Serota and other museum directors is that social media platforms embolden mandates for institutional restructuring to accommodate in-house platforms for political discourse. Museum digital strategies and marketing draw lines to ticket desks and bring measurable traffic to the museum website. Addressing a public through marketing channels, risks the mistaking of metadata about a relation for a relation itself.
Much of our past research and that of aligned critics of digital utopianism have roundly dismissed “democratic” presumptions on the grounds that the discursive limits and extractive economic models enabled by social media companies exempt them from fostering genuinely autonomous political speech. However, it has become clear that this line of critique has done little to disrupt the digital strategy decisions of museums as they attempt to keep up with the complex economies of networked culture. The museum aggressively tracks connected users for the purposes of delivering content and aggregating visitor data. This might make certain populations vulnerable to online surveillance, such as a visitor with tenuous immigration status or museums workers employed under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).
First and foremost, critical thought must direct basic questions about how a museum might conceive of its public as a political category moving forward. The “multitude,” as described by the philosopher Paolo Virno, is a mythic conception, a horizon of possibility for “public intellect, language, common places,”9 something that would appear endemic to existing models of both the museum and internet platforms. But these platforms, independently and together, have subsumed into their structures characteristics of political action without adequately delivering it. The museum and the internet are in some senses faltering because they have become a cruder, more simplistic version of what we know to be possible.
Museums were once the sharing platform for Empire, and now empires have been made out of sharing platforms. The museum responds to structural contradictions (outlined above) by instrumentalizing public will to consolidate the binaries of entertainment and edification into a single product. As Ben Davis recently noted in artnet News, a lack of education was one of the biggest predictors of Trump support, and educational attainment happens to be “the strongest predictor of museum attendance.” So, which public–or demographic–is reached by museum channels? In recent years, the political right has worked assiduously to build media empires that assemble and circulate counternarratives to progressivism. Political activists inside and beyond museums must now guard against diversionary tactics from right-wing media operatives. The provocations of fake protestors and paid infiltrators are designed to go viral. Social media circulation and direct action can cut both ways. As critical theorist Matteo Pasquinelli described in Animal Spirits, “The aesthetic impulse today belongs more to a dark mediascape than to the white cube, as social creativity has been massively secularized and neutralized by creative industries and institutional cultural policies. When examined from the outside, the merger between art world and culture industry offers a harmless exhibition calmly packaged beneath the dark clouds of Empire, while obscure and powerful forces are surfacing readily on the digital screens everyday life.”10
Due to the recent museum building boom (from 2007 to 2014 nearly $5 billion was spent in the United States on new expansions) we are inheriting an abundance of built art spaces–massive atriums, theaters, and social spaces. In the end, repurposing the museum as a community center and sanctuary for humanitarianism may become a necessity when all other options have been denied by the state, particularly for communities at risk in a regressive political climate.11 If and when this happens on American soil,12 the question will be whether museum management and boards will stand in solidarity with activist staff and artists. Such a coalition of administrators would represent a meaningful shift in institutional power and come stunningly close to piercing the stubborn barrier between art and real life.
1Boris Groys, “Entering the Flow: Museum between Archive and Gesamtkunstwerk,” e-flux Journal 50 (December 2013).
2In his farewell speech Obama outlined three broad threats to democracy, the last one being “the fragmentation of a political culture in which many feel it’s ‘safer to retreat into our own bubbles’, especially on social media.” As Mick Hume wrote in Spiked (January 12, 2017), “In other words, Obama’s message was that the big threat to democracy is posed by the demos.” As a counterpoint see, Andew Sullivan, “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny,” New York Magazine, May 1, 2016.
3For more an up-to-date list of institutions closed or open with free admission on January 20, visit Artnews and Hyperallergic.
4“The Future of Permanence in an Age of Ephemera: a Symposium on Museums” took place on October 21, 2016 in New York City. Participants were Bruce Cole, Eric Gibson, Marco Grassi, Roger Kimball, George Knight, Michael J. Lewis, Philippe de Montebello, James Panero, and Karen Wilkin.
5Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, University of California Press, 2009.
6Yates Mckee, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition, Verso, 2016, 22.
7Due to actions by Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, whose actions have been written about in a December 2016 Artists Op-Ed, Gulf Labor includes affiliated offshoot groups G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction), Occupy Museums, and Who Builds Your Museum?
8Under pressure from the protest actions of Liberate Tate, BP has announced an end to its sponsorship of the Tate in 2017 after having donated about $250,000 annually to its programming over 26 years.
9Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents, MIT, 2004, 43.
10Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons, NAi Publishers/Institute of Network Cultures, 2008, 22.
11We want to acknowledge that a dangerous precedent is set when artists fulfill duties that should be provided and paid for by the state. In a country as wealthy as the United States, this role should not fall to artists and art institutions. However, if the government refuses to provide such services, we are left no choice but to ameliorate.
12This has already happened at the municipal art gallery of Diyarbakir in Turkey. The museum became a refugee camp in September 2014, as discussed by Hito Steyerl in “Duty-Free Art” (eflux Journal 63, March 2015).
The views reflected in the Artist Op-Ed series are those of the artists and do not necessarily represent those of the Walker Art Center.