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The Occupy Art World Problem

by Brian Sherwin on 10/21/2011 12:30:02 AM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

As mentioned in a previous FineArtViews article -- there has been a burst in art focused Occupy Wall Street inspired initiatives in the last month. Having observed various groups -- ranging from the hard-line rhetoric of Occupy Art World to the more art world friendly Occupy With Art -- it is clear to me that thousands of visual artists and art admirers want to see some form of change within the 'worlds' of art schools, art museums and the high profile aspects of the art world itself. However, at times I'm also left asking -- what are art-focused Occupy movement supporters fighting for exactly? After all, 1% influence infiltrates every corner of the mainstream art world. That 'world' -- at least in its current state -- relies on the 1%. I'm certain the answer is complex -- and I've noticed that contradictions appear to rule the day.


Before delving deeper into some of the problems I've observed with art-focused Occupy supporters I think it is important to mention some of the common ideas that have surfaced among these groups. I can relate to some of the ideas and art world criticism that has spread virally online in the last month -- specifically in regard to public funded museums that exhibit art.


For several years now I have been championing some of the very concepts that art-focused Occupy movement supporters have been vocal about. For example, I do think there needs to be some form of reform or government supported cultural initiative that offers more public power in regard to art that is exhibited and acquired by art museums that receive public funding. I think our museums need to focus more on discovering, documenting and preserving current regional directions in art instead of grand-standing the same big names over and over again. Based on the standard mission of art museums in general you would think they would already be doing that. Needless to say, I can relate to some of what the art-focused Occupy movement supporters/protesters have been saying in the last month.


In addition to the above, it concerns me when corporations, banks and wealthy art collectors -- with their art investments in mind -- appear to have more than their fair share of pull over the direction of our public museums -- and thus a huge chunk of our culture. It concerns me when museums choose directors who are deeply embedded within the art market -- former art dealers and so on -- because there is simply too much room for a conflict of interest to occur. One could say that professional conflicts of that nature rob us of our culture. After all, in that scenario the 'professional' decisions and 'curatorial choices' of the museum director could be nothing more than further pandering of past clientele. Some art-focused Occupy supporters have mentioned the same concerns -- and I'm in full agreement with them.


Another concept that has been spurred by art-focused Occupy supporters is the idea that museum exhibited art that defines who we are as a people and a country should not be based solely on how well said art has done within the global art market. Sadly, market viability -- specifically in a NYC context -- often does appear to be a major factor in what is acquired and exhibited by public funded art museums nationwide -- which potentially goes back to some of the conflict problems I mentioned earlier. I've been tackling these problems for years -- and have been scoffed at for it in some circles. Point blank -- I don't think the art history of tomorrow should be written with dollar signs today... and with this recent burst of art-focused Occupy initiatives it appears that others agree with me.


Obviously I agree with some of the positions held by art-focused Occupy movement supporters. However, there is a glaring problem that these supporters will have to face at some point. It is a problem nested in the thorns of contradiction -- a problem that is deeply rooted within the mainstream art world itself.  I warn you in advance that the following opinions are rather extreme. They are meant to serve as food for thought as to whether art-focused Occupy supporters will have an impact on the mainstream art world or not.


The problem is that the mainstream art world, as in the world of high profile art galleries, and other major art world players that have what one could describe as a parasitic relationship to them -- such as the big name art magazines -- are clearly influenced by art collectors who fall within the 1%. Those movers and shakers are the ones spending top dollar on art -- which in turn directs the art that dealers are apt to promote and exhibit -- which in turn becomes the art reviewed by art critics who write for the big name art magazines -- and in time, the art that is apt to end up in museums. It is a cycle that involves big money -- and therefore all the influence that money can buy. One could suggest that the mainstream art world as we know it can't function without the money and influence of the 1%. One could take it a step further and suggest that the 1% created the mainstream art world as we know it -- it is their playground... and in that sense we are just observers who are subjected to the outcome of their buying whims.


