Arts & Labor in the Age of Occupation

By Schwendener, Martha | Afterimage, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

Arts & Labor in the Age of Occupation


Schwendener, Martha, Afterimage


In the fifteen years I have been writing and publishing art criticism, I've seen a few shifts in the art world. There-was the rise of participatory art and social practice, and a version of these that flourished al biennials labeled "Relational Aesthetics;' which a fellow critic, Howard Halle, recently called conceptualism For oligarchs THere, was the rise of interest in periormance and calls to end object-making although an artist friend recently asked, "Does that mean were going to leave it to Nike, Sony and Walmart to put all the objects into the world?"

And then.came the worldwide Oceupy movement, inlluenced by the Arab Spring, the European Summer, and, in the fall of 2011, Occupy Will Street (OWS). I was not involved in earlier iterations of OWS. lifer Bloonibergville. an encampment near City Hall in New York that started in the summer of 2011. I became involved with OWS shortly after September 17, when the occupation started and some of the questions it raised, naturally involved how it might relate to the present and future

Occupy Wall Street dovetailed in many ways with current strains of an. like social practice, in which artists function more as event planners, organizers, sociologists, and activists, and panieipaiion that involves an made or completed by groups rather than singular, individual "geniuses."'

There is also an overlap with lite 1900s, which brought performance, video, installation. Land Art earthworks, and the interdisciplinary mergers of media like dance film, theater, and writing. It was also an age of radical politics, and although the failures of many projects were already obvious in the '60s, some of these weren't apparent until die '70s, when Institutional Critique which would become a recognized institutional form in the "80s entered the art world.

What the '60s had that was absent except in a nostalgic, mannered, and aestheticized form umtil OWS, hoNvcves, was a real sense of Utopia and possibility. In the millennial era, one could In' an activist-artist, but one was generally still working within a system of galleries, museums, biennials, curators, critics, collectors, interns, publicists, and other satellite figures. And neohberalistn, which had supposedly saved us from the economic crisis of the 70s, had put into place a system in which artists who wanted to participate often had to incur huge debt to obtain BFA and NITA degrees similar to professionals in other fiekk, except that art remained a precarious, risky venture.

So, when the Occupy movement erupted it was speaking a language familiar to many in the art world. Historically, art has been funded with exceptions, of course by the wealthiest one percent. Only in recent years have trustees, collectors, and patrons moved into the foreground, influencing the production and exhibition of art particularly with the rim of global art (airs. OWS's famous call for "horizontality," adopted from die "horizontalidad" used in the movements that erupted in .Argentina for lowing t he economic crisis of 2001. called for a more equal distribution of management of power But horizomalism could also be contrasted with art's hierarchical pyramid, most notably in its system of canonization, which coincided with die rise of capitalism.(2) Occupy's main strategy, taking up residence in public space, echoed social practice's attempt to move art into different spheres.

The crises highlighted by OVVS resonated with some scholars and critics too. Critical theory, which entered art historv in the 70s and "80s. had risen out of the revolts 01 the '60s. Inn had become a somewhat .stultified, boutique sysinn of analyst and interpretation. And the financial crisis in journalism brought on by the rise of the internet as well as the supplantaiion of critics by curators in the art-power equation precipitated a "crisis in criticism."

And then came a real, actual, and unexpected revolution: the mass protest movements that erupted on the global stage in 2011. …

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