What is the Art Practice of Resistance?
“Art is here to prove and to help one bear the fact that all safety is an illusion.”
This is the fourth segment of statements read at the antifascist apeakout at the Whitney Museum on January 20, 2017. The speakout symbolically inaugurated a new era of resistance made urgent by the concurrent swearing-in of a white nationalist demagogue in Washington. We won’t forget that in the precise moment of the demagogue’s assuming power, Kalup Linzy was singing his classic ballad “asshole” in the museum.
This week we hear voices from the #J20 counter-inauguration who, through poetry, prose, and melody, conjured up the agency of art practice to act upon this moment. But how can we begin to comprehend its effect? In the face of an American fascism steamrolling onto the national scene, this art practice, we must admit, requires us to define a strange kind of agency. It often veers away from rather than toward the unified collective voice, toward greater complexity rather than clear-cut “solutions.” And sometimes it seems to have more to do with the dynamics of failure than winning. But this practice, as the voices here assert, is far from beside the point. It’s what keeps us vulnerable, fluid, and awake; aware of dynamics connecting interior and exterior worlds, which are the most potent political dynamics, as Tracie Morris and Vijay Iyer’s performance reminds us. It’s the writing rather than the following of the script, and in revolutionary moments, this practice needs to be cared for rather than abadoned, as Mira Schor remarks: “To write that movie or any other, you can’t always be in the street, you have to be at home writing the damn thing, the individual can’t always do both at the same time. Let’s support each other in doing both.”
But where is the balance in the face of increased political urgency on one hand and precarity on the other, a theme that artist Jenny Dubnau speaks to? And what about the ongoing political struggle concerned with representation, which is so central to both American art and politics today? How much can we rely on “freedom of speech” as a solid artistic value in a time when the value has been misaligned with the anti-PC white nationalist movement? How much autonomous freedom of expression can artists grant ourselves? Artist and activist Jaret Vadera writes: “We must commit on a much deeper level / To go beyond shallow sentiments of retrofitted diversity, that at the end of the day still center around whiteness. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
And now it seems, urgently, artists must march deeper into our process in search of this point. For time is short and the light is dimming. And as poet Uche Nduka writes:
enuf for the nite moving thru a sentence
enuf for the torn bag of nite
enuf for the match thrown for a nite march
I’m Jenny Dubnau, and I work with the Artist Studio Affordability Project. And I’m going to put out a plea for artists to become policy experts, and to become engaged with policy. Neofascists just won in Washington, but we’re dealing with neoliberal policies in this city that cause displacement; and unfortunately the arts have been pulled into that problematic situation. And I think that one of the best ways for us to push back against what’s happening nationally in our country is to get locally active: concretely active.
I’d like to see artists become citizen activists. I’d like to see artists confront gentrification because we are being displaced. I’d like to see artists and arts institutions confront the ways we are used by real estate developers to displace others: poor communities, communities of color, and working industry in our manufacturing zones. I’d like to see artists start to understand actual policy. I’d like to see us join with communities, like Alicia Boyd, of BAN, who just spoke. As artists, we need to confront policies of displacement, and to fight for policies that mitigate it. We need to understand the impact of the rezonings that Alicia spoke about. These rezonings are changing our communities rapidly in NYC. The gentrification is racist: it displaces poor people, and it also displaces artists. We have common ground to fight there.
There’s a bill in the city council right now that would create commercial rent regulation: How many artists would be able to stay in their work spaces? How many mom & pop stores would be able to stay? How many communities would become more whole, if this commercial rent regulation passed? As artists, we need to start pressuring, concretely, our elected officials to do the right thing. We need to get concrete: we need to understand policy. We need to begin to understand acronyms like MIH/ZQA (the mayor’s rezoning plan), SBJSA (that’s the bill in the city council that would create some commercial rent regulation). We need to understand rent-control policy. We need to call out our institutions, like the Brooklyn Museum last year, which hosted a real estate conference, which displaces the very artists and communities they’re supposed to serve.
