Friday, January 20th, 2017

The Art of Protest

Artwork by James Esber for The Women's March on Washington
Artwork by James Esber for The Women’s March on Washington

A few years ago, a prominent artist got herself invited to the audience of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. When its then host Jon Stewart started to warm up the crowd, our painter friend called out “The art world loves you, Jon” to which Mr. Stewart replied, “Oh, art has its own world, does it?”

This incident came to mind as I pondered how to respond to the J20 group’s call for “An Act of Noncompliance on Inauguration Day”. One thing no one wants on this dark day in history is any kind of divisiveness in how cultured, civilized people should oppose the coming mayhem, ineptitude and violation of rights and norms that promise to constitute US government over the next four years. Many artists and organizations I follow have responded positively to J20s defiant call for “No work, no school, no business”—kudos to them for their noble sentiment. Museums that have waived entrance fees as a gesture against “business as usual” deserve especial praise. The Whitney Museum is hosting an “Occupy Museums” event in solidarity with J20. But while there is absolutely nothing to disagree with in J20’s characterization of Trumpism—“a toxic mix of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic rule” – the thought does occur: On this of all days, did the art world have to do its own special thing?

Today is a day for mourning, tomorrow for action. I will be joining friends in New York Saturday to show solidarity with the Women’s March on DC. Although the president-elect has already indicated his intention to abolish the NEA and to eviscerate public broadcasting, a focus on women makes special sense in view of the vindictive and callous assaults on women’s rights and dignity that characterized the Trump campaign. To deflect in any way from that seems like letting off a few bazookas ahead of a pyrotechnic display.

Artwork by Andrea Champlin for The Women's March on Washington
Artwork by Andrea Champlin for The Women’s March on Washington

In my view, protesters should be gathering their strength Friday, resting their voices and feet, and focusing with millions of Americans across all industrial sectors on tomorrow’s properly organized, media-savvy activity. The world will be counting the number of live bodies on the National Mall and sister sites across the country. Someone arrested in a spontaneous demonstration today won’t be there tomorrow. Hopefully, TV cameras will pick out some great placards, some of which have been made by artists like Andrea Champlin, pictured here, and James Esber, our cover artist this weekend. January 21 is a day when the efficacy of focused and inclusive protest can be measured: in the years ahead, we need all the focus and inclusivity that can be mustered.

A call for an art strike on a day when other sectors are not planning industrial action also puts out a strange message about art. It somehow implies that the victims of this strike will all be Ivanka Trumps who won’t be able to go out today and buy a Richard Prince. There is a whiff of the sentiment that art is frivolous: fiddling while Rome burns. In fact, a more likely victim of the strike is a protester revving up for tomorrow’s activities. In that spirit, artcritical salutes the sentiments of Galerie St. Etienne in their response to a survey at Hyperallergic magazine:

Galerie St. Etienne will remain open on January 20. Our current exhibition on American Artists and the Communist Party, installed just down the block from Trump Tower, is especially relevant in the wake of the election. As the administration takes a big step to the right, we stand committed to socially-conscious art. The works on display make it all too obvious that Depression-era inequities are no less rampant or socially destructive today.