This is the second post of statements read at the antifascist speakout at the Whitney Museum on January 20, 2017. (For the first post, visit here.) The speakout was intended to inaugurate a new era of resistance made urgent by the concurrent swearing-in of a white nationalist demagogue down in DC.
This week we ask: How are art institutions responding to burgeoning American fascism? Connected to this theme, we publish the #J20 statements of Laura Raicovich of the Queens Museum, Mariam Ghani of the NoMaps network, Carin Kuoni of Vera List Center, Megan Heuer of the Whitney education department, artist Chitra Ganesh, the Guerrilla Girls, and our own (Occupy Museums) recent values statement.
In taking up this question, we note that the very idea of public institutions in the US is currently hanging on a dangerous precipice, and not only because so many public programs, including the National Endowment for the Arts, are now facing existential threats from the president and Congress. There’s now an official open contempt for the very notion of democratic institutions. The largest institution in the country, the federal government, has been occupied by people intent on discrediting the government itself: a process that echoes Hannah Arendt’s sixty-five-year-old reflection on Nazism, Origins of Totalitarianism.
How are cultural institutions both well-equipped and unprepared to resist this destruction of American public institutions and to reclaim vibrant and diverse public spaces that people trust? When the government stokes social, racial, and economic division, what can institutions do to push back with a culture that holds inclusion as a core value?
These are not always straightforward questions for museums to answer. With the American funding system relying on philanthropic support from hedge fund or big pharma partners and the like, aren’t museums tied into the very economic system of inequality which created the opening for proto-fascism to claim power in the first place? Can such museums make effective antifascist allies? We believe it’s important to think about different kinds of roles that institutions can take up.
Included below are statements of value from art institutions ranging widely in scale and mission: from an affinity group to a loose network to public and private mid- and large-scale museums. Behind these statements are processes and campaigns that are very much in motion in the present moment.
I’m Laura Raicovich, director of the Queens Museum.
The Queens Museum is a public museum embedded in a public park, and in two years we will also host a Queens public library within our walls. This nesting of democratic institutions could not be a stronger way to nurture a commons for art, ideas, and participation. We are also embedded, in every way, in one of the most diverse geographies on the planet. With over 165 languages spoken, Queens includes people from the world over, making all of our hyper-local work intrinsically international.
In this very specific context, and in a moment when reality is being expressed in myriad and confounding ways, it is essential to reaffirm our values as a cultural producers, artists, and institutions. To these ends, the Queens Museum has spent the last two months co-drafting a statement of values. Here’s what we have come up with:
The Queens Museum asserts a deep commitment to freedom of expression, and intentionally supports and celebrates difference and multiplicity as fundamental to our collective liberation. We also believe that art can shift the ways in which we experience our world, and therefore art, artists, and cultural institutions have a powerful role to play in society.
Therefore, the Queens Museum:
• advocates for art as a tool for positive social change, critical thinking, discussion and debate, discovery and imagination, and to make visible multiple histories and realities.
• supports and initiate projects and programs that are inspired by actively listening to the needs and aspirations of the communities we serve and consider to be our valued partners.
• works to engender respect for a diversity of cultures, broaden access to ideas and art, and connect the public to opportunities for civic agency; and
• uses our resources—human, financial, environmental, and beyond—to create greater equity, inclusiveness, and sustainability, both within our institution and in the broader society.
Today, I hope you will join us in reaffirming your core values and saying them aloud. The moment calls for it.
Many of us are here because we are afraid of what the next four years will bring. But fear is a weapon of oppression and frankly it is past time for us to shake it off.
We need to chase fear with radical understanding. We need to fight hate with radical love. We need to face bigotry with radical compassion. I say “radical” because we may have to dig down deep to find those reserves of understanding and love and compassion, enough empathy to last us through what comes next. Which is: we can’t stay on “our side” of those tidy little lines that have been drawn to divide this country up in parts and parties. We can’t talk only to people who agree with us. We can’t stay safe in our coastal cities. We need to make these kinds of conversations possible in places where they aren’t yet happening—and we need a framework of support for conversations like these in places where they might pose real threats to the status quo. In short, we need to make art dangerous again.