We also need to start thinking concretely about something else that’s happening in this city: there’s a NYC Cultural Plan, which is being put into place. It’s going to be rolled out in the late spring/early summer. As working artists in this city, what do we want that cultural plan to say for us? Can we start to question the public-private bedfellows that we’ve taken for granted as neoliberal policy in this city? For example, why are two of the consulting partners on this cultural plan, which is in formation now, real estate advisement firms? Why? Can’t we question that? I think we should. Keep your eyes open for organizing that’s going to be happening around this cultural plan. I think we need to get very, very concrete, and that’s how we’re going to build bridges of resistance in this city for what’s happening locally, but also what’s happening nationally. The Artist Studio Affordability Project can be found online at www.artiststudioaffordabilityproject.org.
Thank you for organizing this. It’s good to have some place to be, with other people. Otherwise I would be crying in the bathroom. I’d rather cry here.
Hi, I’m Mira Schor, I’m a painter and a writer. I have a blog called A Year of Positive Thinking but it’s not that positive, and it’s an offshoot of a book I wrote during the Bush Administration, A Decade of Negative Thinking, so I don’t want to write another book like that.
I’ve worked from a feminist politics since my youth and I have a tendency to go against the grain so I want to speak today about the importance of art and of art-making now when the necessity and the pressure for activism is as intense as the anger and fear that we’re experiencing.
I was going to write my remarks in the format of a series of tweets. It would start:
Lay in bed 1 morning last summer & thought, if Trump is elected my life will be shortened #premonition
parents refugees from Hitler,thrived in US,father died 2 mos after Eichmann trial #diedofEichmann #delayedholocaustvictim #inheritedtrauma
Late 1990s, walking to the Met, feeling good about my life, suddenly think, it won’t happen here #spoketoosoon
But it’s hard to keep that up that form so I’ll read normally.
Since the election I’ve noticed the pleasure, indeed the gratitude people have expressed if someone shares a beautiful work of art on social media, not necessarily an outwardly political one.
We value works that use representation, figuration, and language to openly announce their political intentions, but a painting of a flower, a small abstraction, or an ancient vase can evoke as much humanity as anything more overt, and the importance of such works as heroic human activity can be intense.
In the recent Agnes Martin exhibition I was particularly interested in one small early painting of narrow vertical black and white lines. In the face of the impulse, in response to the political moment, for artists to start churning out whatever the modern version would be of Guernica, this smallest of Martin’s abstract paintings packed as much of a punch about human endeavor and heroism as anything that would will itself to make a political statement. Though small, the painting had great tension and drama. To me it represents as much of the power of the universe as a model of the atom and it is heroic in the way that artworks can, if you can peer past the market, be evidence of one individual artist’s search for perfection in a realm that seemingly has no specific utility to daily life. And that will be very much under assault.
Being political is the long haul of critiquing power in every part of your life all of your life, including your own involvement with it. In the months and years to come every force will militate against artists, including the duties of resistance. We’re going to need everything to resist—people in the streets, strikes, polemics of all kinds—but we’re also going to need all kinds of strategies including possibly ones we have not yet arrived at, and we will need all kinds of art—plays, novels, TV shows, songs, images of all kinds, and that is labor which is not always visible until it’s visible. We need another Death of A Salesman or King Lear—in fact I actually have an idea for the end of a movie: a naked insane Trump is carrying the body of Ivanka through the underwater ruins of Mar-a-Lago. But I’m not a writer of fiction so it’s up to you, one of you can go with this. To write that movie or any other, you can’t always be in the street, you have to be at home writing the damn thing, the individual can’t always do both at the same time. Let’s support each other in doing both.
And I want to say that our work is cut out for us. I happened to step out of the subway at what I was aware was the moment of the beginning of the impeachment, let’s put it that way, and I passed two young women, and one said to the other, yeah I’m trying this new carbon stuff to whiten my teeth, and I thought, OK, you are not thinking about where you are and what’s happening, and artists—and “artist” designates a very broad range of activity—artists have to somehow reach those people and make them understand that they are implicated and hopefully that they can have some power.
