Refusing to be Fed

8.3 / Art can’t do anything if we don’t.

Refusing to be Fed

By Vivian Sming March 23, 2017

In the days following the 2016 presidential election, a seed of instinctual fear was planted and lodged within me. I live in a suburban neighborhood that is mostly white, in close proximity to a large and diverse immigrant population. As soon as all the votes were counted, I looked up the results within my precinct, and found that 25% were votes for Trump. While this is certainly a minority, I became obsessed over the fact that this percentage accounted for over 200 people—200 of my neighbors. Indeed, the personification of these very percentages are how the cracks between family, friends, and neighbors start to emerge.

The first week following the inauguration pushed me further to the edge, bringing me closer to survivalist thinking. With the signing of each executive order, I weighed my fight-or-flight options. As diplomatic relationships corroded, I almost too casually browsed NUKEMAP, a site that displays the detonation radius of different nuclear bombs that are known to exist on Google Maps. I mulled over our past as humans, and felt as if thousands of years of history had been compressed and brought into the present. I had always thought (and have had the privilege of thinking) of history as a document of the past—events that had happened that we, as a society, were progressing away from. However, history is not a record of the past; it is evidence of future possibilities, showing us who we are capable of being and what we are capable of doing, in all the horror and glory.

The boulder has already rolled off the mountain, and we are trying desperately to push it back up.

Our entire ecosystem has been, and continues to be, under threat. What is considered to be a social and cultural crisis is also an environmental one, and when states threaten the survival of the world’s inhabitants—human or otherwise—the crisis is ecological. In the wake of the new administration, there has been a surge of calls to action—many directed at artists, many directed from artists. There is a sense of urgency that we must act now. But, as with climate change, this frantic call is coming when the change has already happened. The boulder has already rolled off the mountain, and we are trying desperately to push it back up. Asking what art can do in times like these implies that art was doing something in the first place (and, further, that what it was doing was affecting positive change). What can art do when the ecosystem it lives in is being destroyed? What can art do when it is, in many ways, participating in the destruction?

In thinking solely about the very tangible survival and safety of oneself and loved ones, it can be difficult to find a place for art. After the election results came in, a group of Bay Area organizers were quick to launch 100 Days Action, an initiative calling for artists, writers, and activists alike to make gestures to counter Trump’s first 100 days in office. I admittedly could not bring myself to participate in these suggested actions during the first weeks in particular, as prompts to give Trump a makeover, write a love letter, or rearrange the day’s headlines exacerbated a sense of art’s powerlessness under the weight of the continuation of the DAPL, and the introduction of global gag rules, the travel/Muslim ban, immigration crackdowns, and more.

We must ask ourselves if the places that allow our work to be seen, or our voices to be heard, are at the detriment.

In the widely distributed pamphlet, Making Art During Fascism, Beth Pickens urges artists to not give into despair and to persist in making work, as “making art is essential to an artist’s wellbeing.” She reminds us that the fight for justice is “a marathon not a sprint,” further asserting that “artists have to make art because it’s how they process being alive.” Art is presented here as necessary to the survival of artists, but while we, as artists, each find a way to make art—whether through the support of local communities, the art market, granting bodies, or educational institutions—it is critical to consider our position and actions in relation to the larger ecosystem, so we are not merely serving artists alone. If we are truly fighting for justice, peace, and equality, and want art to be in service of such a fight, we must ask ourselves if the places that allow our work to be seen, or our voices to be heard, are at the detriment of others or even to ourselves.

In the city of Los Angeles, art is thriving. While the potential NEA elimination threatens the survival of local arts organizations and non-profits which dependent on its funds, art as it exists in privately-funded institutions will likely remain unaffected.1 With a new Christie’s flagship and the Marciano Art Foundation debuting this spring—not to mention, a $2 billion mixed-use complex designed by Herzog & de Meuron with over 22,000 square feet dedicated to art and gallery spaces in the works—artists, gallerists, and institutions alike are taking advantage of urban sprawl. In order to sustain making, selling, and exhibiting art, different entities have relocated throughout LA to find more space and cheaper rent. In doing so, they have also attracted investors and real-estate developers along in this migration. The taking, occupying, and transformation of space via art has resulted in the terraforming of low-income neighborhoods, which organizations in Boyle Heights have termed “artwashing”—a term meant to indicate how art is being instrumentalized at the profit of others.