So I’m working on this with a big group of people, some from this museum, others in this room—and what we’re trying to do is build a national network of museums and other arts and cultural institutions interested in expanding or reimagining their roles as part of the public sphere. This new network—we haven’t figured out a name yet, but it might be a platform, or a co-op, or a coalition—would be a tool for sharing information and programs across geographical divides, an agent of resistance and change within institutions, and a system for developing and supporting inclusive programs that create spaces for protected civic discourse, dissent, and solidarity. It would also be a network of networks, linking institutions to community, civic, activist, academic, artist-initiated, and other groups interested in engaging critically with the possibilities and limits of the public space provided by art institutions. If you are interested in joining, collaborating, helping organize or think through this, please get in touch.
The last thing I want to say to you is that people talk about art as an empathy-generating machine, casually, like empathy is an easy and uncomplicated thing. But as Bakhtin so perfectly described, empathy is actually a continuum stretched between two terrible extremes. On one end of the continuum, I’m here and you’re there, and I decide we’re so different that it’s like I’ve built a giant wall between us, so high and fortified I can’t even see you. Or, if I don’t have the money to build a giant wall, it’s like you’re invisible to me—like your voice, your humanity, your personhood, your very existence have been erased. That’s what a total lack of empathy looks like, and it’s a kind of violence. On the other end of the continuum, I see you over there, and I think you’re just like me, your struggle is my struggle, and I not only take up your fight as my own, but I take over your story and tell it for you. That’s what empathetic over-identification looks like, and that’s also a kind of violence. Somewhere in the middle is empathetic understanding, the radical balancing point where I recognize you, I hear you, and I extend myself towards you; I take in what you say without taking over your position; I recognize both what may be the same about us and what remains different.
Another word for this empathetic balancing point is solidarity. So let’s try to be precise, in these days and months and years to come, about what art can generate. Let’s think about art as a space for building solidarity. And let’s also be precise about what it means to be in solidarity with each other—not that we forget our differences, but that we build on them instead of letting them drive us apart.
I am Carin Kuoni, director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, a public research platform at The New School that investigates where, how, and to what effect political and aesthetic practices intersect. At least that is what we’ve done up to now.
My profound thanks to the organizers of this speakout. Now, I’ll provide a couple of thoughts on entitlement and why the core value driving my work is Inclusiveness.
Once before, in the days after 9/11, New York City came together around ideals of diversity, openness, and community—three terms that fall under the rubric of Inclusiveness. Most New Yorkers at that time refused to succumb to fearmongering advocated by some politicians. As an immigrant, who had arrived in New York City fifteen years prior, it was then, for the first time, that I too felt entitled to join a political movement: the city had become my own because the very idea of inclusiveness was at stake. Action was called for to try to implement the notion that ethical standards are not an abstraction, they are a reality both intimate and structural. A couple of years later, I became a citizen.
This feeling of entitlement, this sense that I have not only the right but the obligation to participate, the demand for immediate yet nuanced action, is now back, in the face of insidious, perverse, violent, and relentless attacks on what I care about most—inclusiveness. Only this time, the threat comes from within.
But how does one nurture, practice, and sustain Inclusiveness?
So far, at the Vera List Center, we’ve considered the intersection of art and politics, and inclusiveness is pursued through strategies shared by many of you as well: free admission; public convenings that are accessible in actual space and online; new modules of collective and shared learning; interdisciplinary approaches in order to dismantle hierarchies of knowledge and expertise; cheap publications; learning libraries; child care, and more.
So, what is changing with a Trump presidency?
The imminent assault on our civil liberties is of such magnitude that these strategies no longer seem sufficient. And I believe that if I want to remain effective and advance inclusiveness, I need to turn to art and declare art itself a political practice.
Not because we can afford to turn our backs on traditional political structures; we need to be present there as well. But if we declare our artworks, our exhibitions, our critical discourse a political practice, we can meet the challenges of this incoming administration—and post-democracy in general—much more effectively because inclusiveness will be implemented along a multitude of criteria:
If we declare art a political practice, we can operate along different timeframes simultaneously, pursuing immediate impact as well as long-term nurturing, such as education.