This is a problem for some art-focused Occupy supporters because many of them don't have issue with the 1% in that regard -- they want them to be active in the art market. They want the potential of earning money from the 1% all while calling the 1% greedy or worse. The irony of this acceptance being that said activity, as mentioned earlier, plays a major role in shaping the direction of art within the United States and abroad -- which again goes back to the influence wealthy collectors have on the art that ends up being coveted by mainstream art publications, other forms of major media and museums -- all telling us that said art is 'great'. It is a form of cultural manipulation -- big money, and the result of those transactions, telling us what we should like and why.


In a sense, the art purchased by wealthy collectors becomes the art that defines us because of the influence of big money and the cycle I mentioned earlier -- thus, monetary value often appears to outweigh artistic and cultural merit. An artist outside of that 'system' is at a severe disadvantage. In other words, a work of art stands little chance of being acknowledged by the powers that be -- the 1% movers and shakers of the mainstream art world -- if it does not have a track record of earning huge profit. Point blank -- some art-focused Occupy supporters challenge this 'system' while accepting it at the same time... which to me is more than a tad confusing -- it takes away from their argument.


In fact, some art-focused Occupy supporters have stated that said 'support' is the "only thing the 1% is good for.". What does this mean? Simple -- contradiction city. This is the way I see it... if you are going to argue that the 1% has hijacked the economy and thus aspects of culture you also have to accept that the 1% has hijacked the direction of art -- and therefore a significant chunk of our collective art culture. I see influential people talking the talk -- waving the banner of Occupy for art -- but I really don't think the majority within the professional core of the art world -- the land of wealthy gallery owners, museum directors and big time artists -- want to walk the walk. Oddly enough, I can say the same for many of the artists who are championing the "99% of the art world " -- which goes back to my question... what exactly are they fighting for? Why call out the perceived negative influence that the 1% has had on manipulating art culture with big money while at the same time saying that said influence is needed? It does not add up.


Face it -- most of the artists that are really well known today... especially those who are household names throughout the United States -- are so because of 1% influence. What direction would art have taken had Peggy Guggenheim not championed specific artists throughout her life -- support that increased her own wealth based on investing in art? One could suggest that the Guggenheim's cultivated a standard direction for art museums -- all while increasing the value of their private art collections. Would artwork by Andy Warhol be as coveted as it has been for decades had wealthy collectors not flocked to it? Would Damien Hirst be one of the wealthiest living artists in the world today had Charles Saatchi not power-played the market for his art throughout his career? That is food for thought -- if you think about it... the influence of big money is rooted throughout art history as we know it. The wealthy defining the mainstream direction of art is nothing new.


Now if the 1% are greedy, manipulative bastards -- and artists are to make a stand in favor of "99% empowerment in art"... shouldn't that mean that art-focused Occupy supporters should be wary of the artists the 1% has propelled to star status over the years? Shouldn't those supporters rethink how art history has been documented and preserved -- is it really 'our' art history? Has big money hijacked the direction of art? Has it always? Who would the big names in art be if the mainstream art world was not so wrapped up in market power-plays and investment? What would happen if government spurred initiatives helped to further support artists outside of the mainstream art market -- based on citizen criticism instead of art critics -- and other professionals -- who have gallery ad sales to worry about? Again, this is all food for thought -- and I for one think that it is something that all art-focused Occupy supporters should explore for themselves in order to know exactly what they are railing against in regard to the 1%.


We have seen how influential wealthy collectors -- as well as corporate art collections -- can influence museum exhibits and so on. We know that in some cases artists are elevated by a handful of people who want to cash in on their investment. We know that an artist is not likely to be written about in the top art magazines unless someone has dropped major cash on his or her artwork at a gallery that is known for huge profit. After all, I don't see many of the big name art critics discovering -- and writing about -- artists beyond the mainstream art market itself. Are those critics -- or at least their employers -- under 1% influence? It gets messy quick -- and you can point fingers all day. Again, questions like this make me wonder how exactly art-focused Occupy supporters can change the direction of art in the United States and abroad.


The reality is that nothing spurs art press and the mainstream art world itself like big money purchases -- or an art collector like Charles Saatchi breaking wind in excitement over his newest investment. Should art-focused Occupy supporters be calling all of that into question? Should the "99% of the art world" boycott those galleries, those art magazines and so? What exactly does the spirit of change fueled by Occupy mean for the mainstream art world? A 'world' that has long walked hand-in-hand with the 1%? I have a feeling that in the end we will see more of the same unless art-focused Occupy supporters grow in number and take a hard-line stance by avoiding key aspects of the perceived influence/manipulation that the 1% has had on the direction of art.


