The Inauguration Day ‘Art Strike,’ Explained

Hundreds of artists have signed, and it means a lot more than a single day of protest.

Occupy Museum banner for the J20 "Art Strike" actions. Image courtesy Occupy Museums.

On Friday, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the president of the United States. As a protest of the “white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic rule” that have surrounded his campaign, a variety of artists and critics, including me, have signed a call for an Art Strike on that day.

Now, if you are the kind of person who doesn’t believe the present reflects a particularly marked heightening of “white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic rule”—or does, but would rather this conversation be somehow kept separate from art—then this post is not for you.

This post is for people who agree with all this, but find the Art Strike call divisive, controversial, irrelevant, whatever.

Let me say that, were I in a different mood, if I thought the situation were different, I could myself write a criticism of the idea of an “art strike.”

There is a rich history of such actions, as Gregory Sholette has written in a piece at e-Flux Conversations. Still, the language of an “art strike” tends by its nature to conflate the very specific form of action that is the strike with other kinds of actions: shutdowns, protests, and so on. An artist not making art for a day is not the same as a worker organizing to shut down her workplace, and an art museum voluntarily closing as a symbolic protest is not the same as an art institution being shut by aggrieved staff.

I mention this caveat because some of the armchair eye-rolling about the Art Strike comes, I believe, from presumptions stirred up by its name, with the call viewed as a case of people playacting at a radical identity beyond their reach.

And yet, I get the impression that people haven’t thought much beyond the name. Let me just quote the actual text, which I think is pretty carefully written:

Like any tactic, it is not an end in itself, but rather an intervention that will ramify into the future. It is not a strike against art, theater, or any other cultural form. It is an invitation to motivate these activities anew, to reimagine these spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced.

And a few short lines later:

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. However you choose to respond to this call, Art Strike is an occasion for public accountability, an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody.

That is, the actual call is quite flexible, open, and welcoming. It frames the action as part of a bigger process, rather than a one-off symbolic feel-good action. It doesn’t exonerate art from being enmeshed in structures of power and privilege that also need to be examined. And, very importantly, it acknowledges that there are different stakes for different actors here, and so room for different possible kinds of action.

Look, I am as critical as anyone of vague “art politics.” But I try to be so without totally ceasing to believe that it is possible to make meaningful public claims for art. We have to break out of a way of thinking that oscillates between “art is the most important thing in the world!” and “art is irrelevant!” I don’t have a lot of patience for people like Jonathan Jones, who only stick their heads up to denounce the narrow audience for art at exactly the moment when artists try to do something that might be relevant beyond it.

People seem to take great glee in Trump’s difficulty in getting celebrities to perform at his inauguration. Well, the public debate already generated around the Art Strike action is part of giving connected layers of people strength to make refusals like that, and that will be an important task now and in the future.

Cultural endorsement may not be, in the big scheme of things, the most important thing in the world—but it is not irrelevant. It is part of preventing further mainstreaming of reactionary views.

There’s more to say about the larger potential public significance of this action. But instead, I want to say something about how, even if you are inclined to agree that art is totally socially isolated, there is a separate function of the Art Strike call as part of a more internal conversation.

To my eyes, the call has served a bit like the injection of chemicals (“contrast materials“) into the body you get before a scan, which lets the doctor see the system more clearly. The reactions to it help get a picture of what’s infected, what’s healthy, where the blockages will be.

You can see, say, that institutions like the Queens Museum and the Whitney, who are at least hosting events in solidarity, might be marginally easier to work with than a place like the MoMA, which preemptively announced that it would carry on as normal.

Occupy Museums's ad for its January 20 event at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Occupy Museums’s meme for its January 20 event at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

There’s pragmatism at work in the refusal to treat the day as a day of protest, a fear of alienating potential donors and potential audience members trumping the opportunity to provide solace and legitimation to people who feel targeted by the new wave of bigotry. There’s also, make no mistake, a lot of fear behind the scenes at institutions of being targeted by opportunistic culture warriors.

The thing is, in the world we are moving into, you don’t have to stick your neck out to be targeted. During the election, the idea that fraternizing with performance artist Marina Abramovic was evidence of being in league with Satan became, momentarily, a serious talking point.

This is reality now. And if artists are targeted in the near future, and institutions are tempted to cave because Trumpism now sits at the center of governmental power, will people be isolated or have the ability to act together as a counterweight?

The most important feature of the Art Strike call, for me, is that it provides the framework for people to come together for a collective statement, rather than the individual symbolic gestures favored by the industry. I see the conversation and action that it generates as part of the process of getting people prepared for struggles to come.

The entire way things have been done up to the present has led us to this precipice, a moment when “warning lights” are flashing on democracy. Assessing how we got here has to include some reconsideration of a progressive politics that has been a bit too cozy. Determining how we are going to move forward has got to mean getting out of our comfort zone.

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