Yearly Archives: 2011

A Feminist Correspondence

Just over a year ago I wrote In Memoriam: Rozsika Parker, Feminist Art Historian and activist to mark the death of the noted British feminist art historian and psychotherapist Rozsika Parker (December 27, 1945-November 5, 2010). A conference in honor of her work was held in London December 10, CELEBRATING ROZSIKA PARKER 1945 – 2010, A DAY SYMPOSIUM ON ART, FEMINISM, AND PSYCHOANALYSIS, convened by Griselda Pollock, Lisa Baraitser, Anthea Callen, Briony Fer, and Sigal Spigel, women noted for their expertise in art history and in psychoanalytic practice and theory, in keeping with Parker’s important contributions to both fields: indeed the themes of the panels cover the range of Parker’s interests: “Art Writing & History,” “Femininity & Cloth,” Between Art & Psychoanalysis,” “Maternal Studies,” “Body Dysmorphia”–all of these topics of continued central relevance to women artists and feminist practice. [update: 300 people tried to register for the conference which had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the numbers of young and old from the art and the psychoanalytical communities who came to spend the day. A podcast of the entire Conference is available here.]

In honor of this conference, I would like to reprise part of my original post, which was quite short, and then publish for the first time an extraordinary correspondence that followed over the past year, between me and Griselda Pollock. I hasten to say it is extraordinary entirely due to the quality and interest of Pollock’s writing and, in my own mind, due to my astonishment to be communicating in any way with Pollock, a brilliant art historian whose work influenced me so much at a crucial time in my personal development within one of the most significant moments in the history of feminist art.

As a final introductory comment, the epistolary form can be a difficult one to read due to the episodic stop and go pacing imposed by the time frame of an exchange of letters, as well as the formal niceties of letter writing, all the flourishes that frame the heart of the narrative at hand, though when the first major epistolary form novels began to appear in the 16th century one can well imagine how much they would have appealed to people for whom communication by letter was a more extraordinary event than we might understand now as we are buried under our crowded email inboxes. Yet perhaps just now, when emails, text messages, with their presentation in thought balloon form on the iPhone for example, and Facebook comment threads dominate our communicative life, a return to an epistolary format may be the perfect format for a feminist conversation, given that the epistolary novel has a notably feminist history, with Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley using the form.

November 22nd, upon hearing of the death of Rozsika Parker, I wrote here on A Year of Positive Thinking:

I consider Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, which Parker and Pollock co-authored, one of the most important books of feminist art theory and history that I ever read: Parker and Pollock examined how art history as a discipline had misogyny at its core, almost as one of its foundational purposes, with all its terms of value strongly gendered to condemn anything that smacked of the so-called feminine, although of course behind the naturalized frame of universalist neutrality. Their second collaboration, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 was and is a great source of information about the feminist art movement in Britain, which sometimes got overwhelmed by the American Women’s Liberation Movement’s belief in its own unique importance. Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine is also a very influential and still relevant book, considering how much we now may take for granted that knitting or embroidering or weaving are acceptable media for high art, instead of being seen as crafts or as the hobby of well brought up girls or domestic servants.

Parker was a bit of a mysterious figure for all of us in the United States who admired these books because Griselda Pollock was the public figure of the two in the context of the art world and academia, speaking at many art history symposia here in the US, while Parker continued her feminist activism working as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Britain. Because it has been possible to follow the development of Pollock’s feminist ideology and aesthetic views in the books she wrote without Parker, I always have been curious about Parker’s role and voice in their collaboration and have tried to intuit it in the way one measures a black star, almost by negation, by what was not Griselda Pollock. I formed an image of a fierce feminism tempered by a compassionate focus on the work and the cultural issues affecting women, in life and in history, rather than the approach which won out in the 1980s, one that negated the “theoretical” existence of the (biologically determined) category “Woman” in favor of an interest in (socially constructed and non-biology specific) gender.

Sadly Old Mistresses and Framing Feminism have long been out of print. I hope that they can be re-issued because the passion and clarity and sheer historical data in these books would be of great interest to young women artists now.

Last February 2011 there were a number of panels related to feminism and art at the College Art Association Annual Conference in New York City, including “Feminism,” a panel co-chaired by Griselda Pollock and Norma Broude, held on February 9 at the Hilton Hotel, as well as “The Feminist Art Project: A Day of Panels” held at the Museum of Arts and Design, which included “The Problem of Feminist Form: A Talk by Aruna d’Souza” followed by a response from Connie Butler, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings, MoMA. [As an aside, but one of general significance, at all of these panels at the main CAA conference at the Hilton Hotel and the Day of Panels at the Museum of Arts and Design, the attendance was huge: at the Museum, New York city fire laws were massively flouted, as hundreds of women were jammed together with their bulky winter coats and book-filled tote bags, crowding even the aisles and standing up along any wall surface available. The high level of interest was a bracing indicator of the continued and now renewed interest in feminism and art]

I had wondered if Griselda Pollock was aware of my blog post about Rozsika Parker but didn’t get a chance to talk to her either day. But February 10 after the Feminist Art Project “Day of Panels,” I received the following email from her, which I reproduce with her permission, followed by two more emails. I have added some links within the letters for background information and edited slightly the last letter because, not having Griselda’s permission to publish this last communication, I feel it is appropriate to publish only information I can be fairly certain she would not mind being made public.

Dear Mira,

I read with interest your brief report on the sad death of Rosie Parker last November. It was so shocking to us all that she could be snatched away so very young. But you have already experienced that grief through the loss of your sister. I appreciated your comments a a great deal as I wanted to affirm that Rosie was the original and powerful force in creating a feminist art writing shall we call it in Britain. She began alone writing her reviews for Spare Rib making it up as she went along. I keep thinking back now to what it was she gave me and what she enabled us to do in writing Old Mistresses. Collaboration is such a remarkable experience as neither party can claim authorship for what only happens when two people openly explore together, bringing their differences into creative play and each discovering their special resources and abilities only in the safety of an often hilarious as well as tough experience of pushing back the very limits of patriarchal authority which imposes such shame and fear on our minds as much as on our bodies. In your blog you rightly captured what it was that Rosie gave us and me in terms of making me a feminist writer on art: that things mattered deeply and seriously and that art touches on things that matter to us as we live them. That was what saved me from a bloodless and remote art history which i still cannot inhabit. But I wanted to correct one thing if I may: the shift from the engaged and passionate feminism that matters to real lives and real embodied people into the social construction of gender of the 1980s is both true and unfair. True I think in American academe in which intellectual women could not break through the internal shame police and made themselves respectable through a kind of intellectual transvestitism which prefers the social construction of gender because they then never have to deal with the messier aspects of our compromised and ambivalent bodies and sexualities. I began in the 1990s to engage with the work of Bracha Ettinger sharing with Rosie the continuing fascination with a feminist reworking of psychoanalysis – she went into it as a practice, I into its metapsychological domain. I remain interested in what we do not yet know about the realm of actual femininities and women’s lives and bodies and minds and what the more theoretically suggested notion of the feminine as a resource for non phallic thought, art and being might be. It is almost impossible to speak this in public without being booed off the stage or treated indulgently as a mad and embarrassing woman. I am not sure that we share similar positions on ‘woman’ or women; but I know that you too have battled against a kind of intellectual disowning of the feminine/the female, women. Ettinger is theoretically extremely difficult and arcane coming through what she has to say via Lacan and those whose works provide her with a means to insert a radical feminist rethinking of the meaning of the feminine. It is difficult to bridge the realms of everyday experience and the esoteric languages of philosophical analysis and certainly psychoanalytical theory. I know I do not succeed and people find my texts difficult and even excluding as they are written from within a realm of theoretical work few inhabit. I try to maintain some kind of deeper responsibility to bridge the realms or art and theory where important work is being done and the ordinary readers not able to spend a lifetime entering into their specialist ways of thinking and writing. I have functioned as an interpreter for Matrixial theory but I constantly find the American art historians blocking me with their discomfort with any discourse that assumes that there might be meaning in being a woman, however that has come about, or as I think Ettinger is saying that’ the feminine’ as she conceptualises it as a primordial gift of the ethical ability to share with an unknown other, to co-emerge into a coaffecting humanity.

