Letter from New York:
It’s possible that you guys first discovered capitalism in a golden tulip, but we Americans really developed it. Our industries invented products that everyone didn’t know they needed; a booming consumer culture built into Europe’s foundations after the war. But this still wasn’t enough. Our bankers began making money from money itself: packaging debt and betting against these deals. And when this wasn’t enough, we destroyed ancient civilizations through war, just to rebuild them into shopping malls for huge profits: still not enough. So finally, our wealthiest elites began to actually eat the American public. In the US we are experiencing a viral attack on everything that should be commonly owned, or not owned at all: our security, care in old age, education, natural resources, democratic government, our very culture. As we lose these things, our society is becoming un-glued, we are turning against each other like wolves. Unfortunately, we have exported this virus back to you, where it first originated. Here in New York, my Dutch friends, we may be living in your future. I’m writing to tell you that things have gotten really ugly on this side of the Atlantic, and we need your help before its too late.
Despite a perception by New Yorkers that we are at the center of the cultural universe, times have been tough for artists here. The glamorous art markets have not saved us, in fact they have enslaved us by our desires, making us so “hungry” that we’re willing to bite each others faces off for opportunities to enter this market which in reality only has a few winners and lots of losers. We had forgotten that as culture workers, we have a constant responsibility to stay vigilant against those who want to position us as jesters in their royal courts. We had fallen asleep. We dreamt that “political art” meant an expression of our favorite politics for a stage, or on a canvas, to be bought and sold and speculated on by the winners of capitalism. Waking up, we realize that there is no such genre as political art. In our times, only the economic structures around our lives are political. By letting the commonwealth of our culture morph into a big pyramid shaped market, by participating in this market, we were actually supporting a nasty political position while we slept.
On September 17th, we finally woke up, came together, and opened up a space for protest and dialog in Zucotti Park. At Occupy Wall Street, we shared democratic tools developed in Egypt, Spain, Greece, and Brazil that would aid in this new culture. Our aim was to re-discover a culture of the commons and it caught on all over the place. Now we are involved in a global movement.
As it turned out, many of us occupiers are also artists. And now we have expanded the zone of protest into the cultural realm. We have begun occupying museums because economic injustice is as pronounced in the culture sphere as it is in the housing market. Museums claim to serve the public. They contain the symbols and narratives and treasures that we are all taught to believe in. But they have been co-opted by the 1% who sit on their boards influencing our culture on one hand while also sitting on the auction house boards and speculating for personal gain on the other. In this way, all the power in the arts is concentrated at the top amid corruption and “insider trading” and this disempowers most artists. So we wrote manifestos and held general assemblies at the gate of the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center. These have been effective. We aim to re-direct art away from the luxury markets and toward the common struggle and vision of the 99%.
I hear troubling rumors across the Atlantic. There are accusations in Holland that artists are sucking up public wealth like subsidized babies. This kind of rhetoric is a red flag for US artists. We know that in reality the wealthiest receive structural corporate welfare and keep their expanding riches offshore and immune from politics. To deflect criticism, they make artists into punching bags, that’s what happened years ago in our “culture wars” of the early 1990’s. I fear that the artists of Europe—especially our friends the Dutch, who have so long enjoyed support from the state that we New Yorkers could only dream of, will lose their autonomy from these hungry markets. The virus that wants to eat break the bonds that holds our society together is now infecting you. If you lose this battle, it will be a major setback for all of us.
But this nightmare need not become our reality. Let’s wake up and fight together!
Let’s not separate our art from this struggle, but use our creativity in the service of it.