If we declare art a political practice, we can spell out goals at different scales, from super-localized to global, and define distinct yet aligned sets of deliverables.
If we focus on the formal qualities of art as well as its literal, material foundations, we can explore entirely new orders of an inclusive political practice that can reach beyond the human.
Defined as political projects, our artworks become the enactment of a new politics of inclusiveness. For the next two years, at the Vera List Center, we will dedicate ourselves to Art As Politics. This is my pledge for upholding the value of inclusiveness.
The Whitney decided to participate in the J20 art strike by remaining open today and offering special programming as an affirmation of our commitment to open dialogue, civic engagement, and the diversity of American art and culture. The importance of art and artists in those pursuits was affirmed by the Whitney’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney when she said, “It is so much simpler to let others think for us than to think for ourselves.” She believed that art helps us to do that thinking. We are grateful to Occupy Museums for organizing this speakout and for helping to bring conversations about what this new era in the United States means for art, for artists, and for museums like the Whitney.
For my three minutes today, I’m going to talk about the values of the Whitney’s education department, which is the context in which I do my work as the director of public programs and public engagement.
The first value is one that permeates the whole museum: the Whitney is an artist’s museum. What that means to us is that artists are deeply involved in shaping all aspects of what the Whitney does. Educators work to ensure that the Whitney is and continues to be a gathering place for both established and emerging artists and a supportive space for artists.
For visitors, programs and resources developed by and with artists offer compelling alternatives to conventional ways of thinking and making sense of the world. By working collaboratively with artists, the Whitney’s educational programs underscore the value of creativity and critical thinking. They also foster a deeper appreciation and understanding of what artists do and the important role they play in our culture.
The second value is that artworks are material singularities. They offer alternative experiences that encourage us to slow down, to pay attention, to reflect. The Whitney’s education department strives to make the museum an environment that fosters close looking, sustained attention, and direct experiences with art.
Third: we value critical thinking about art. We seek to create a space where visitors can learn, question, and make sense of the artworks on view, fostering open-ended thinking and acknowledging that there are no easy answers. Instead of the traditional emphasis on the transmission of ideas from expert to public in one direction, or simple art appreciation, the Whitney strives to make the museum interactive and to emphasize the viewer’s role in creating a work of art’s meaning. We are committed to exploring new approaches and to developing interdisciplinary, multidimensional programs and materials.
Who are we doing this for? At the Whitney we are committed to making art a right, not a privilege. Art plays a transformative role in society. By helping to build and broaden cultural participation, an art museum like the Whitney can have a powerful role in sustaining and advancing a democratic society. We believe that access to art should be a right, not a privilege.
A great museum is much more than a collection of objects. The educator and museum scholar George Hein writes, “Museums were founded as educational institutions. One way or another, museums inevitably interpret their collections for visitors. To assume they aren’t educational institutions is to shirk their basic responsibility. A museum is only a warehouse, an archive, or a storage place for objects if it doesn’t welcome visitors and, in some form, attempt to educate them.”
I’m happy to be here in solidarity today, as we collectively march forward into uncertain times.
Much of what I say, probably even the precise language I use, echoes what has already been said today. And this is a very good thing—for we need to amplify our voices and our beliefs, in every way possible, over the next four years, at least. Many of the aggressions we experience today, including the racism, the homophobia, misogyny, anti-Muslim violence, and more, are finally coming to the fore in a broader sphere. All of these also exist right here, within our sacrosanct spaces of art.
What has emerged from this polarized climate are increasingly claustrophobic ideas of what it means to be American—who gets seen and legitimized as American, which bodies are rendered illegible, which ideas are legitimately national, as well as the countless numbers of people threatened by both physical and discursive erasure.
Presumably, many of us came to this art space precisely for art’s potential to offer complex, layered, and nuanced perspectives that this reality couldn’t hold or take, precisely for those possibilities that lie within this sphere, to complicate and broaden categories that inflect the scope of contemporary art, such as “American,” “woman,” and “modernism.” Part of our work here within this and similar institutions is to deeply introspect and reflect on the spaces we ourselves inhabit and help to produce every day. In other words, I am saying that, rather than seeing the current political climate as an external threat, we all have to take responsibility for the ways that this climate resonates with aspects of the art world in which we all participate. The events transpiring around us bring to light the predicament of ongoing exclusions and erasures in the art world itself, which some of the people in this room have experienced for years.
