The 99% and the Arts

Posted by Robert Bettmann On May - 11 - 2012

Robert Bettmann

The arts are positively integrated into the Occupy Movement in several ways, but they are also a front on which activists are attacking the economic system.

While the arts field wrestles internally with issues of diversity and aging, attacks by Occupy activists are actually an affirmation of the relevance of the arts in civic life.

One Occupy LA blogger wrote, “if history has taught us anything…it’s that art is among the most honest and lasting of cultural indicators.” Occupy activists believe in the arts enough to fight for it.

The arts are a tool of the Occupy movement, an expression of the movement, a support in the movement, and also a target.

As a target, actions related to the arts are in some cities organized by an Occupy Museums working group. The Occupy Museums manifesto identifies that the group exists to “[call] out corruption and injustice in institutions of arts and culture” and their actions focus in two areas: labor issues and service to the one percent (generally).

The labor concerns relate to abrogation of union contracts and use of non-union labor at galleries and museums, and the broader concern relates to the question: to whom do the benefits of the cultural economy accrue?

Occupy activists believe that the arts industry is another example of an economic system that enriches and benefits the 1%, dis-empowering and disenfranchising the 99%. Occupy journalist Erin Sickler wrote that the arts economy is “reproducing inequitable and oppressive economic relations” adding that “the moguls who 
sit on museum boards are often the same people who contrived the runaway financial speculation which has blighted economic life for the rest of us, in the U.S. and beyond.”

While most Occupy activists are concerned with the influence of one-percenters in the banking sector, Occupy arts activists are concerned with the influence of those same individuals in cultural banking establishments, including museums.

A recent creative action involved circulation of a parody press release imagining a world where the Whitney Museum and its Biennial dedicate themselves to the 99%. The fraudulent release states:

“As an institution dedicated to the public interest, the Whitney has an obligation to use its platform to facilitate actions that promote the good of the many over the greed and profits of the few…As Biennial curator Elizabeth Sussman remarked, ‘We’re delighted we naturally got involved with Occupy Wall Street.’ Documentation of the event and a full transcript of the assembly will be published online and as a supplement inserted into the Whitney Biennial 2012 exhibition catalogue, currently available in the Museum bookstore.”

The Occupy Arts movement is passionately concerned that the producers of professional culture have been co-opted into the service of the 1%, and they are fighting to ensure that the arts are relevant to and reflective of the modern world.

Carl Jung wrote that the arts “dream the myth onward and give it modern dress” and the 99% arts movement is an expression of faith and an insistence on the importance of the arts. The Occupy Museums website declares simply, “Art and Culture are part of the commons. Art is not a luxury item.”

Looking toward the future, this insistence can only be positive for the field.

What do you think?

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.