Screenshot, @age103, Instagram post.

Evidence of this is plain as day. Anyone in denial of such instrumentalization only has to read, quite literally, the writing on the walls of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s new building, which opened in 2016 in the neighboring Downtown Arts District, and is now operating without Paul Schimmel’s participation:

The district’s abandoned factories attracted artists and musicians who reappropriated the area and ignited its transformation from a dangerous and desolate place to a hub for creative industries. Thanks to the pioneering influence of artists and the local community, the Downtown Arts District is now home to art galleries, architecture and design firms, television and film production studios, new and converted residential architecture, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).

If Hauser & Wirth actively recognizes artists as “pioneers”—a glorified term for “colonizing arm,” as a group of researchers describes in their paper “Gentrification and the Artistic Dividend: The Role of the Arts”—in real-estate development, it is past time that artists admit, acknowledge, and act upon their position.

The LA arts non-profit, PSSST, recently closed its doors in Boyle Heights after a year of programming and exhibitions, during which the value of homes in the area rose by 10%. Facing protests from the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (B.H.A.A.A.D.), which at one point involved feces being thrown at PSSST’s building, the non-profit nevertheless has yet to admit to their position as a pawn within the real estate market in their closing statement. PSSST, thus, cannot expect to be applauded for its inclusive efforts of programming marginalized artists and presenting open discourse, when they have yet to recognize that by occupying a public-facing, architecturally renovated space in a working class neighborhood, they posed a threat of rising rents to local residents—many whose basic needs are at risk or not met at all, and many of whom face police violence and are now further targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

Institutional critique has largely become the institution.

A week prior to PSSST’s closure, 356 Mission—also located in Boyle Heights—hosted a meeting organized by the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN) to form a call to action in protest of the current administration. With a panel formed from notable artists such as Andrea Fraser, Charles Gaines, and Laura Owens, APAN described the event as “an opportunity to affirm that art is not neutral, and to reject institutional entanglements, redirecting the potentials of art towards constructive action.” In protest of the event, B.H.A.A.A.D. drew a picket line in front of the building. Nizan Shaked gives a thoughtful account of the event on Hyperallergic, and in the accompanying video documentation, we see Barbara Kruger speaking to a protestor only to then cross the picket line. Many of the APAN participants and organizers, Shaked notes, are those that “have spent their careers deconstructing power.” As the academic institution and market have collided, institutional critique has largely become the institution.

Following the event, 356 Mission released a Facebook statement, acknowledging “the role that artists have historically played in the displacement of working class communities,” concluding:

We recognize that 356 Mission will have to reimagine itself and we remain hopeful that the work we do can be a service to the community of Boyle Heights as well as the greater Los Angeles arts community. This is an ongoing conversation and we don’t yet have the answers. As always, we remain open to ideas about how to proceed.

Acknowledgement, however, of art’s inextricably linked role to the larger market, is not enough to absolve complacency—and it’s not enough to combat such relationships. (Trump supporters, after all, acknowledged his sexist comments, yet voted for him anyway.) While the legacy of institutional critique has long brought attention and awareness to acknowledge a variety of issues—from how museums are being funded, and to gender and racial disparity in represented artists, museum-goers, and art workers—it has done little to actually change how art institutions operate. It is as if we are fine with business as usual, as long as we have a place for critical discourse and acknowledgement. When we are only now, after the election of Trump, calling attention to former Goldman Sachs executive (now U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) Steven Mnuchin and Blackrock CEO Larry Fink (now Trump’s economic advisor) who have both sat on the board of MOCA and MOMA, respectively for years, it shows the limits and shortsightedness of critical discourse and its ability to change the way art is funded.

Discourse, though, is the one thing that the B.H.A.A.A.D. is not interested in; they are looking for immediate action and divestment, and for them, that can only mean the galleries moving out of their neighborhood. In a recent statement, B.H.A.A.A.D. writes:

We have been telling PSSST and the other galleries what the community needs instead of galleries all along: Authentic affordable housing for low-income people, emergency housing for homeless people and people displaced by gentrification, a laundromat, a needle exchange or harm reduction center, an affordable grocery store, etc.