Most of you, I’m sure, were also addicted the roller coaster of the spectacle that preceded this day, which had me on the edge of my seat. I watched and read a lot more news than I normally would have. I was really struck by one moment in all of this, the speech that Khizr Khan, Humayun Khan’s father, made during the Democratic National Convention. Humayun Khan was in the American army and was deployed as a captain during the Iraq War. He was killed on the battlefield in 2004 at the age of twenty-eight. The spectacle of Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC really stopped me in my tracks because this was the first time I had seen on national television a person of South Asian descent acknowledged as a citizen, as brave and heroic, as someone who had contributed to American history. Not as crosscultural exchange, a byproduct of the melting pot, or a foreigner, but as a subject who built upon what we have, participated in, and acted on behalf of this nation.
(Author postscript: Something I didn’t elaborate on in my talk earlier were the equally troubling conditions of Humayun Khan’s visibility. Not only was the first mainstream presence of a South Asian subject embedded within a militarized context, but it raises another question, that of why the acknowledgment of Humayun Khan himself, a fallen soldier and war hero, could only be legible under such extreme circumstances as a patriotic death for this nation. Does this ultimately send a message that the best American Muslim is one who has given his life for the American imperial machine?)
I thought a lot about Khizr Khan’s speech and wondered, could the DNC possibly be ahead of the art world in the way that it rendered South Asian subjects legible, even if we disagree with the terms of that legibility? For a long time some of us have been having these conversations amongst ourselves. And now we find ourselves in a moment of emergency, and so I want to share in conversation with you.
One of the things we have been discussing is, what gets constituted as American and how does art contribute to this? Born and raised in New York City, I’ve been coming to the Whitney since I was a kid. I love the Whitney; I have had an ongoing relationship with the Whitney for decades now, and know it to be a place where the idea of what is American is constantly being interrogated. I was really excited about “America is Hard to See,” the inaugural show of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, the first exhibition after the museum’s massive renovation and relocation.
I was curious about what “America is Hard to See” as a title would offer or suggest in terms of the content of the works in the show. There were 406. Of those participating artists, only about twenty of them were of Asian descent. Of those artists, there were two, maybe three artists from the South Asian region—that is, if you actually opened up the idea of South Asia to include countries such as Iran.
This makes me consider the nature of the work we have in front of us, and the nature of the conditions that many of us have been experiencing for years, if not decades now, before this presidency rolled along. It’s great that we are raising money for Planned Parenthood, I am really happy to be going to the civic meetings in my own neighborhood, and it is crucial that we continue doing the local work and fundraising for causes and positions that are currently under threat.
At the same time, a lot of the work has to be done right here. Because it is not about “us,” in the art world, and “them,” everyone else. Rather, this space is a microcosm of that space, and it’s all of us. It means more that just adding more brown bodies to the next show, the next speakers series, or to an institution’s executive staff. It also means expanding our understanding of the movements, theoretical positions, and aesthetic frameworks that govern our evaluation of what constitutes meaningful, long-lasting interventions within the contemporary art field. This includes undoing binaries of theory/practice, figuration/abstraction, and conceptual/decorative.
This moment presents not only a call to resist at every turn, but also an opportunity for introspection, and examining how fundamental questions around art and art history in the United States have both reflected and contributed to the place where we find ourselves today. As such, I look forward to being in conversation with you over the next few years, and to seeing the world, with our eyes open, together, as painful as that may be.
(Please read this as if you were a fortune teller in a NYC storefront that hasn’t yet been replaced by an art gallery.)
THE GUERRILLA GIRLS DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK IS GONNA HAPPEN WITH TRUMP, SO WE WENT TO A FORTUNE TELLER AND SHE SAID: HONIES, THE ART WORLD IS ALREADY TRUMPIAN TO ITS CORE. HERE IS WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS:
MUSEUMS WILL CONVERT THEIR WHITE WALLS TO GOLD LEAF, AND HOST BEAUTY PAGEANTS.