I just wanted to respond to your very insightful blog about Rosie’s feminism> Her last book was about body dysmorphia and the agony caused by this dislocation of person and body. She taught me so much to engage with what really matters and that is about suffering, pain and the strange ways we have of negotiating both. She wanted to make things better through her work and her writing, through exploring difficult issues of love and hate and reflecting upon how she fostered the emergence of feminist art writing and thinking and shaped me as a feminist thinker, I go back to that. Yet I want to find a way not to be pigeon-holed as a theoretical Brit, a social constructionist. I never understood gender theory anyway since I was always in the psychoanalytical camp of exploring subjectivity and sexual difference. At the MoMA Feminist Futures it was Linda Nochlin and Anne Wagner who disowned by daring to say that the feminine has something vital to say to our worlds, futures and us.

Perhaps we share the fate of being not the mainstream of whatever has become hegemonic feminism: but to me it is not feminism at all. Feminism is about constantly questioning ourselves and daring to stay with what we find most difficult and uncomfortable long enough to work it through: no policing of correct thinking or orthodox positions. This is one of the vices I see in US academe: I am constantly told that what I am still thinking through is over, old hat, out of date. yet we hardly started on this vast project.

I am organizing a commemorative conference in London on 7 April for Rosie and I would like to reference your blog if I may as a way into really remembering and recognizing her groundedness in what matters for women and that art matters and art that is not about what matters matters very little.

Excuse this long screed. Yrs with best wishes, Griselda

Anyone who has ever admired someone from afar will understand the degree of my astonishment at this letter. It took me a few days to answer, writing to her on February 14:

On 14 Feb 2011, I wrote:

Dear Griselda:

Thank you for your touching and quite amazing email. First of all and above all I am so glad that you found my piece on your friend Rosie, and I’m honored that you would take notice of my really very humble attempt to mark her passing. I was in the audience for your introduction of your part of the panel on Friday and was very moved by your dedication of the panel to her and, sitting next to my friend and frequent collaborator Susan Bee, I felt very keenly the importance of a friend with whom you not only share experience and intellectual discovery but also with whom you create something in collaboration.

Upon reading your email to me I returned to my brief text to figure out why you should feel in any way that you would need to defend to me your position in the 80s on some of the theoretical and political ideas about gender and feminism that were, it is true, extremely divisive and occasionally maddening. So I just want to say how important your writings have been to my second education in feminism, in the 80s, when I had to sink or swim in a new theoretical situation quite different to my first in the early 70s.

It was a very contentious polemical time –once the 80s were over I sometimes referred to them as the decade from hell but on the other hand it was an incredibly interesting time — the disagreements were vicious and with genuine real life consequences (jobs and shows or not depending on what side you were seen to be on) but at least the arguments were over ideas, not like now when the market often dominates or subsumes discourse!!! I did feel that I ended up on what was perceived as the wrong end of the argument, or rather, that I was perceived as being on what was considered the wrong side, it always bugged me that I was consigned to the second class of “essentialist” — a bugaboo my sister and I both struggled with, although in my case the problem was compounded by my being a painter and one who did seem to work with difference (not sure which was worse, since painting, as I came to understand, was itself seen as essentialist).

As I think I can see from your comments, and as I experience myself, the divisions continue, somewhat the same though masked by new terms and conditions, with all the possibilities for (and exploitations of) misunderstandings that Sharon and Miwon seemed to underline yesterday. [I arrived at the very tail end of Connie’s and Aruna’s conversation, due to total stoppage of several subway lines because of what I later learned was the tail end of a murder spree, so I wasn’t clear on the issues you addressed in your response from the audience].

Griselda, I don’t know if you read my piece on Rozsika on The Huffington Post or on my blog A Year of Positive Thinking. I cross-posted the same piece since each site reaches a very different audience.

I designed my blog without a comments section, in part because I think they are unsightly and also because they are often too vicious. But I wonder whether you would consider letting me publish your email on my blog along with information about and a link to the commemorative conference you are planning for April–edited as you would wish, but I hope you would not feel the need to edit it too much because it is so insightful & touching about the nature of collaboration and so interesting as to past and present debates over gender and the feminine, and, as always, brilliantly written even as an email. It is really quite an extraordinary document and I continue to be astounded to have it addressed to me. On the blog I would recall my previous post on Rozsika (don’t feel I can call her Rosie but will think of her as such) with a link, would present your email as an extraordinary response, and give some information on the conference on her with a link to it if there is one. Do let me know if you would consider this. I hope you will.

And thank you for remembering my sister. That means a great deal to me.

All the best,

Mira

I didn’t hear back from Griselda for several months, until September 1, 2011:

Dear Mira,

I am so sorry for the long silence in reply to your email. Many things got int the way of our organizing a conference about Rosie. At last we have got this planned for 10 December 2011 in London. Details are below. I really like the idea of including my reply on your blog to open this all up a bit. I have no money for this event at all. But I wondered if we could circulate your piece on Rosie in the event or include it in some form, for instance you reading it – a digital recording or even a dvd recording as it would really add to the debate so much to have some transatlantic feminists involved.

I wonder what you think or we could read it out with a painting by you on the screen.

There are so many issues raised in your reply as well – notably about painting. What irritated me at the CAA event […]’s exploration of the question can painting be feminist as if this had never really been raised. It was a big issue with the usual misunderstandings in the later 1980s and early 1990s in Britain and Hilary Robinson wrote powerfully about women and painting as did my beloved friend Judith Mastai in Canada. Katy Deepwell was involved as was Rebecca Fortnun. I find myself now writing about painting amongst the many other practices and I felt once again the typecasting of British feminism and the fixing of boundaries and camps at the CAA – instead an openness to constantly revisiting the very varied landscapes of feminist thought and practice and building on bodies of debate.

The good news is the Old Mistresses will be reprinted in a new edition with a new preface sometime next year so that Rosie’s words and inspiration will be back with us again.

[…]

all the very best Griselda

My thanks to Griselda Pollock for her permission to reproduce this correspondence and my best wishes to all the participants of tomorrow conference in London.

 

 

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Youthfulness in Old Age

Two painting exhibitions currently across the street from each other on West 25th street challenge any notions one might still harbor about the greater value of being “younger than Jesus.” By some fortuitous coincidence just a few steps separate “Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings” at Cheim & Read from “Matta: A Centennial Celebration” at Pace Gallery and each show explosively refutes any notion of youthfulness being the province of the young while giving new life to the phenomenon known as “old age style”–used to distinguish formal characteristic of late works by Titian, Rembrandt, or Cézanne, where the artist just wants to get to the heart of the matter and sloughs off all the fine finish he had needed to impress his audience in earlier years.

Before I go any further, I should say that for some reason, when I was a very young artist, before I went to art school, one of my term papers as an art history major at NYU was on old age style, in the works of Renaissance and other artists. At the time in my own early paintings, I was influenced by Northern Renaissance paintings, by surrealism, by Indian miniatures, so for the most part the paintings I loved had a tightness and perfection to them. So I can only wonder why I was in this very early stage of my own work life so taken by the characteristics of work done at the other end of the bracket of a life of art making, when tightness of line and surface would yield to the pressure of working without concern for perfection or control. Indeed ever since then, I always seem to challenge myself to move towards a looser, wilder, more entropic approach to artmaking.

The phenomenon of old age style seemed almost inversely applicable when considering expressionist painting. Take the phases of Willem de Kooning’s work: in the current exhibition at MoMA there is an early still-life drawing, of a type that, according to the wall-text, a friend recalled might take him a year to execute, building up the realistic rendering practically one atom of matter at a time, then there is the Ingres-like delicacy of representational execution of the Portrait of Elaine, followed by the early mature work of the figures of men and women just turning from representation to abstraction as if a giant delicate hand were shifting the outlines like sand, to the great abstractions of the late 1940s, Excavation and Attic, still controlled, calibrated, worked, to the explosive expressionistic paint application of the Woman series–but, with the notion of old age style in mind, then what? If at an earlier time, that loose approach would have marked an old age style, de Kooning had much farther to go, to return, in his old age, to his own contribution to such a style–abstraction and surface somehow scoured of incident and even gravity, smoothed, clarified, almost bleached by time.