When food, shelter, and clean water are inaccessible across the nation, where does that leave art? Though art may be understood as a basic need to a certain population to cope, to heal, and to survive—is it a basic need for everyone? The art industry’s faith in art as an inherent good is as perplexing as the idealism found in Silicon Valley’s tech industry. After all, how can you possibly claim to make the world a better place through something like Internet access, when the very people around you are struggling to find shelter and food or are currently living in perpetually anxious and precarious states?

Art can’t do anything if we don’t.

Raising these questions is not to say that we don’t need art, or that art can’t do anything at all, but rather that art is not exceptional. Art can’t do anything if we don’t. We cannot fail to recognize when and how artists participate in an exploitative market, which does not only include commercial galleries and auction houses, but also museums, non-profits, and academic institutions. Often, the participation of artists is at the expense of their own wellbeing. As Shaked poses in her essay, “Why does this art world crowd support a system in which only a handful of them will end up making a living by selling their art or landing a tenured job?”

Art schools, universities, and colleges nationwide are some of the worst offenders in the “gig economy,” misclassifying adjunct and part-time faculty as contractors instead of as employees to avoid paying full benefits and guaranteeing future job prospects or raises.2 Furthermore, between art students and faculty, there is a gross disparity of cultural representation. Across the nation, the overwhelming majority of faculty in art programs are still white (at NYU, this number is up to 86%; at SAIC, 82%; and at ArtCenter, 75%), while student bodies are becoming increasingly diverse.3 How can we expect students to thrive if the infrastructure does not support them? Academic institutions are just another layer, demonstrating that the ecosystem we have created to facilitate art is, on multiple levels, detrimental to art educators and students alike. When the data has been collected and is plainly available on each school’s site, it is not difficult to acknowledge such disparities. But as with art, data alone does not change anything.

I do not pretend that divestments will be easy.

A new wave of resistance is necessary in calling for divestment from the privatization and corporatism that has kept much of the art world afloat. As an artist myself, I do not pretend that divestments will be easy. I look back at the hundreds of free hours I gave to the art industry. I look back at the jobs I took that were misclassified, keeping me from benefits, protections, and fair pay. I’ve invested so much, and when I think upon my complicit participation, it was always born out of a struggle to reach a point where I could continue my work, and where it could be seen and heard. This restructuring will take some time, and will require hard choices. But together, we have the power of insisting the art industry fold in onto itself. This will require the imagination of artists, art workers, institutions, and the public working together.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chief of Program and Pedagogy at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, offers the following provocation:

If we liquidated all the assets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—like, sold everything in the building in a high art garage sale—we’d probably be sitting on $500 billion. Could we imagine taking that twelve-figure windfall and investing it in the cultural landscape of this country? Could we imagine $500 billion allocated to ensuring inspiration for everyone in the country for the next generation?4

Indeed, could we imagine the Boyle Heights organizations being compensated for their research and time? Could we imagine a form of institutional critique that can become a gateway for creating new institutions or non-institutions? Most importantly, can we find new ways of creating and supporting art that doesn’t rely on the accumulation of wealth or the taking of space? Can we make art that takes up as little space as possible, but emanates, reverberates, and is still felt profoundly throughout the world?

As human rights are being threatened globally, we must rise, and in the rising, we must create an ecosystem that allows the most threatened of us to thrive. Do we continue to bite the hand that feeds us, or do we refuse to be fed?

Notes

  1. A list of organizations based in California that received NEA funding in 2015: http://www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/file_attach/CA.pdf.
  2. 76% of the faculty at ArtCenter College of Design, for example, are part-time (http://www.artcenter.edu/about/get-to-know-artcenter/artcenter-at-a-glance.html). At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 63% of the faculty at are part-time (http://www.saic.edu/about/historyandquickfacts/faculty/).
  3. At the College Arts Association conference this year, a group of New York University students, called NYU DEPT., made a banner showing that the freshman class of 2020 in NYU’s art department is 63% Asian, while the faculty is 86% white (http://www.nyunews.com/2017/02/24/a-call-to-action-and-solidarity-for-steinhardt/). At ArtCenter, Asians comprise the majority of 36% of undergraduate students, while 75% of faculty are white (http://www.artcenter.edu/about/get-to-know-artcenter/artcenter-at-a-glance.html). And at SAIC, the student body is 32% majority white, compared to its 82% white faculty (http://www.saic.edu/about/historyandquickfacts/enrollment/).
  4. https://ww2.kqed.org/arts/2017/01/27/my-art-is-not-a-bridge-its-a-battery/.

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