What role should the arts play in the Occupy movement?

How a new social vision translates into the arts

The Occupy movement may not have sparked much soul-searching on Wall Street, but it's done exactly that among many artists, almost all of whom are among the 99 percent. The energetic, if somewhat dubious, Occupy Museums group emerged late last year in New York City at the doors of MoMA and the Frick Collection to declare "Art is for Everyone!" The Athens Institute for Contemporary Art in Athens, Ga., responded to the political turmoil with Occupy: This is What Democracy Looks Like, a recent three-week group show and educational program in which low-cost artworks were sold to benefit Occupy Athens. And the media has made much noise about the involvement of prominent artists such as Yoko Ono, Philip Glass, and Lou Reed in the movement.

Atlanta's own Occupy village spawned at least one art tent and a fledgling arts and lit committee (other Occupy groups have created similar committees). The creative output from the movement so far has included informal drawing sessions, protest signage, impromptu street theater, remixed music posted online, and a video installation work in the Visual Rights Atlanta show at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History. But even this slight output raises the question: What is the role of art in a political movement?

The Occupy movement isn't driven by a specific issue that can be reduced to electoral politics (the national debt, for example). Rather, Occupy advocates for nothing less than a profound reorganization of our economic and social life, a life in which the upward flow of capital over the last 40 years is reversed. This fact makes Occupy less like the Tea Party movement to which it's been compared, and much more like the rise of black consciousness after the Civil Rights Movement, or even the rise of the religious right in the 1980s. These brought about changes not only in specific policies but across the whole spectrum of human relations.

Who knows if Occupy will meet with the same success. But if we take Occupy's ideas seriously, then the implications for art are vast, probably more immense than many of us within the status quo art world realize.

"Fine arts" have been bound up with privilege and money throughout their history. Whether through government support, wealthy patrons, or corporate finance, the major arts in the United States have relied on these props to build the top-heavy temples of culture that we point to as evidence of our great progress and enlightenment.

But the aesthetics emerging from Occupy are mostly at odds with that vision. The small-scale crafts and the cut-and-paste music point to an egalitarian world that is definitively collectivist and straightforward. It also has little use for that darling notion of the establishment art world: the avant-garde.

Artist Mandie Mitchell has done away with her private, studio-based artistic practice in order to join Occupy Atlanta. Making jewelry at the Occupy headquarters is, she says, a "bigger deal" and "more beautiful" than any of the work she did previously. In a similar vein, writer Sara Amis stresses the importance of artwork that is comprehensible and "aimed at other people" rather than locked in its own private world of self-referential ideas. Art allied with the Occupy movement has been resolutely approachable, understandable, and radically social.

For a century or more, when it came to art, "new" always meant "socially disruptive." But a true avant-garde hasn't existed for some time. Gone are the days when an impudent brushstroke or a depiction of a barmaid could get a painter tossed from the fellowship of polite society. Nowadays, pretending to spit in the eye of the bourgeois middle class is often the fast track to the hallowed halls of culture.

But the established art world — the world in which the wealthiest collectors and institutions write the checks for most of what we see and hear — still operates on the notion that novelty is gold. The shocking and the new are good precisely, and sometimes only, because they are shocking and new.

This isn't as cynical as it sounds. What the various avant-garde movements and oddball artists have given us over time is much bigger than the occasional painted iceberg or video of a dead deer. Rather, that art gives us the cultural space to be nonconformists. It allows us to imagine reversing a set of received assumptions and affirms the power of individuals to question the world handed to them. Indirectly, it makes movements like Occupy possible.

Observers of Occupy Atlanta and the Occupy movement in general have already asked whether the art being made alongside the movements is any good. That question is premature and shallow. The meaning of "good" hasn't been defined in this context yet. All we observers and critics have is a notion of what's been good so far. And like all those who have bought into the art world as it is, we mostly behave as though that definition will carry forward forever.

But of course it won't. Instead, some smaller, slower aesthetic may be yawning to life. The art made as a result of Occupy Atlanta may not create a new world, but with its new social vision it may give us a fresh lease on the old.

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