I’ve always felt that Joan Mitchell‘s paintings from the 1950s are among the best abstract paintings of that period. Although there is a clear relation to nature in the forms and colors, at the same time those paintings, including Ladybug (1957) at MoMA, have a bold confidence in the sculptural individuality of each stroke of paint in a manner which anticipates the post-minimalist approach of painters such Joan Snyder. The unpredictable, rich yet uningratiating dimensional materiality of the paint strokes in these paintings, and the density of mark making has generally been of greater interest to me than the late paintings, some of which were on view in Mitchell’s 2002 retrospective at the Whitney Museum–I saw these as too big, too empty, too facile, without tension.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), Ladybug, 1957. Oil on canvas, 6' 5 7/8" x 9' (197.9 x 274 cm). Purchase. © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Joan Snyder, Summer Orange, 1970 oil, acrylic, and spray enamel on canvas 42" x 96"

Perhaps the temper of the time has changed–sometimes one needs certain things from art which didn’t appeal earlier. But the paintings in the current show at Cheim & Read are a pleasure. The paintings, often diptychs, feature often large gestural strokes, they are speedy, speeding, they flow freely, yet with an important density, which I had missed in the later works at the Whitney. A painting such as Beauvais (1986) is a beauty, as is River (1989): the marks are loose and quick but orchestrated with a complex relation of similarity but dissymmetry between the two panels of the diptych.  The painting appears loose but not lax, with small, sharper, deep red strokes interrupting the idyllic rural atmosphere with a more foreboding intimations of mortality.

Put another way, if you associate youth with vibrancy, color, energy, and brightness, then the earlier works by Mitchell, done when she was young, are more complex, perhaps more tortuous, and more encrusted, in a sense dirtier, they look “older” (and not just because they are older physically), whereas, by the same criteria, the last paintings up at Cheim & Read look “younger.” The palette is both the same and yet brighter, the white ground bigger and whiter–the emptied out quality thus being a marker both of youth and of age, depending on how you look at it, but certainly one could make the case that she was so much older then, and then was younger than that at the end.

Joan Mitchell, from the series "Fremicourt Paintings 1960-62," exhibition at Cheim & Read, 2005

Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992) River, 1989, Oil on canvas diptych 110 x 157 1/2 inches each panel: 110 x 78 3/4 inches

One of the most remarkable paintings is Untitled (1992), the year of Mitchell’s death: again a diptych, this painting has an unusual composition, with all the action taking place in a horizontal band calligraphically rushing and tumbling across the middle of the two canvases’ white field, with a dominant ultramarine theme, bold gestures underscored by more delicately calligraphic lines, including again the thin deep red lines.

Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992) Untitled, 1992, Oil on canvas diptych 102 3/8 x 157 1/2 inches

These paintings, from the year of her death, are expressions of freedom, clarity, and insistence or necessity.They are curiously joyous, considering that the artist was in poor health, suffering from cancer and other crippling afflictions.

Across the street, again, joyfulness, in the expansive, enormous late paintings by Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren, 1911-2002). These works are representative of the artist’s characteristic forms, figurative, mechanistic, biomorphic. For young artists, impressed by spectacle and influenced by graffiti, the Matta show is also an important object lesson in what age can bring.For example Architecture du Temps (un point sait tout), done in 1999 when the artist was eighty-eight years old, is a fantastic huge black and white painting which relies mainly on an open framework of thin black lines within white paint and thin black washes. In French the expression “un point, c’est tout” is kind of verbal super punctuation, literally, one point is all, which is to say, that is it, there is nothing more to be said; “un point sait tout” sounds the same but means one point knows everything, which, as the subtitle of Architecture of Time, is a very telling pun and a sharp commentary on the making of art in old age, as well as on the power of line, the power of a point in space.

Roberto Matta, Architecture du temps (un point sait tout), 1999 oil on canvas 14' 11-1/2" x 21' 9-1/4"

Roberto Matta, L'homme descend du signe, 1975 oil on canvas 13' 5-3/4" x 27' 4"

Matta’s confidence in art is expressed in another even more contemporary-looking and even more enormous, twenty-seven foot wide, painting, L’Homme Descend du Signe (from 1975, when the artist was just a baby at age sixty-four). Another pun: “Man Descends from the Sign” (instead of “Descend du Singe,” man descends from the monkey). The painting is positively gaudy, with acid purple the main ground for sharp dagger like forms, which could easily be transposed to become tags. It is a great bridge between museum-scaled surrealist painting, architecturally-scaled mural painting, and city-scaled graffiti. The Fall (Autoritratto d’ognuno) from 1991 is another beautiful painting, again, an opening up of Matta’s earlier characteristic surrealistic web of drawing based biomorphic shapes. The painting is graced by a lovely spray of color, orange, the color of fall, a kind of ecstatic naturalism. (The largest paintings, oil and acrylic on unstretched canvas, are mounted on the wall framed by a thick white wood border, a very successful presentation).

If you associate energy and size with the brash ambition of youth, then these later and late paintings by Matta are also “younger” works than his earlier paintings from the surrealist period, which were tighter, more intricate and complex. At the same time the looseness and freedom of materiality in the later work is emblematic of old age style. At the very least, these works all confound one’s traditional expectations regarding age and the artist.

Roberto Matta The Fall (Autoritratto d'ognuno), 1991, oil and acrylic on canvas 10' 3-1/2" x 17' 1-5/8"

The images don’t do justice to the works, paler (in the case of Matta) and without the impact of either scale or surface. Go see the two shows.

Also seen the same day, down the block from Pace Gallery, in the show at Lennon-Weinberg Gallery, “H.C. Westermann: The Human Condition, Selected Works, 1961-1973,” some early drawings by H.C Westermann (1922-1981), done (as I overheard the gallerist explaining) when the artist was in the hospital being treated  for testicular cancer–which he survived: his wife had brought him some crayons and paper, and he worked on a group of small drawings, some in the artist’s characteristic graphic, cartoon-related style, some in a more abstract and less over-determined mode–after he recovered, these were packed away and never shown until now. I recommend the drawing entitled Sun Coming Up Over New York, (1961), incredibly delicate, nearly abstract.

Although this was not an old age style work, it made me think about what it means to make art when you are very ill, or at the end of a long life. No matter your degree of success, if you are still making art at age 88, or ill from cancer, you cannot only be making art for show, for ambition, competition, legacy. You are making art, as Jack Tworkov noted about painting, “to save your life.” It’s great to see such art, when we are often confronted by art whose motivation is not necessarily based in that kind of internal necessity.

Richard Artschwager Untitled ca. 1950 watercolor and graphite on paper 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 inches

Richard Artschwager Untitled ca. 1950 watercolor and graphite on paper 13 7/8 x 10 7/8 inches

Earlier the same day in Chelsea, I saw Richard Artschwager’s show at David Nolan (show closed December 4). In this show, small abstracted landscape works on paper, all done in 1950, were shown along with new similar but larger works, paper mounted on soundboard, in which the artist returns to the Western landscape of the earlier series. One tends not to think of Artschwager in the same breath as Charles Burchfield, but the 1950s works participate in the great tradition of American ecstatic landscape, filtered through a calmer structure that is characteristic of Artschwager; some of these works are also reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s earliest abstract landscape watercolors as well as of Agnes Martin’s early works on paper. In these earlyworks there is a lyricism, a tenderness of touch, of surface, and content, while the more recent work of the same subject matter is tougher, sharper, bolder and more imposing materially, thus proposing another kind of youthfulness in older age though the return to landscape or nature as a thematic seems to bracket the period of cooler irony of Artschwager’s most noted works, emerging in the era of Pop Art and continuing through the era of appropriation art.