Honestly, if some art-focused Occupy supporters feel that the 1% is "OK for the art world" depending on the context... If Wall Street power players should be viewed as evil by day and as wonderful supporters of art by night -- and thus tolerated -- what exactly are artists who support art-focused Occupy Wall Street causes fighting for? Again, it is just a tad confusing.


As I hope I've made clear -- the mainstream art world walks hand-in-hand with the 1%... and many of the artists coveted by the big name art world, if you will, likely fall within the 1% themselves. If the 99% of the art world wants to claim their stake... redirect -- or dare I say, reclaim -- the direction of art culture, doesn't that mean that said Occupy driven artists and other supporters would have to take action by boycotting the 1% driven aspects of the mainstream art world at this time? For example, stop attending big name art exhibits... stop buying prints and other merchandise involving artists who have connections to anyone who facilitates 1% influence in the world of art. Show that there is no public interest or support in what the 1% influenced art magazines, museums and so on are pitching to the public at large.


In my opinion, that is the only way that some of these art-focused Occupy supporters will make a dent in the 'system' they have criticized. Anything else would be like criticizing a 'system' while at the same time accepting the 'system' for what it is... which gets the "99% of the art world" nowhere -- all words and no bite. In a sense, the acceptance of 1% influence reduces the spirited 'voice' of art-focused Occupy supporters to complaints that have no real substance -- complaints that are 'drowned' in contradictions and hypocrisy. Cultural revolutions are not 'won' by being obedient to the very things one is critical of.


In closing, I want to know what YOU think about all of this. If you happen to be an art-focused Occupy movement supporter tell me what your demands of the art world would be. Do you want the 'landscape' of the art world to change drastically? If so -- what is the vision of the art world that you desire? How does the "99% of the art world" claim their chunk of the 1% driven mainstream art world without inadvertently becoming obedient once again to 1% investment dictations -- thus continuing another wealth driven cycle that erases the "99% of the art world" from the pages of art history? Let me know your thoughts.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Related Posts:

Occupy Wall Street: Should the Art World be Occupied?

FineArtViews Interview: James Panero -- Art Critic and Managing Editor for The New Criterion

Art & Prejudice: Dealing with Sexism, Racism, and Ageism in the Art World

Social Media and Art -- What can Facebook tell us about Art and Public Opinion?

FineArtViews Interview: Mat Gleason -- Art Critic and Founder of Coagula Art Journal

Topics: art collectors | art criticism | art history | art marketing | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | Think Tank 

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Dick Shook
We had a couple of cats move onto our property. A male and a female. They had kittens. They were cute. But they cried a lot. As they grew up, my wife pointed out that the kitten's father taught them to hunt, while their mother taught them to whine. It became apparent that the two of the most important desires of a cat are: to be warm and not to be hungry. They have a preference for being fed, rather than for hunting. I suppose because it is a regular thing and they can organize their day more easily for napping.

Even though they have been fed, they don't want to be touched. So, they also like their freedom and don't want to be beholding to someone just because they feed them. In the end (and before winter) we have captured them and sent them off to the animal shelter. Mom and dad are also gone. It was a mildly hard thing to do, but necessary.

The Occupy movement doesn't have to have a message, but what is being said is "we're hungry and we want to be warm" and perhaps "we're not very good at hunting." Or, "feed us so we can take a nap."

I have been a designer of luxury homes for a while. The economics of that occupation have become more limited with greater competition, so finding work is obviously more difficult.

At times I am very dependent. I don't like it and I've spent a lot of time and risk to remodel my occupation. Among other things I've traded my art work for dental work, got more involved in my community, and otherwise have tried to put myself in a position to be responsive to the requirements of the marketplace.

The truth is that some are very good at building wealth, others not so much. The difference can lead to envy and cause enmity between and among the have's and the have's not alike. As a society we have created a culture that produces superficiality as a matter of simple economics.

