“Thank You, Fuck You”: J20/Occupy Museum at the Whitney
Speak Out on Inauguration Day: Artists, writers, and activists affirm their values to resist and reimagine the current political climate, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Friday, January 20, 2016
Proclaiming, gesticulating, cajoling and even flailing, poet Pamela Sneed chanted a litany of fear, strength and tragedy, but ultimately admonished the cheering crowd to act with the words “Always Uprising.” The J20 event at the Whitney Museum, organized by Occupy Museums and Megan Heuer, Director of Public Programs and Public Engagement at the museum, offered a passionate alternative to the morbid events taking place simultaneously on the steps of the capitol on what Noah Fisher of Occupy Museums referred repeatedly to as “this Horrible day.” On a gray morning with intermittent showers, the Whitney became a wide umbrella shielding a vibrant and motley crew of cultural actors and activists in what is becoming an ever widening definition of art and artistic practice including environmentalists, low-income housing activists and community organizers, and advocates for the differently-abled who stood for a few minutes each to speak to the standing-room only crowd in the Hess Family Theater. Some plans were laid, narratives of both betrayal and progress were related, and a forward momentum and the groundwork for action through artistic channels were laid in amorphous but possibly practicable terms.
While the initial intent of J20 was a strike in which all museums would close in a nationwide demonstration of defiance against a bigoted, sexist and anti-intellectual administration taking power, the Whitney offered pay-what-you-wish entry and a venue for what could only really be called a group-therapy session to deal with a surreal transition in American and world politics. The speakers fell into roughly three categories, all co-mingled. The first were speakers who sought to verbalize the collective sense of anxiety and anger and by expressing it artfully, to expiate it and move the crowd briskly along the stops of denial, anger, bargaining, depression to acceptance (and then change). Pamela Sneed fell into this group with her plaintive and desperate petition to the crown not to allow this political set-back to reach catastrophic proportions, while Martha Rosler spoke of struggle to regain mental composure after being “just a little thunderstruck by an orange comet” and Aruna D’Souza plainly stated “everything we fear has already happened.”
A second varietal were activists who presented firm data, often describing successful collective action taken as well as cautionary anecdotes of failures precipitated by the status quo, which will become de rigeur in this new regime. Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People described her ongoing battle to keep Crown Heights and the areas around Prospect Park accessible to low income Brooklynites and maintain a decent standard of living by requiring height restrictions on housing built around the park. She called out the Brooklyn Museum for its real estate entanglements and demanded that all museums be responsive to the need of local communities irrespective of median income. Kim Fraczek of the Sane Energy Project provided the most cringeworthy moment of the event, looking defiantly into the crowd and challenging the Whitney to divest itself of patronage from the fossil fuel industry. She explained the campaign she had participated in raising awareness of the dangerous natural gas pipeline running directly under the museum’s front steps which had been the target of local residents and activists alike. Their requests for dialogue had been flatly rejected by the museum administration. As she stood in the auditorium, listing the museum’s intransigencies, there was a satisfying sense of arrival, ironically caused by the Inauguration.
Avram Finkelstein and Dread Scott, who were among the planners of the event, characterized the third subset of speakers by suggesting ways forward. Scott immediately drew acclamation by walking to the front of the room carrying a poster with the words “BY READING THIS, YOU AGREE TO OVERTHROW DICTATORS”, implying there is no alternative at this point. Reminding those present that Nixon was re-elected by a landslide and still was removed from power within a year-and-a-half of that show of public support, he ended with “don’t wait until 2020.” Finkelstein talked about his own philosophy as a founding member of Silence=Death Collective and the artists’ collective Gran Fury: to avoid goals and instead pursue activism as a life-long occupation. This would prevent the normalization of dangerous, censorious, and exclusionary practices and generate a corps of activists always nimble and prepared to deal with the curve-balls tossed by an unpredictable despot. Leading the chorus of the group Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter who recited the names of police-murdered black women, Simone Lee made a simple but effective request of the crowd—simply start trusting black women.
Martha Rosler’s pronouncement “Thank you Whitney, fuck you Whitney,” were the final words, highlighting the contradictory nature of the presence of museum and artist in the context of activist politics. Many of the speakers decried the presence of patronage from wealthy individuals and corporations in the art world, a contradiction of philosophies for many artists that will be very difficult to change and has been the norm for the production of art objects for millennia. Laura Raicovich, President of the Queens Museum, and Carin Kuoni, Director of the Vera List Center, opening the program of speakers, pledged to support, promote and encourage the increased politicization of art, and the production of political art, but as with the entire political system, it is not the good intentions of galleries and curators in the art world that will effect any lasting change, it is the need to disseminate the ideas beyond the choir that was being preached to in a room on a rainy Friday afternoon at the Whitney Museum. A paradigm shift in the practices of artists and institutions away from capital will be the only way to generate truly collective art and promote a collective society, but even at this dreadful juncture in American history, after all the lessons of the 20th Century, is that what we want either?