Richard Artschwager Landscape with Median 2011 acrylic, charcoal and laminate on handmade paper on soundboard 35 1/2 x 49 3/4 inches

Unlike both Mitchell and Matta, Artschwager is a master of reticence and modesty, combined with a subtle but wicked deadpan. In these returns to landscape, the deadpan turns to a subtle meditation on the progress of life: in Landscape with Median, from 2011 (Artschwager was born in 1923), the yellow double lines on the road end mid-picture: these lines are very bold, hard-edged, bright colored, and sharply sculptural, set into a much softer ground: maybe there is just a dip in the road ahead, or maybe the road comes to an end–in a 1950 watercolor, the road continues like a fragmented ladder though land that is barely indicated. These works, early and late, state that the artist who stays alive in his or her mind and studio is always caught mid-path.

 

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“Books are like people”

When the NYPD raided the Occupy Wall Street Encampment at Zuccotti Park this morning, they tossed  the 5,554 books that were assembled from donations into The People’s Library, an extemporaneous institution with a proper librarian and its own website,  into dumpsters.

According to the story as reported this morning on mediabistro.com: “According to the city’s eviction notice, the “property will be stored at the Department of Sanitation parking garage at 650 West 57th St.” But the librarians dispute this: “it was clear from the livestream and witnesses inside the park that the property was destroyed by police and DSNY workers before it was thrown in dumpsters.”

The People’s Library, set into the North East corner of the Park near the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street, was one of the most beautiful aspects of the occupation site.

The legality of the eviction is being ejudicated (after the barn door…) as I type, but the city junked everything nonetheless. I hope and I believe that Occupy Wall Street will be back there, and will figure out a new way to outwit the authorities. But if anyone thinks that once set into motion, there couldn’t have been anyway for the police to preserve the books, a story occurs to me.

In 2002 the art historian Leo Steinberg was awarded the College Art Association’s Distinguished Scholar Award He gave, as always and ever, a profoundly interesting but also in this case unexpectedly moving speech. The speech was republished in its entirety in the Brooklyn Rail in 2006, and here are some excerpts that have come to my mind today:

Before proceeding to professional matters, I’d like to recall two bits of family lore from my early years in Moscow, where I was born. I was three, sitting alone, humming a Russian children’s song to myself. In translation:

Little finch, little finch, where have you been?

—Down at the market, drinking vodka.

Hearing this performance, a visiting grown-up asked, did I know what vodka was? Now, the Russian for water is Vadá, and Vodka is its diminutive. So, being asked about vodka, I replied, “Eto málinkaya Vadá”—“it’s small water.” I confess to this story, because it signals an early tendency to address the signifier instead of the signified.

One other tale from this Russian phase I do not believe; at least not in the form my father claimed to have recorded in his diary—which has not survived. At age 3 and a half, looking at father’s bookshelves, I’m supposed to have said:

“Books are like people.”

“How so?”

“Well, the covers are their clothes, and the letters are their teeth, and if you don’t read them, they feel hungry.”

I discount this story because you hate to think that your imagination peaked at age three and the rest all downhill.

Soon after, we escaped Soviet Russia, arriving in Berlin on November 2, 1923, three weeks before my younger sister was born.

My parents were Socialists, and one day in December 1932 they took me along to visit a Socialist bookshop, whose owner my father wanted to speak to. While the grown-ups talked, I browsed along the shelves and soon pulled down one of the few books in the shop that had nothing to do with politics: Richard Hamann’s The Early Renaissance of Italian Painting, Jena 1909, in its first printing of 30,000: 50 pages of text, plus notes at the back (none of which interested me); and 200 full-page gray-and-white reproductions of paintings by artists with sonorous names, the like of which I had never heard uttered—Pollaiuolo, Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo.

I was enchanted, and couldn’t stop looking—from that day to this. And when, after too short an hour, I was told we were leaving, I would not reshelve the book, but showed it to mother and asked timidly (for I knew we had little money)—could we buy it? Mother glanced at the price, shook her head, and looked quickly away; and all those images to vanish forever. And then a miracle happened: the bookseller turned to my father and said, “Look, any day now Hitler will be coming to power [as indeed Hitler did five weeks later, January 30, 1933], and the first thing the Nazis will do is close this shop. So why don’t you just take the book for your boy.”

I have the book still, inscribed in pencil in a 12-year-old’s hand, “1932, for Chanukah.”

At this point Steinberg held the book up, “and here is the book.” I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s the only time I’ve ever burst into tears at an art history conference.

But it is the final story he told about the importance of books that is most relevant to today’s depradations by the NYPD:

A year later. We had escaped Hitler early and by late May 1933 were settled in London, where people spoke a language I neither knew nor approved. In English classes at school, if we were told to read and report on a Dickens novel, my practice was subtly subversive. I would bicycle to the public library way out in Hendon, borrow a German translation of Oliver Twist, read it, and then do my report.

One day in 1934, I was on my bicycle with half a dozen library books strapped on behind, coasting downhill. You have to remember that in those days cars in suburban London were scarce, streets had maybe one or two cars parked, and little traffic. So, as I came speeding down, I suddenly saw people waving at me from the sidewalk. I stopped, turned around, and froze in horror. The strap had come loose, my books strewn across the roadway, a bus bearing down to ride over them, and me, condemned to stand by at their massacre, for I had a great sense that books, borrowed ones especially, must be treated with tenderness. They’re like people, remember?

But then—another miracle: the juggernaut slowed and made a careful detour around my books. I choked up—knew from this moment that I had passed into a different culture. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that this could not have happened in Germany, where, on May 10, 1933, my Uncle Aron had taken my older sister and me to watch the Nazi burning of books.

And so I made peace with England, where I would spend the next twelve years, trying to learn the local jargon, so I could eventually be published in The Art Bulletin.

It is possible even in the midst of whatever dynamic event to respect a book, a book is not trash, except in crypto-, proto-, wannabe-fascist/fascist-lite regimes. But you know, Mayor Bloomberg, you may have trashed those books, but I’m happy to say that New Yorkers have enough great books they have no room for in their apartments to create a 100 new People’s Libraries. It will be reconstituted.

screen-shot-2011-11-15-at-2-26-01-am from The People's Library website

Update, 9:47PM: the trashing of the OWS People’s Library and the fate of the books have been discussed and reported on all day, with conflicting threads of information: if you watch Amy Goodman’s excellent coverage from the middle of the night raid itself, it is very hard to believe that any of the books would have survived the raid at all, much less in the way that coverage on the Gothamist later in the day seemed to indicate. This evening Rachel Maddow mentioned the impact of the closing of the Borders in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood and the paucity of nearby New York Public Library branches as reasons that families living in the area were bringing their kids to OWS just to read some children’s books.

The minute that people were let back into the park at about 5:45PM, they began to put some books out and a while later the library website announced that “The People’s Library Re-Opens.”

Update November 16, 1:50PM, The People’s Library issued an update this morning after going to the Department of Sanitation’s facility on the West Side to see what could be retrieved based on Mayor Bloomberg’s claim that everything was intact. Most of the Library books, equipment, and furniture are missing, what remains is often in poor condition. Attempts to begin restoring the library have met with police interference, according to American Libraries, the magazine of The American Library Association:

Tents and tarps are strictly forbidden in Zuccotti Park now. During the reoccupation on the evening of November 15, it started to rain so library staff put a clear plastic trash bag over the collection. Within minutes a detail of about 10 police descended and demanded that the covering be removed because they deemed the garbage bag to be a tarp. There were a few tense minutes as staff tried to convince them otherwise, but ultimately it was removed—leaving the collection open to the elements. As the police withdrew, scores of people chanted “BOOKS … BOOKS … BOOKS … BOOKS.” There was still concern that the park might be cleared again that night, and one officer made it clear that “unclaimed property will be removed and disposed of” in reference to the collection. Library staff quickly set up umbrellas over the bulk of the books and began sending librarians home with bags of books to keep the collection safe in remote locations.