1 AS SEEN
a black man
in a black car
in a black rain
i watch him braiding
the bends of black roads
leaving that crocheting
(without a thought)
exactly as it has been
a black man
in a black room
in a black house
in a black street
i see him inching
to a wall's edge
at the street level
at the gut level
of militant particulars...
Fela Anikulapo Kuti
or Bob Marley
or Paul Robeson
battling man-made eclipses
2 FOR OUTRIDERS
enuf for the discarded nite
enuf for the overblown headstuff
enuf for the acidic nite
enuf for the thot of nite
enuf for the silly ease of nite
enuf for the over-stretched card
enuf for the shuffle in a nitescene
enuf for the contradictions of nite
enuf for the holy smoke of a phrase
enuf for the oval crises of nite
enuf for the breaking vase of nite
enuf for the nite's chocolate uniform
enuf for the nite moving thru a sentence
enuf for the torn bag of nite
enuf for the match thrown for a nite march
—(c) Uche Nduka
TRACIE MORRIS & VIJAY IYER
My name is Jaret Vadera.
I am an artist, a teacher, and a cultural worker.
I often start off by saying that I am an artist,
as art is the one place that still always takes me.
But, also because it is another way of saying that I am a sensitive person.
As artists and activists, I believe that we are all sensitive people.
We are sensitive to injustice, to violence, to war, to the prison-industrial complex, to racism, to misogyny, to boxes, and to bullies.
And contrary to what we are often told,
sensitivity is not a weakness at all.
It is our greatest strength.
If we are to take the question seriously
about what artists can do
in dark times like these,
we need to first expand our ideas of what art can be.
We must open art up.
So that it can be flexible,
so that art can be soft,
and at the same time sharp.
We need to decolonize what we understand as art.
To clearly see who is included and who is not.
We need to decolonize art history.
And rethink what we are teaching our students.
We need to decolonize the structures
through which art is shown,
and the ways that work is contextualized.
We must commit on a much deeper level.
To go beyond shallow sentiments
of retrofitted diversity,
that at the end of the day
still center around whiteness.
Otherwise, what’s the point?
Otherwise we are just refuelling the propaganda machine for white patriarchy.
We need to build together,
but first we need to break most of this down.
So we can start again.
I am not waiting in vain for their love.
Today, I remind myself
to start from the inside out.
I’ve made a few personal promises to myself,
that I will share with you.
I promise not to be a punk.
I promise not to be a punk,
when I see something going down
and am faced with the decision
of whether or not I should get into it.
I will err on the side of loud from here on in.
I have a voice,
and they are going to be hearing it a lot more.
I promise to have your back,
my sisters and my brothers,
if I see some misogynist
or racist shit going down.
I promise to check my privilege,
again, and again, and again.
I promise to shut up more.
I promise to shut up more,
so that other voices
can have space to be heard.
I promise to share my opportunities and privilege with others who need it.
I promise to continue to maintain strong ties with my community,
and to build stronger bridges with allies in this country
and around the world.
I promise to teach
and try to live with an open heart,
to train a strategic mind.
So that the next generation can learn
not just by following what we say,
but by watching what we do.
I promise to resist binary politics.
We are layered, nuanced, and complex people.
My politics must include all of our nuances,
differences and weirdness.
Otherwise what is the point?
I promise to not wait for their future to include us.
I promise to imagine a new one.
And help build it.
I promise to create, and dance, and love, and fight.
I want the museum to be. To gather together.
I want the museum for me to be seen and heard and felt.
I want the museum to make space to overcome my voice silenced loudly before.
I want the museum to welcome my smell, my noise, my inadequacy and my struggle.
I want the museum to wake up to this new world with necessity.
I want the museum to dismantle its paywall, its safety nets and its desire to entertain.
I want the museum to give us direct access to the art we need to demolish the limits to our ability to find each other.
I want the museum where “We” is inevitably the right mode of address.
I want the museum to build coalitions, across colors, sounds, materials, cultures and affinities.
I want the museum to be a space spurred by contemplation and empathy.
I demand the museum to undo the division between the rational and the crazy
to help us imagine that which we have failed to see.
I demand the museum to abolish the imperial mindset that gave rise to its current form.