Everyone naturally wants to be more comfortable with less work, but we have become fat and are in danger of losing joy and respect in our living.

In many ways, the occupy movement is subject to the same basic business motivations they oppose, and as a body, are in danger of being used; of becoming a means to somebody else's superficial ends. That's what business does, it supplies what is lacking, establishes structure, and creates a system of production and consumption, creating both products and demand.

Our cats are basically stupid. They will fall into the same trap over and over again. Not only the occupiers, the businesses, too. Everybody will do the same things over and over again because that is what they know.

I trapped a couple of our cats several times just because I didn't want them to have to sit in a small cage until the animal control people could pick them up. All I have to do is put food in the cage. The cats will get hungry and come and eat it every time.

To be human is to be creative. Our current economic environment requires creativity. The only way to get through it is to put that to work for yourself, to figure it out and get going. Otherwise, you're just another animal waiting to be trapped.

Barney Davey
Those who are against the Occupy Wall Street can conjure up any rationalization for why it is a bad idea.

It's a free country. They can even use ludicrous and insulting analogies to compare folks who can't find a job to a stupid hungry cat. Try using that cat logic on the thousands who show up when a new store opens and only a few hundred get hired. They will tell you to eat something, surely not cat food.

There is a palpable fundamental sense of loss of hope going on in our society. The economy is broken and has been for years. We propped it up with a phony housing bubble as Wall Street and Enron types cooked the books and finagled the trading to their advantage, and to the disadvantage of every one else. Before that, we propped the previous bubble with the dotbomb stock explosion.

In more than 60 years until now, I've never known what it was like to not have nearly everyone around me with the belief things were going to get better for them, and even better for their kids. I have never known what it was like to live in a nice neighborhood and know that 20-30 percent of my neighbors were in foreclosure, or on its doorstep. I have never seen so many displaced professionals working for jobs well below their education and training. That's if they can find work at all. This grim outlook is not some isolated view; it is how it is for more and more people everyday, and thus Occupy Wall Street.

When you add the unrest of those who never got in the life boat before it sprang leaks, the ranks start to swell. Put all these disenfranchised folks together and you got yourself a growing movement. A movement that will only get stronger as more people are thrown under the bus financially. They have no where else to turn. There is certainly no sympathy or understanding shown here, for example.

Here is a dose of reality. Most visual artists, including most FASO artists, aren't ever going to be patronized by the 1 percent. That means they need to make a living from working folks. As those in middle class feel more threatened, the less likely they are to buy art. Defending the tax rates of the 1 percent at this time sounds like the Reaganomic trickle down theory, which comedian, Dick Gregory, more aptly described as the piss on you theory.

Taking care of the 1 percent is not the answer. They can pay more taxes and still buy art. This is a problem without a party. Anyone who clings to labels and takes acrimonious sides in an argument is just another problem enabler, instead of solution enabler.

You can construct all the arguments you want about why the Occupy movement is wrong. However, until the growing passion of the masses starts to see some positive changes, I predict it will grow to become a powerful that threatens those that ignore it.

Dick, I think you miss the point of the Occupy movement. We are already "trapped". We already have to jump hoops for the 1 percent. Things that should belong to all of us have become a playground for the rich.

The art protests are a unique situation because the art we know is driven by wealth. Would you know who Warhol is if his work did not go for millions at auction?

I think what Brian is saying is that if the little guys in art want a foothold in art they must take back the centers of art that we, the 99 percent, help fund. We can't protest while supporting the wealthy playground we question.

Dick Shook
I don't disagree about being trapped. The reality is that whatever systemic issues could be potentially modified by a peasant revolt, the wealth mentality is to find the means of leveraging resources, and relationships, to secure and control and create wealth. Generally, that is for security and longevity. "Owning" something.

Those who have wealth will organize as well. Interestingly when they do, it is with a certain amount of caution about the other guys. But certainly, the wealthy have an agenda and they have power to address their agendas. And of course, their resources give them holding power.

Everyone creates and shapes their world. It's just a matter of what is important to them. If wealth is important to you, then you seek it. If creativity is important to you then you create.