Update November 17, from Occupy Wall Street Library, the game of cat and book continues (video here):

The NYPD seized the People’s Library again tonight. We set up the library again today with 100 books, and the police came over this evening and stood in a line around the books, blocking anyone from reaching the books by creating a fence with their batons. The officers then ordered the Brookfield property sanitation crew to throw them in a trash can. We photographed it all, and video is available on the blog here. The police were asked why they were taking the books and one officer said “I don’t know.”

Bible, among books from the People's Library, after the November 15 NYPD eviction/raid, an image I believe should go viral (as an example of "what Democracy looks like" when police in riot gear are deployed against unarmed civilians by elected officials who claim to support the First Amendment while rushing to suppress dissent).

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Notes on a Tribunal

Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading is a two-day presentation at MoMA, today Saturday November 12 and tomorrow Sunday November 13, of a four-hour reading of transcripts from Combatant Status Review Tribunals held at the United States military prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2004-2005, excerpted from a collection of transcripts released online by the US Department of Defense. This event, organized by the artists Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander, and David Thorne, with the participation of readers,  is a really interesting way of being exposed to and absorbing some of the complex meanings of political events that have taken place under conditions of secrecy, though “in our name,” at least for citizens of the United States.

The reading is very effectively situated in the museum in a transitional space, on one of the vestigial landings of the old (or what I would call the pentimento) of the original MoMA Bauhaus-style staircase and tantalizingly near the exit (no entrance) glass doors leading to what at least today was a member’s preview to the exhibition of Diego Rivera murals. I felt strongly that Rivera would understand, he would approve–and most likely he would depict, in a boldly yet delicately drawn and painted fresco, the scene in front of him: the restrained visuals of political theater staged with readers representing presiding military officers, a recorder, the detainee, the “Personal Representative” of the detainee, all sitting around four tables set into a square surrounded by the museum audience, on rows of chair set behind the tables, as well as seated on the staircase, intent on listening while trying to tune out the noise of the crowded museum. Rivera would paint this crowd scene, perhaps providing an identificatory cartouche of the double identity of each reader: Official questioner>art historian Yve-Alain Bois, detainee Personal Representative>actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith, (two of the readers when I was there). I’m not sure if the artists would have preferred a more advantageous setting, quieter, and larger with more room for an audience, as in the situation evidently afforded it at documenta12 as pictured on MoMA’s website for this piece:

Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander, David Thorne. Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp.002954–003064: A Public Reading. 2007. Performed at Documenta12, 2007. © the artists

However I think the current site is perfect: so much better to “occupy” and reanimate the ghost of MoMA’s history within the confines of MoMA’s current physical and symbolic status as one of the Department of Defense-like corporate behemoths of the international art industry.

Image from today's reading photographed and uploaded to Facebook by Andrea Geyer

The moment that I experienced in a short time attending this performance today offered some perspectives I had not expected. Given what is known of the way these hearings were conducted, one assumes that the readings are meant to expose the lack of transparency of the entire situation of capture, imprisonment, treatment, and legal practices as well as the seeming randomness of who ended up at Gitmo, with the fact of the impropriety of these tribunals according to military and treaty law creating the implication that all such captives are innocent. However as the proceedings I happened to witness at the reading today progressed, the narrative went from the detainee’s assertion of innocence to a close questioning by the military officials as to how, as a self-stated simple humble “worker,” he had managed to support his family in Yemen while traveling for months and on a number of occasions between Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, where he was captured, while doing or not doing undefined jobs here and there. This lack of conclusiveness, this seed of doubt as to the veracity of the detainee, and the lack of conclusion, at least in the performance of the transcripts, as to the final determination of this detainee’s status, created a more ambiguous and complex political narrative than I had expected to experience.

9 Scripts from a Nation at War, a multichannel video installation by the same artists, Geyer, Hayes, Hunt, and Thorne will be shown at MoMA from January 24 to July 30, 2012. But participation through presence is a politically enriching act: the readings from Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp. 002954-003064 will take place again tomorrow at the museum from 12 to 4, on the second floor (free if you go to information desk and say you had done a RSVP).

 

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A Discussion on Facebook About “Occupy Museums”

This morning artist Noah Fischer posted on Facebook an announcement for Occupy Museums:

Occupy Museums!

Speaking out in front of the Cannons

 The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities. We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken a consciousness that art can bring people together rather than divide them apart as the art world does in our current time…

 Let’s be clear. Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital. The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.

 For the last few decades, voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money. To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool. Such a critic was a sore loser.

 It is time to end that silence not in bitterness, but in strength and love! Because the occupation has already begun and the creativity and power of the people has awoken! The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market. Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!

Day 1, Thursday Oct. 20th: Revised Schedule:
3:00 Meet at Liberty Park
Teach-in about the museums we are going to occupy
4:15 Livestream- read document in front of 5000 viewers.
Occupy the 4 train
5:00 Occupy MoMA
hours: 10:30-5:30
11 W 53rd street New York, NY
Occupy the M3 Bus
6:00 Occupy Frick Collection
hours: 10:00-6 PM
1 East 70th Street, New York, NY
Occupy the 6 train
7:00 Occupy New Museum
Thursdays 6-8 free
235 bowery
Via: Noah Fischer, Occupy Museums organizer.

[For further details see Noah Fischer’s Facebook page or mine.]

***

I found that this proposed action gave me pause and it seemed like a good topic for a Facebook discussion, which it has proved to be. I appreciate everyone’s point of view and engagement in the issues. Because not all my friends are on Facebook at all or look at FB that much, and during the day I got an email from Naeem Mohaiemen about where other than Facebook the discussion could be followed [he noted that as luck would have it will be showing a video at the New Museum during the planned protest]. So I thought it would be interesting to repost the conversation that took place today here, with the permission of my Facebook friends’ who participated, since a monologue on my part without the context would miss the point of the conversation.

This following is the conversation from about noon today to 6:30PM:

Mira Schor: I have some ambivalence about this, I’m not sure why. Yes museums have been sucked into the money entertainment mode with corporate corruption, where edge & marginality either commodified or taken out altogether, and with entrance fees prohibitive to the general public. The trend towards the corporate and the art and entertainment market has been especially damaging to the New Museum’s legacy, and especially hurtful for me as a viewer at MoMA, the favored haunt of my youth, where a private relation to art is now hard to come by (though a private relation to an individual art object is something equally critiqued by the current vanguard of social engagement art)…yet some good work is done there as well. I picketed MoMA when it reopened in 1984 with practically no women in its reopening show (see pictures at bottom of this post from that demonstration), but now I don’t feel a visceral response that this is something I can do even though it might be politic or dare I say it , fashionable, to appear to be at the cutting edge of political rebellion. But I’m open for discussion & would love to hear what some of my friends think of this Occupy Museums gesture

Richard Worthington-Rogers: my favorite targets are banks not museums

Mira Schor:  well they are linked, major big city museums’ increased engagement in the out of control capitalism that has infected all parts of life is a tangible problem for all art and I understand that young artists would want to make their mark on that part of the profession

Richard Worthington-Rogers: I understand…perhaps i’m just old school and would rather lob a rock through a bank window than a museum….additionally, if the Koch Bros are funding the opera at lincoln center then action should be taken at the opera NOT a museum.

Amy Sillman: here’s how old I am: I wish they’d spell canon right.

Mira Schor: Amy..I feel the same way about the Bell Hooks poster making the rounds of Facebook with chauvinism misspelled as chauvanism

Mira Schor: re the Koch Brothers and the opera, yes !

Amy Sillman: down w/ the koch bros, but up w/ opera.

