Occupy's Critique of MoMA

The painter and muralist Diego Rivera
(Until I read this letter by Benjamin Young,  printed in the 23 February 2012 London Review of Books (pg. 4), I was unaware of this Occupy event and critique of MoMA, also described by Noah Fischer on his blog.) Young writes:

Hal Foster concludes his review of the Diego Rivera exhibition at MoMA by drawing a parallel between the figures in Rivera’s Manhattan cityscape Frozen Assets and the bodies that thronged the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The link can be made even more concrete: on 13 January, a Friday and the one evening a week when the $25 admission fee for MoMA is waived, participants from the OWS working groups Arts and Labor, Labor Outreach, Occupy Museums and Occupy Sotheby’s, along with others from the artist-run space 16 Beaver, converged in the Rivera galleries for a large group discussion that drew in other museum-goers. The galleries were soon filled to capacity. The conversation touched on Rivera’s personal and artistic commitments to Communism and to social change, the censorship of his mural by Rockefeller and the latter’s ties to MoMA, and especially the risk that, in remounting the show at MoMA today, this history might be lost or, worse, recalled only to be locked away in the aesthetic past. Perhaps most important, the spirited exchange performed a kind of ‘collective viewership’, which Foster links to Rivera’s aspirations for the fresco and mural form, and which runs counter to the decorous consumption of individual masterpieces often encouraged by the museum environment.

The gathering then moved to the central, second-floor atrium of the museum for a general assembly, amplified by the people’s mike and drawing in other visitors. Speakers reminded patrons that ‘Target Free Fridays’ did not originate in corporate beneficence, but from the agitation of the Art Workers’ Coalition (active from 1969 to 1971), whose actions on behalf of free public access to the arts have since been plastered over with corporate branding. Others declared their solidarity with the unionised art handlers who since August 2011 have been locked out of their jobs at Sotheby’s after they refused a contract proposal that included cuts to pay and healthcare, but also the requirement that new hires be temporary and non-union.

Not only does MoMA do business with Sotheby’s – an auction house that reaps huge profits from financial speculation on our cultural commons – but at least three figures from MoMA play roles in the company as well: James Niven (MoMA trustee and Sotheby’s US chairman), Richard Oldenburg (MoMA director emeritus and honorary trustee, former chairman and now consultant at Sotheby’s US), and restaurateur Danny Meyer (who runs MoMA’s three restaurants and sits on the board of directors at Sotheby’s). As the meeting progressed, a two-storey-tall banner was dropped from the top-floor balcony overlooking the atrium; it demanded, among other things, that MoMA and Sotheby’s end the lock-out and ‘hang art not workers.’ The assembly further debated the corporatisation of the museum and other nominally public institutions, the place of art in the neoliberal austerity economy, the structural dependence even of non-profit spaces on capital, and what artists and cultural workers might do to contest the cultural and financial power coursing through places like MoMA.

Although the assembly did not present an updated image of the class iconography found in Rivera’s picture – a kind of picturing of which Foster wonders whether public art is still capable – this did not prevent it from identifying the winners and losers in the present economy and calling for change. And simply by gathering, OWS again demonstrated that ‘the politics of appearance by actual people in real space still counts.’ This suggests that rather than relying on a definition of public art posed in terms of style, content or medium, it may be more productive to ask how a public might assemble to reclaim all art as part of the commons instead of a fetish of capital, and thereby open up artworks, and the museum itself, to public dispute and reappropriation.

Foster points to the persistence of the police in Rivera’s picture and in the OWS demonstrations. But we also need to retrace the connection Rivera drew between those fingering the jewels in the vaults of culture and that vast, grey room of warehoused labour. To that end, OWS offered to donate their protest banner to the museum’s collection under certain conditions, including public acknowledgment of the AWC’s role in securing days of free museum admission and a public letter from the museum denouncing the Sotheby’s lock-out. MoMA declined.


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