We already have a foothold in art. Images and creative expressions abound, and as a result they are cheap. Beauty is cheap. Irony is cheap. Sensuality is cheap. Art is a mirror you hold up to yourself and you see what you want to see and it's cheap. Take back the center of art and it'll be a cheap center of art run by people who have no center in themselves.

No, I don't like the status quo, but I also believe that the alternative is really just more of the same only more destructive.

For human beings the essence of being trapped is an illusion. The cats can't help it. Certainly we can. The occupy movement is an effort, but it still amounts to whining. "We're hungry. We're tired. We're poor." They could also be saying, "You're mean. You're selfish. You're rich." It's just two sides of the same coin.

What will happen, and what has already begun to happen, is that those who have wealth, or power and wealth, or just power, will begin to leverage the movement to build coalitions with the intention that the coalitions become a structured base. Building the base is an investment, the investment is part of a creative endeavor in possible outcomes.

I never liked Warhol, doesn't matter to me what his art is worth, but it does point out the basic reality of supply and demand which is not well understood by artists in general. That is, business creates customers (demand) as well as the product. A successful artist will be, or will become, a business person and they will have to own that responsibility. If they are not successful in that business, they have the responsibility to evaluate their product, evaluate their marketing efforts, evaluate their business plan and move on.

There is no alternative. You can't "take control" of a center without earning it, otherwise it is worse than meaninglessness. It's destructive to the human spirit.

So, no. I'm not a protester, or a supporter of the Occupy movement. I don't care about the 1 percent. I do care about my soul and I'm not interested in selling it.

Brian Sherwin
I don't think anything currently in museums should be removed... but I do have issues when museums pull their resources to acquire extremely expensive works of art by living artists that happen to be hot within the global art market at that point in time. Huge gambles are made on trends when that happens. It is even worse when said artist is barely known of by the wider public -- and therefore has had little to no cultural impact.

As for the preservation of culture at museums... if an artist has had great impact regionally I see no reason why he or she should not be considered by area museums. I think that should be expected if the museums happens to be state-funded -- even if the artwork is not 'in' at the moment. If the artwork is mediocre... what does that say about the region? Why has the work spoke to so many while falling outside of art world norms? What does it say about our collective art culture, if you will? Those are questions that museums should be answering...

Warhol is Warhol... museums will jump hoops to have one. That said, I'm thinking more along the lines of art created today -- and how it appears, at least to me, that our state-funded museums are failing to preserve art history beyond the mainstream art market.

Lincoln Cushing
I really appreciate this essay. I've been involved in social justice art for a long time, a genre that largely sidesteps the entire art market and gallery world. But let's get to the core of what's objectionable about it. The fact that some individuals in this country can amass obscene amounts of money, through whatever means - exploitation, inheritance, you name it - means that people with class interests call the shots rather than some more egalitarian method for assigning resources. When rich folks began to find Social Realism cutting a bit close to home during the end of the 1930s, by golly, they encouraged abstract art. I'm not suggesting that there's no role for abstract art, but when any art becomes a high-end commodity we all suffer. The sale fees from just a few Sotheby's auctions could fund public arts programs in this country for a year. My suggestion? Get a day job. Stop fantasizing about getting that fat commission from Bill Gates. Integrate art making into your real life practice. Create for your peers, not your class enemies. Retake the cultural terrain.

Care about preserving and protecting what little bio-sphere we have left. Peak oil, carbon emissions, pollution into our water / air, soil degradation. Care about these issues.

Or soon you'll be hunting your own cats.

"War is God"

- Cormac McCarthy / Blood Meridian

John Kelley
First of all, great article. Very well said. Your solutions are highly unlikely but I can't help but agree.

When objectivity in art was removed, symbolized by DuChamps "fountain", the movers and shakers began to make their decisions on art based on intellectual content as opposed to actual content (skill, beauty, message etc.....) The battle that is being debated here was lost at that point because the people with the most power, affluence and influence became the gate keepers of all that is considered art. The art of the past century has been judge almost solely on rhetoric. I can guarantee you the people with the money and power will almost always control a non-objective argument. When there is this much money at stack they will not give up their control without every artist refusing to participate.... and that's just not going to happen.

A completely separate movement, apart from the gate keepers, is the only viable solution.


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