Amy Sillman: ‎(i didnt mean that like “i’m down with” but as in, bad koch bros)

Chris Kasper: I’m on the fence too. And I like the issue you raise regarding “rebellion fashion”. I think there is some of that at play here. However, museums have become more and more, extensions of banks and other corporate institutions…Moma and other museums high entrance fees keeps what it has too offer for an audience of a certain demographic ,that excludes blue collar citizens (including many of those with mfas) The coroporate culture in museums is echoed in the fear and intimidatiom common in their employees, and breeds nepotism and sychophants. This extends out to many, if not most artists who have not established themselves yet. While I think some of what you raise is totally valid, I do lean more to liking the occupy museum idea more. With the exception of a less puritanical set of values with regards to having embraced gay culture long before it was fashionable, the artworld is still quite conservative in that it favors white males as who it holds up as successful (this is one issue I agree w J Saltz on). If it is better in the artworld for women and people of color than other industries, it isn’t much better. Especially for the people employed by these institutions. We should’nt pat ourselves on the back for being a progressive field at this point. Ask the mostly men who are moving crates and installing the massive works, or the mostly women at the desks with the pressure to dress way out of their salary level at 17.9% apr how progressive an industry we are.

Mira Schor: Chris what you say is true, interesting, much to think about, and only 24 hours to think about it [actually there is no date set on Noah’s original post]…as for who has critiqued the white male content of museums first best, or with most risk….but yes, no illusions as the progressive nature of the mainstream art world

Brian Sg: occupy art school, the biggest rip off there is

Amy Sillman: hey Brian Sg: did you go to art school? which one? i’m just curious because I teach at an art school (Bard MFA) and i’m not sure if they think it’s the biggest ripoff there is! I’ll ask the students, though.

Betty Tompkins: do any of you know the recording about the mccarthy era called “the investigator”? this is starting to remind me of that.

Lori Ellison: Not sure if the museums are the right focus.

Martha Willette Lewis: a lot of museums have suggested donations and I balk at the idea that what they charge (excepting MoMa- that really is extortionate) is too much: going to the movies costs a lot now, cable tv costs a lot , all of these electronic gadgets costs a lot as does wifi- the museums NEED this money. I am sad to see them pander to popular tastes but they are doing it to attract audiences, stay relevant and stay in operation. I don’t think I can support this- museums have given me hours of pleasure, taught me, entertained me. why not “occupy art auctions”instead?they seem much more directly culpable…

Lori Ellison: There was a protest at an art auction several weeks ago.

Martha Willette Lewis: this makes me really, really sad…

Mira Schor:  The museums are a probably as legitimate a focus for demonstration as any other in the sense of getting a discussion going..it’s all in the timing. There were people demonstrating against MoMA when the new building opened and the director Glenn Lowry was utterly dismissive of the demonstrators (artists/activists), I can’t remember if he had them arrested or simply mocked them

Amy Sillman: I think since OWS is about BANKS AND MONEY AND WALL STREET as much as anything else, then the suggestion to occupy art AUCTION HOUSES is really interesting!

Betty Tompkins: almost all museums have a free evening. While I admire the energy of the occupy everything everywhere movement, I do have to wonder why they have not focused on governments that allow all this. i also wonder why huge job fairs have not been organized at the park.

Mira Schor: that’s already happened a bit Amy, some demonstrations recently .

Steven Nelson: Museums are intertwined with money and our current corporate mess, but it’s not museums that got us into the economic and social mess we face today. On MoMA admission, it bears noting that one can go there for free on Fridays after 4pm.

Amy Sillman: well, I’m going to stand on my pedestal today and say that what should be occupied is Sothebys, Phillips de Pury, etc. these are places where NOTHING GOOD happens at all. I’d LOVE to go out and protest the whole system of auctioning the work of living artists.

Oriane Stender: This Occupy Museums thing is misguided. It would help if the writer were more articulate. “Speaking out in front of the Cannons”? Beyond the misspelling, what does this mean?

Mira Schor: I think that there is a generation of young artists who were caught up in the intersection between the corporatization of education as of museums, and actually expected to enter the art market and succeed, financially, and I’m sorry were perhaps not sufficiently critical of any part of that. Now they are hugely in debt and of course most artists never make enough from their art or any other profession associated with art to pay back that kind of debt, so they are angry. I was on a panel at Cabinet last year about art education put together by Colleen Asper and Ad Hoc Vox.

The most interesting thing to me that cold winter night was the audience, which was packed to the rafters with thirty-ish Brooklyn-based New York artists, all seemingly wearing black–it seemed like everyone had a two day stubble, also black, and heavy eyeglass frames, also black– fixing those of us on the panel with the most intense and angry expressions on their faces, hoping we would explain to them why their incredibly expensive educations were worth the debt they had incurred.

Art has been just as shaped by the economic boom and the highly reactionary politics of the last 30 years as any other part of our culture. Although I still go to MoMA, I feel like the place where I spent my youth in a close personal private relationship with art works in an intimate space rather than a tourist destination, that space is no more. I’m sorry for those who never had it. Perhaps it is just more of a betrayal when suddenly the rose colored glasses come off and you realize you’ve been sold a bill of goods that can’t sustain you as an artist, literally and spiritually. For me, it helps to have never “believed” in art market essentialism even though that never helped me economically but perhaps that’s precisely why I find this demonstration odd, because it seems to admit to a belief that has been disappointed.

Carol Salmanson: If the target is corporate money taking over museums, then the focus should be corporate money, not museums. Otherwise everyone’s energies will be scattered all over the place, while the corporate money will continue its deliberate and strategic placement, without accountability.

Oriane Stender: I’m not thrilled about corporate money having such an influence in museums, but since arts and culture get so much less government money than they used to get, corporate money keeps the institutions alive, so it’s not altogether a bad thing. It’s complicated. I’d rather the corporations give this money to museums than some other places they could put it, like right-wing think tanks or California’s Prop. 8. Yes, the $ comes with strings attached. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Etc.

Mira Schor: I don’t know if he will participate here, but Noah Fischer who posted this says he is glad if we are having a discussion, so I think that like everything about Occupy Wall Street, they are taking the chance of acting boldly, if not overtly programmatically, to provoke discussion, and the attention they are getting for that discussion will get media attention that perhaps earlier critiques did not get. The corporate structure and backing of MoMA will not be altered by any demonstration in the long run. I think the New Museum is more ripe for a critique, given the honorable countercultural, counter art market direction of its founding mother, Marcia Tucker, much altered by the cold glitz of the current institution and the amusingly repressive reactions it has on occasion had to internal efforts at institutional critique.

Noah Fischer:  Wall Street is a symbolic Altar of Greed: a fitting place to start this movement, but the movement is much bigger than banks and packaged debt and bailouts. To me, its fundamentally about waking up from a bad dream in which our society has lost cohesion- the country doesn’t work for most people- people have forgotten how to work together. And while this has gone on, the wealthiest 1% have walked away with the government..and the culture- witness an era of luxurious art fairs while millions are losing home and jobs. So much about museums today reflects a top-down society where the rest of us are supposed to be mesmerized by the glamour at the top. We Occupy the big museums as both real ties to Wall Street fraud money and as symbols of a culture thats been stolen from the 99% by the elites. When we Occupy Museums, we’ll be announcing and demonstrating a new era of culture that is for everyone.

Noah Fischer: We can Occupy Auctions next week!

Oriane Stender: Re Mira’s observation about the anger young people have about their student debt: Yes, the MFA diploma mill is a giant ponzi scheme. But you are all college-educated and smart people. Did you really think, after the number of people attending art schools kept increasing, that there would be enough tenure track jobs for everyone? Galleries and collectors enough for everyone? This is exactly why I didn’t get an MFA. I did the math (and I’m no math genius). Go into debt to get a degree that a whole bunch of underemployed people have? No thanks. Sorry you drank the Kool-aid, guys. But it was labeled.