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS, GAS COMPANY EXECS, AND TRUMP ADVISORS WILL BE WELCOMED ON MUSEUM BOARDS, EVEN THOUGH PEOPLE LIKE YOU HAVE SPENT YEARS TRYING TO GET THEM KICKED OFF.
LOWER TAXES FOR BILLIONAIRES WILL MAKE IT EASY FOR THEM TO SPEND EVEN MORE MONEY ON THEIR COOKIE-CUTTER COLLECTIONS OF THE SAME TEN SUPERSTAR ARTISTS — WHO ARE MOSTLY CIS WHITE MEN. BIGWIG GALLERIES WILL BECOME EVEN BOLDER WITH THEIR TAX EVASION SCHEMES.
ART COLLECTORS ON MUSEUM BOARDS WILL NEVER GO TO JAIL FOR INSIDER TRADING OR CONFLICTS OF INTEREST. OH WAIT, GIRLS, DID THEY EVER?
ART COLLECTORS WHO SECRETLY SUPPORT TRUMP’S MUSLIM BAN WILL PRETEND TOLERANCE FOR ISLAM BY GOING TO ART FAIRS IN DUBAI AND QATAR.
ART SCHOOLS WILL FINALLY ADMIT THAT ONLY RICH KIDS CAN AFFORD THEM, AND WILL ADD FINANCE TO THE CURRICULUM. MFAs WILL BECOME MFAIs—MASTER’S OF FINE ART INVESTING.
INTERNS PAID FOR THEIR WORK? A LIVING WAGE FOR MUSEUM AND GALLERY EMPLOYEES? FUGGEDABOUTIT!!!
CURATORS WILL STOP DOING SHOWS OF PROVOCATIVE WORK BY DIVERSE ARTISTS, AND GET BACK TO WHAT BRINGS IN THOSE BIG, WHITE CROWDS: VAN GOGH, PICASSO, AND MATISSE!
WAIT, HONIES, I’M GETTING A MESSAGE ABOUT THE FUTURE FOR ACTIVISTS LIKE YOU: DON’T LET ART BE REDUCED TO THE SMALL NUMBER OF ARTISTS WHO HAVE WON A POPULARITY CONTEST AMONG BIG-TIME DEALERS, CURATORS, AND COLLECTORS. IF MUSEUMS DON’T SHOW ART AS DIVERSE AS THE CULTURES THEY CLAIM TO REPRESENT, TELL THEM THEY’RE NOT SHOWING THE HISTORY OF ART, THEY ARE JUST PRESERVING THE HISTORY OF WEALTH AND POWER.
January 20 is not a day for business as usual. It is a day of reckoning: a day when we must step back stand together and acknowledge how far we have fallen from the values that we supposedly uphold as individuals, communities, and institutions. At the same time, however, we must recognize that this occasion is exactly business as usual in the United States of America. It would be naive to suggest that the advent of fascism is representative of one man or one woman or one administration. This moment has finally landed following decades of Reaganomics. It landed after centuries of living in a house with a flawed foundation built on slavery, stolen labor, and bloodshed; maintained through the normalization of systemic injustice. It has landed as the full legitimization of cultural homogenization, techno-militarism, and life inside the atomized logic of corporatism. It has landed after the sequestering of money and political agency into fewer and fewer hands. We have become a country of red and blue: a separatist mentality that replays “the people” as demographics, driving wedges between “races,” classes, regions, genders, education levels, and worldviews.
Our values—values fought for tirelessly over the generations, values that we believe to be sacred—have proven to be as fragile as they are precious.
Facing this reality, we bear much responsibility and seize this moment of national coming-into-consciousness as an opportunity. Occupy Museums calls on our communities—in this case artists, cultural practitioners, and institutions—to directly name and confront this truth: we are living in a fascist state. Fascist propaganda exacerbates the racism and misogyny embedded in our culture for cynical political ends; it is the enemy of art. This can be seen from the new administration’s plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts—a last vestige of truly public support of the arts. Their vision of art is reduced to luxury trappings for oligarchs. Although the same financial sphere that has largely brought us to the current precipice stands behind US museums as their primary means of support, this doesn’t devalue their potency as public spaces and repositories of collective mythologies. Their civic function depends not on philanthropy but on struggle. Museums require artists, activists, and global citizens to challenge them, demanding that they hold true to their missions to serve the public, not just the 1%. That is why on #J20 we invite our communities to join us inside the museum, which we demand function as public space, to declare our common values, to make undeniable our demands, and to render our truths unmediated and unavailable for contortion, interpretation, or abstraction. Then we head out into the streets.
