Above: the wild and herbaceous art strike in its natural habitat.
The recent call for an Art Strike on January 20, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, leaves me conflicted. I am all for refusing to normalize the Trump administration: the incoming government seems to me to embody far too many of humanity’s worst instincts. As I have written elsewhere, symbolic acts are useful in their limited contexts. But this call, it seems to me, is misguided.
The art world has engaged in symbolic actions before. A Day Without Art, an annual event commemorating the AIDS epidemic, continues in museums and galleries to this day. But I would argue that art that refers to AIDS – I might start with Felix Gonzalez-Torres and David Wojnarowicz and go on from there – is more powerful and long-lasting than any symbolic closure. Institutions are limited by their role as interpreters rather than creators, and the repercussions from wealthy, politically-connected supporters*
, so the strike makes sense to me in that context. But, if the strike is, as the announcement states, “…an occasion for public accountability, an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody” I do not see how closure of entire facilities achieves that effect.
There is little reason to assume that the incoming Trump Administration would care about the shuttering of art schools and museums for a day. I am not hopeful that there will be continued support for the arts from the federal government, even at current levels. The Strike announcement acknowledges that “Those who work at the institutions are divided in multiple and unequal ways, and any action taken must prioritize the voices, needs and concerns of those with the most to lose.” How then does this strike achieve anything toward those ends? It is understandable why most of the signees of this declaration are artists and critics, not museum workers.
It’s a little over a week as of this writing, but institutions have had months to think about the issues involved, and prepare (albeit hastily) displays and programs addressing social and sociopolitical issues. The Whitney Museum is planning a pay-what-you-wish day, with appropriate programming – a far better course of action that closure. The arts have been long seen as bastions of tolerance, and while that reputation is not wholly deserved, there’s nothing to keep aiming for that goal. The strike organizer’s slogan, “Hit The Streets. Bring Your Friends. Fight Back,” while catchy, suggests that this strike will somehow affect the forces of misogyny, fascism, etc., as embodied by the Trump administration. I think those affected will be art lovers who look for safe spaces and inspiration. “Hit Your Friends,” doesn’t work as a slogan or a plan for dissent.
I plan to skip the inaugural and spend the day writing and painting. Making art is a form of rebellion, especially when the powers-that-be imply that art does not matter except in financial terms. To those of you who work in the arts I say: get on stage, open the gallery, start that diptych you’ve been waiting to do. Write that poem, that novel. Make good art#. (The alarmist in me whispers “…while you still can.”)
UPDATE: LA MoCA will be offering free admission on Inauguration Day.
#Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for that phrase.