Goran Tomcic: If I remember correctly, more then a decade ago there was a huge issue with Whitney and Phillip Morris, i.e. should a tobacco company be a sponsor of the arts. Now we have Deutsche Bank being a major sponsor of Frieze Art Fair, and it had borrowed its name to the Guggenheim in Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim even has a bank logo on the building facade. I recently closed my Deutsche Bank account as I felt I was not treated correctly and because the bank sucked a lot of money from me in enormous fees just to keep my debit account open. I moved to another bank with less fees and now I am not one of those sponsoring Frieze or Deutsche Guggenheim. As per art schools, I think this is a misplaced call for an action: I went to the above-mentioned Bard MA program and didn’t have to pay as there are scholarships, etc. I believe the art schools need to be left out of this story.

Mira Schor: Noah et al, I’d like to recommend people take a look at the information about The Woman’s Building, now the subject of one of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, “Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building. It was the most radical and complete experiment in a self-run politically directed education, really admirable.

As a faculty member in an MFA program, I’m torn, my students come in recent years not because they think they are going to make it, for the most part, but because they want to be in a central place where they can be exposed to new and challenging ideas (ideas that challenge their previous beliefs). Even though I feel increasingly confined by the situation, and miss terribly the atmosphere of creativity and freedom of the school I went to at the time I went to it, most of them feel that they get something for their education (though some, those who did drink the Kool Aid) also later feel terribly embittered by disappointment) and when I try to imagine alternatives to the MFA, as I discussed at Cabinet last year, you can see how rapidly necessities of institutionalization reconstruct themselves (after the first flush of experimentation, you need a space, you need money for rent, you need insurance, people need to be paid for their labor in teaching or maintaining etc…)..that’s why The Women’s Building was such an inspiring model.

Kate Kretz: Haven’t really thought about this. I am much more concerned/dismayed at the corporatization of higher education… I think that it’s going to transform this country, and makes me want to bail out to live in a place where education is the priority.

Oriane Stender: I would love to bail out. Anyone in Sweden want a middle-aged mail order bride??

Rocio Rodriguez: this whole thing is well intended but frankly…it waters down the real message…which in my view should start in occupying the capitol both houses of Congress. Once you start down this occupying street hell u can justify occupying anything. I say focus on what and who has created the problems and put us in the present economic situation. Start w/our ‘elected’ officials and demand an accounting there. A lot of $$$ passes through those halls, campaign contributions, lobbyists…they spend more time raising money for their next election than working on the country’s problems.

Goran Tomcic: Let me go back to my past and look at the former socialist countries education. It was required, grand and open (yes, it was open and they way to escape the system), and yet by the end of the 80’s there was nobody left who wanted to live in socialism and receive free education or free medical care. Now you go back to those former socialist countries and the first thing you notice is the luck of an education, nobody is reading the Classics any longer, and now we are just like the rest of the West.

Mira Schor: Rocio, I hope there are enough people to go around to focus on the multiple aspects of the culture and work in specific areas where they can have an impact, however momentary. In that sense I think it is worth doing, because the financial system needs critique, the corruption of the electoral process by money needs protest, and the art world and education are areas of culture that many of us here occupy. It’s a long term process and many contradictions. Revolutionary movements sometimes don’t have the time for contradiction until it takes them over, alas.

Ree Dykeulous: See W.A.G.E. |working artists and the greater economy. Fully budgeted/hugely endowed NY museums exploit cultural workers- aka their content providers

Rocio Rodriguez: Yes I agree with what you have said Mira the multiple aspects…they are all connected. I suppose that one only has so much time/resources to devote to protest and I see Washington as a central player to all of this and for me areas of culture are secondary (and I am an artist-who is totally dedicated to my profession) to the very present needs of many people who don’t have jobs, can’t pay for health insurance, and are worried about keeping their house. In any case its a mess all around. thx for the discussion.

Betty Tompkins: one of the huge differences in art/art education is that when I was a student we were told flat out that we should not come to NYC with the expectation of making it big or even making it small very quickly. we were told that it takes time to mature as an artist and that you did this on your own, outside of the gallery system. Today’s grads think an mfa is the same as an mba. It is not.

Mira Schor: here are some views on Hyperallergic to add to the mix. “Is Occupying Museums Misguided?” “A protest is slated for tomorrow that intends to “occupy” the Frick Museum, MoMA and the New Museum, but why?”

William Evertson: My only observation is that museums seem to be a symptom and wall street excess is a cause. I can certainly relate to the desire to expose the corporate hand that is driving these cultural icons. I wonder what the alternatives look like? With people in such need throughout the country how many would support any cultural activity?

Mira Schor: re. the Hyperallergic piece, just to play devil’s advocate for a minute , while I am wondering about this occupy museums plan, isn’t asking “what a museum of the 99% would look like and who/what would fund it” as Hrag Vartanian does on Hyperallergic the same as saying that occupy wall street hasn’t articulated specific demands>>>they have gotten people talking and put somethings on a wider agenda, so perhaps this can’t hurt either even if it seems a bit elitist in relation to the 99% meme

Sean Capone: Just do it, what do you have to lose! Keep in mind a lot of people won’t care about this action and it underscores the derisive notion that OWS is a bunch of liberal arts majors with worthless degrees. If art is for the people then go make art for the people. Or if this makes you feel better about yourself–do this. The museums aren’t the ones keeping arts funding out of the ‘people’s’ hands–you should go OccupyTheNEA. By the way, the New Museum had their Ostalgia ‘peoples art’ show all summer and the people didn’t go see it. The people want graffiti art and Tim Burton shows. Was burning a flag of dollar bills at the OWS art show a good example of art for the people? (did that really happen?!) As one of the 99% I would have rather put it in the donation box.

Betty Tompkins: ♥ hrag.

Ree Dykeulous: Debating whether the culture industry and all of it’s tethered institutions are unethical and participatory in an exploitative inhumane financial scheme is nonsensical- it is. The pay scale and disparities in non-profit institutions (directors and board members alike) directly reflect the inequity in other industries so it’s time to ask the museums why, esp. since, (1) they don’t distribute payment to artists but rather act as representatives of commercial galleries & auction houses, (2) act as representatives of the industries from which their monies derive. See Major Earners in the Cultural World for details. Museums absolutely DO keep payments out of artist’s hands b/c no oversight is required regarding the distribution of institutional funding by public-private partnerships (whether the monies come from granting organizations, foundations or private monies). So being as the system is at this present moment, it’s inequitable, unethical and unjust in it’s relationship with the visual artists, performers, arts writers and independent curators with whom they choose to work, and from whom they are gaming with cultural capital known as “exposure”.

Grace Graupe Pillard: I remember when I first studied art – never having gone to Art School – and discovered the wonders of art – the length and breadth of its history at MOMA and the Met and the Frick…I went there for free almost every week or more to study and discover artistis and how to paint, and how not to paint, and what I considered good and bad painting. One helped me see the other.

This can no longer be done – Now we pay – and we pay – particularly at the Guggenheim, New Museum and MOMA – yes we lucky artists can get an Artist Pass at MOMA but the Guggenheim does not even deign to allow that. I am ambivalent and really do not know why – something inside of me feels uneasy with occupying Museums. Old habits die hard. So this discussion is refreshing and making me consider and re-consider the issues.

Judith Rodenbeck: Fluxify museums; occupy the Supreme Court.

Nato Thompson: As far as I can tell, the idea of occupying everything makes sense to me. If people occupy the institutions for which they are direct constituents (artists occupying museums for example) that certainly makes a lot of sense. I think people are feeling too defensive for museums. I used to work at one and we would have embraced a conversation around audience and funding. They are public institutions accountable to a public. It would be good to have the 99 at their door. It’s like feeling defensive for a government because the people show up to vote. That is the point. If anything, I think of this is a reminder of a mission statement. Of course artists like art, they are artists. So of course they have some sympathies for museums as an idea. I don’t think this needs to be thought of as a protest so much as an opportunity to consider who art is for, how it is funded and how is it accountable. It is the same question of wall street, governance, etc. Who can disagree with these basic questions? Funny that hyperallergenic article dismisses the idea and then goes on to pontificate on why not start a museum that supports the 99 (the article asks)? Well, isn’t that what the missions statement of all non-profit museums are? And finally, art is a place where these ideas should be embraced and shared. It is about free expression and our institutions are there to embrace that. That is their role. We should think of them as an infrastructure accountable to the public and use them as such. To dismiss using them seems almost as though we have given up on them.