Occupy Museums reflects on the values behind our mission and in solidarity with all arts workers commits to continuing the struggle for the following:
Racism and xenophobia are real and alive today. Misogyny and homophobia are real and alive today. White nationalism is growing in political, economic, and symbolic power. We value cultural institutions who are able to name the severity of this political zeitgeist and join the fight for dismantling white supremacy. We declare that one cannot be neutral on a fascist train. We commit to joining in efforts to organize an antifascist resistance.
Arts within neoliberal economies have long been stripped of social organizing force and community accountability. We have witnessed a transparent bid to transform art into an asset class for private speculation, upending its political autonomy; art has become a tool of propaganda. As this incoming administration dramatically reduces or eliminates public funding for the arts, museums will be relying solely on compromised private funding. We uphold the value of art and cultural production independent from financial and political coercion, free from appropriation and exploitation.
We reject a culture that ignores or celebrates US war and imperialism. We reject a culture that fetishizes, essentializes, and flattens the layers of our shared reality. Such a culture reflects a shallow politics where sycophantic hype replaces public discourse. We value art that is authentic, layered, diverse, and unafraid of delving into the complexity of our shared experiences. We commit to a struggle against the reign of hegemonic power brokers in the arts and in support of a more committed art and discourse. Museums must move toward greater social justice to be relevant.
Since their inception centuries ago, the collections of art museums have consisted of objects stolen from indigenous and oppressed peoples whose cultures were appropriated and/or decimated to reify whiteness. Even though museums partially embody the democratization of art, they are also sites embedded with white supremacy and patriarchy. We will not separate our appreciation of museums from the ongoing need to shift the power that is codified into this mode of cultural representation. We commit to the ongoing struggle for increased presence of black and brown people, immigrants, and women in museum administrations, collections, events, and viewership, and in the return of stolen cultural heritage and objects.
White nationalist populism thrives from the perceived (and often real) elitism and exclusivity of the “art world.” Yet it is a right for every human being to partake in and benefit from the cultural wealth and heritage composed from our collective history, regardless of economic or social status. We believe that access to cultural institutions should always be free and we commit to a long struggle to take back institutions from the exclusivity of philanthropy and high-ticket-price corporate models.
Economic precarity stemming from the devaluation of labor and increased corporate profits from extractive debts drives a wedge between members of our society, pitting us against each other in ruthless competition. We look to democracies across the globe who affirm the right to a living wage and even a basic income and call on our nation’s cultural institutions to pay all employees, contractors, and exhibiting artists a living wage for their labor.
The transformation of public spaces and our neighborhoods and homes into speculative instruments increases the already dire state of class anxiety. The economic precarity suffered by artists puts them at risk of being both affected by and a catalyst in the gentrification of poor neighborhoods. Cultural institutions play a major role in gentrification that must be addressed; it is imperative that institutions use their cultural and financial capital to support their communities of arts workers and their local publics rather than enable gentrification by participating in development schemes.
Intellectualism and cultural experiment are considered as dangerous and unpatriotic to fascists. Nazi poet laureate Hanns Johst famously wrote: “Let’em keep their good distance with their whole ideological kettle of fish … I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word culture … I release the safety on my Browning!” Our cultural institutions must fortify themselves against the coming onslaught by deepening and declaring their commitment to and support of artists, critical discourse, freedom of expression, and their immediate communities. We call on all museums and cultural institutions to stand in solidarity with the artists, art critics, art workers, and public who will not stand by in silence as power is handed over to fascists. Cultural institutions can begin (as some have already begun) by collectively reassessing their institutions’ statements of ethics, making amendments, addenda, and revisions that specifically address the institution’s role and responsibility to treat its workers fairly, to protect them from state repression when threatened, and to support the creation of bold and progressive works of art.
All videos: Owen Crowley, 2017.