Occupy Museums, MoMA and insta-history

occupy_museums2-sqOne week ago today the Occupy Museums (OM) offshoot of OWS staged a protest inside MoMA during which a banner was unfurled and promptly confiscated by MoMA security.  (Read a decent account here.)  Today, in a cheeky but perhaps brilliant move, OM sent a letter to MoMA’s Acquisitions Committee claiming that the “confiscation” of the banner was in fact a “unilateral acquisition” of a work of art that is by, and so belongs to, OM.  In the letter, the banner, which quoted Camus and called for the end of the Sotheby’s lockout of its art handlers, was designated by OM as both a work of art and ‘historical’ by OM.  Writing that “institutions around the country are negotiating with OWS to acquire archival materials for their collections,” OM designated its banner as one such artifact and then enumerated the three conditions that would have to be met for its return, none of which, in good OWS fashion mind you, were monetary.

The rhetoric of the letter and its demands aside, the OM letter to MoMA raises a host of interesting questions, one of the least salient being, Is the banner a work of art or an artifact, however limitedly ‘historical’?  One could go around and around on that one for a while.  More interesting is the question of how OM is playing the institution’s game against itself.  If MoMA doesn’t take the banner, which it likely won’t, who will pick it up?  The Whitney?  The Met?  Another American, or European, Latin American, or–wouldn’t it be great–Chinese institution?  (I’d like The New York Historical Society to step in personally, but I imagine it won’t get any takers for a while.)  Does the claim of the banner’s immediate historicity, so seemingly easily and retrospectively secured by the letter itself and by the rapidly disseminated documentation of the protest, hold legitimacy? And legitimacy for whom? (Paradoxically, the letter demands recognition from the very institution whose policies it questions.) What’s puzzling, though, is how quickly a protest over the treatment of people–namely the art handlers at Sotheby’s, who are being held up as emblems of labor in general–is being mediated through a conflict over an object?  Is this not the logic of the commodity fetish itself?

1 thought on “Occupy Museums, MoMA and insta-history”

  1. The letter from Occupy Museums is a little difficult to take altogether seriously. But let’s engage its substance.

    At first, it made me think that just the other day, I left my gym bag at the Neue Galerie, the distinguished Fifth Avenue museum of interwar Middle European art, where it is currently being held in lost and found. Until such time that I might retrieve it, might the bag — a kind of latter-day Readymade — be considered a “unilateral donation”, or perhaps an “unintentional acquisition” by the museum. After all, the Neue Galerie now stores my bag under the very same roof that spans over masterpieces by Schiele and Klimt ?

    Moreover, if the logic of the OM letter is to be followed, would the return of the gym bag (or the OM banner) be subject to the rules and regulations governing deaccessioning? And if so, might the return of the gym bag put the museum at risk of the sort of opprobium that reflexively surrounds decisions about collection-pruning?

    The letter left me feeling sorry, in addition, for Sotheby’s for selling “3.4 million dollars worth of art in the first half of 2011.” And what about the assertion on the seized banner itself, “When art is just a luxury, art is a lie”? How exactly is the truthfulness of a work of art contingent upon its monetary value? And what makes a work of art truthful (or a lie) to begin with? Is any art true (or untrue)? Is inexpensive art more true than expensive art? So many philosophical riddles…

    Speaking of philosophy, the most interesting aspect of the letter, in my eyes, is its extraordinary faith in the cultural power of museums. It is a pure example of the institutional theory of art, which posits that an object becomes an art work by being declared to be so by an institution. “If our terms cannot ultimately be met, we respectfully request the return of our art,” the letter states. Just by being seized by MoMA, in other words, this banner has transmogrified into a work of art.

    There is much that can be said and done about cultural institutions and their place in our social and economic system, which is indeed unfairly skewed and overly reliant on markets and money. But I think it’s going to take a bit more informed and clever actions than this.

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