Betty Tompkins: I actually have the record of The Investigator, the original and i had a cd made of it as it is really rare. The actual story is quite close to what my parents told me when I was a kid…I grew up with this record.

Rocio Rodriguez: I am not sure that I fully understand Nato Thompson’s comment above. “(museums).. ‘They are public institutions accountable to a public.” Accountable? What exactly that you want them to be accountable for? Who is giving them money? Remember Jesse Helms? He wanted to make institutions that received public money accountable for the art that they showed. The following excerpt is from a Huff post article —“According to a 2006 report issued by the American Association of Museums, since roughly the late 80s museums have registered a 15% drop in reliance on public funding. Over the same period, museums almost doubled the amount of private funding they receive, counted as a percentage of their operating income. In recent years, half of American museums have shown growth in their endowments, while museums running deficits have decreased by one third. Business is private, and business is good (notwithstanding the real perils involved when museums get too cozy with corporate interests).” This was published in ’08. Maybe private contributions have dropped since the economic downturn. But I get a little concerned when I hear the word ‘accountable’ applied to ART or art institutions. It brings up the culture wars of the early 80s. Bottom line here is that museums are non-profits and they have to get money from somewhere–via government or corporate, private donors. Frankly, I happily hand over my 25$ when I visit the Met. It’s the Art, I care about and that is what I am supporting.

Betty Tompkins: excellent point Rocio.

Rocio Rodriguez: correction: I meant to say the culture wars of the late not early 80’s….one more thing…that quote from the huff post article was in direct relation to Jesse Helms effect on govt. funding.

Betty Tompkins: it was a disaster.

Rocio Rodriguez: we still feel the effects of it today.

Mira Schor: Rocio: when I was a teenager I stopped at the Met often on my way home from school. It was free. I could go in there to get lost, on purpose, and see what I would see, I could go to look at one painting. If it had cost the equivalent of $25 I would had gone much less frequently. Luckily the Met has a pay as you wish category, though most tourists don’t notice. But that is very expensive and contributes to the notion that art is only for an elite.

Rocio Rodriguez: Mira, I hear what you are saying. Yes it’s expensive even for me…but I guess I’m a sucker for art and I feel that it is my responsibility to support it.

Ravenna Taylor: what a great discussion. I love museums, almost any one of them is like a house of worship to me. I agree with so much of what each of you has said here; in particular I like the way Steven Nelson put this: “Museums are intertwined with money and our current corporate mess, but it’s not museums that got us into the economic and social mess we face today.”

I posted this same link this morning, and acknowledged having my own doubts about some of the content and the language.

But I really am terribly excited to see questions posed, with expectations of answers, and large numbers, young and old, contemplating meaningful change in the ways that our society functions, at all sorts of levels. This is truly hopeful, for me. I may not agree with everything that might happen or be proposed, but I’m just glad to celebrate an end to complacency and fear.

Rocio Rodriguez: Last time I was at the Met, I asked the guy who was selling tickets, how many people pay 25$ ?(because I was curious and the two tourists in front of me opted for a smaller donation which is fine) and he said…actually quite a few. I was surprised and glad.

Oriane Stender: The general dissatisfaction/anger at OWS makes sense. The financial industry, taxes, investments, loans – that whole world is very confusing and many people (including me) feel lost in it. But that same vague distrust and anger doesn’t make as much sense when directed at museums. Being angry at high admission fees AND at corporate sponsorship doesn’t make for a focused argument. Corporate sponsorship reduces the admission fees the general public pays. NEA funds and other government funds used to finance museums to a larger degree. Now corporations and private money has to fill that gap. If we just show up to Occupy Museums and protest “the system” we will look like simpletons.

Ravenna Taylor: for some reason I am resentful when I pay admission to the Guggenheim, and I only go there if there is an exhibit I know I want very much to see. But I don’t feel the same way about MoMA or the Met, and I have memberships there so I can walk in as often as I want…My own argument has long been: less taxes to support war action; more taxes to support culture. Then we could have government support for cultural institutions instead of war industrialists, and not have to hear the Toll Bros plugged while listening to Met Opera Broadcasts.

Ravenna Taylor: My own argument has long been: less taxes to support war action; more taxes to support culture. Then we could have gov’t support for cultural institutions instead of war industrialists, and not have to hear the Toll Bros plugged while listening to Met Opera Broadcasts.

Cole Robertson: Not sure if this came up in the 70+ preceding comments, but here’s my take: corporate support of the arts is almost invariably a corrupt enterprise. It either serves to boost the market value of the corporation’s art collection, is a PR stunt to rehabilitate a tarnished image, or is a tax dodge. Either way, nasty.

Oriane Stender: Cole, other than a soup kitchen, what would be a non-corrupt enterprise? Pretty much everybody expects to get paid for doing what they do.

Ravenna Taylor: Money is never clean. The super-rich corporations like Toll Bros or Koch Ind. could, if philanthropy were their object, make their donations and not demand they be acknowledged multiple times in multiple ways. It’s not the way the world works of course; but as an idealist I feel I must point out, it is one of the options, to donate without the need to use the donation as advertising. Considering that they are surely writing the donation off if they are paying any taxes at all, using it to promote their businesses and their images is something that shouldn’t even be permissible. Just the opinion of a crazy idealist.

Cole Robertson: For starters, eliminate tax breaks for increasing the value of private collections. You wanna advertise the art you own to make it more valuable, Charles Saatchi-style? Fine. Just don’t do it with taxpayer money…Ravenna, exactly. We’re underwriting their PR budgets, and it’s flat-out wrong.

[…]

Kathy Schnapper: Slightly off-topic: OccupyMuseums is reawakening all of the ambivalence within me about issues of class and the practice of Art History. Remember the first time that I read Sir Kenneth Clark’s autobiography. He wrote about his early exposure to the finer things in life and how it was essential to his development in connoisseurship. My background was blue collar, and that idea continued to haunt me and make me feel inadequate.

Recall when PASTA first organized the MOMA staff. My family were early union organizers, but somehow I felt uncomfortable with the idea of museum workers in the same union with mere laborers (of course, I grew up quickly from that absurd position).

And then there was graduate school at Columbia: At the time I had a day job working with abused and neglected kids. James Beck told me that I could not be a serious art historian and continue to do that. So for years, I never mentioned it.

Bringing all of this up, because the legacy of these experiences continues to tug at my emotions and colors some of my rational response to #OccupyMuseums Glad that they have opened up this important area of discussion.

***

I appreciate this conversation, it’s been useful to me and I hope to anyone catching up on my blog. I thank everyone who participated, and since I  suspect the conversation will continue, I will update it if necessary. so, more later. Any comments to this blog post should if possible be directed to the conversation on my Facebook page so I can pick them up from there. A similar conversation on this subject took place on Stephen Nelson’s Facebook page.

And for fun, here are some pictures I found of a demonstration held in front of MoMA June 14, 1984, when the museum reopened after a major renovation with an exhibition which included almost no women artists.

Lucy Lippard and May Stevens, demonstration in front of MoMA, June 14, 1984, photo: Mira Schor

Rob Storr, Nancy Bowen, & Barbara Siegel, demonstration in front of MoMA, June 14, 1984 (Rob became Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA in 1990 (to 2002).

 

Demonstration in front of MoMA, June 14, 1984

Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose: in recent years MoMA has had special funding from Sarah Peters to focus on their collection of works by women artists, designers, and architects, has hosted a number of symposia on the subject of feminism and art (I’ve commented on these on this blog and, along with other women artists, on M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online), and major women artists have had exhibitions and installations in the Atrium, and yet the majority of retrospectives, of works exhibited, and of women included in themed group exhibitions has by far remained skewed towards work by male artists… this is only to say that change is slow and hard at any major institution, and museums are perhaps even more impervious to change than governments! It is an ongoing battle of which Occupy Museums will be a new stage.

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