I need the museum to start from scratch, because we need it now more than ever before.
I want a museum to recognize that for culture to take place, our bodies must appear.
I want a museum giving rise to our sense of self, to us as individuals and as members of communities,
where we can feel a stability that is recognized and hailed by others.
I need the museum to always be where we explicitly show up for each other, I appear to you and you to me.
I want a museum that can hold difference and dissonance without fear.
I want a museum that inverts hierarchies and value systems in art and in people.
I want a museum to create its own unregulated wildness, to resist binding its objects and viewers to rules
and instead release the wild in us, fusing our hunger into action.
I want the museum to refuse the refusal of violent traditions.
I want a museum where we can find the things that are not,
as they slip through the cracks of their absence into an inevitable presence.
I want the museum to be a public, and therefor already political space.
I want the museum in fact to contest the division between public and private,
demonstrating that politics are already in the home, in the streets, at our work.
I want the museum to lead its viewers away from passive admiring
to an active viewing, instilling an honest will to re-enact.
I want the museum to arise of the organization of people, their acting and speaking together.
I want the museum to be a place where people cannot help by speak,
materializing the freedom and radicality of conversation.
In response, I want the museum to be quiet and listen.
I need the museum to move on.
I want the museum to realize that those stripped of representation are still her—gagged by a collective blind spot.
I want the museum to laugh at its own prejudice.
I want the museum to emphatically court those who have been uninvited and who have never felt the need to cross the threshold of its doors before. And I want the museum to recognize that it not only needs those missing but actually fails in its entirety without.
I want the museum to escape the barriers of language.
I want a museum to contribute to mass education in subjects inadequately covered or even omitted in formal education.
I want a museum to transpire prejudice as a predicament of privilege.
I want a museum to be a space for the movement of things, of values, of meaning.
I want a museum to be a space where I can glance back at those who are looking.
I want a museum to foster disorientation for me to linger with perception.
I want a museum to disorganize my thoughts.
I want a museum to liberate my desire into a yet indeterminate form.
I want a museum to be a space that makes us realize that I need pay attention, again.
I need a museum to be a space to breathe.
I need a museum to give me shelter from the monolithic, the dogmatic and more.
I want a museum to offer free food, a bathroom and education.
I want a museum loud and quiet, bright and dark, concrete and abstract.
I need a museum that in tragedy and strain, offer the people the refreshment of the spirit art can give—so they can carry through unfalteringly the hard things that must be done.
I want a museum to give us tools to undo visual regimes generated to blind us.
I need a museum to offer a space in which we spend less time antagonized and antagonizing.
I need a museum to support a democratic people, in crisis, exhibitions should multiply, art activities should continue and increase. Because art is no luxury or pastime. It is a fundamental necessity.
I want the museum to be open until 10pm.
I demand a museum to be a site of collective study and never call to order, a space of dissonance and noise,
a space of a public weave to which one sends one’s imagination visiting.
I need the museum to be a place of courageous vulnerability.
I want the museum to offer spaces of resistance against the terror of disappearance.
I insist a museum to endure a productive discomfort.
I demand the museum to eclipse banality.
I need the museum to be a place that allows me to rest.
I want a museum in which I don’t walk from void to void, but I rather stumble from present to present.
I want a museum to be a place where time expands, where we can be with time instead of being emptied without.
I want the museum to be a space in which things feel closer together, closer to me and to you and to us.
I need the museum to be corrective to our highly technological culture.
I need a museum where practice and theory is one.
I want the museum to be where space starts to tremble and floors crack open.
I want the museum to be the space where my feet starting to dance so my voice can’t help but sing.
I want the museum to be a place of practiced liberation.
I want a museum to teach a new kind of vanishing point. To offer those who visit not a room of their own, but a space in the world. Because they need to be in the world with others and believing it continuously anew.
Sources include: Hannah Arendt, Doug Ashford, Walter Benjamin, Wendy Brown, Michel Foucault, Jack Halberstam, Grace McCann Morley, Fred Moten, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Ian White.
All videos: Owen Crowley, 2017.