A Report From Spring/Break’s Armory Week Debate About Art, Politics, and Occupy

Art’s romantic entanglement with commerce is doing just fine. This much was clear to anyone who visited last week’s art fairs in New York, where large numbers of collectors and dealers coupled enthusiastically. Of course, even functional romances have their oddities: at the Armory Show over the weekend, Cristina Grajales gallery sold chairs that bore the slogans of the Occupy movement, while protesters from the same movement made their grievances about the event known by holding an alternative art exchange outside.

Those looking to make sense of the competing takes on the issue could find a guide, on Friday night, at the Spring/Break alternative art fair in Nolita, where a small group of notable New York art critics tried to make sense of art’s relation to politics in the present moment. Moderated by the artist William Powhida, the event centered on a three-cornered debate between R.C. BakerMartha Schwendener, and Christian Viveros-Faune, a trio of Village Voice scribes who have had a nice back-and-forth on the role of art as an agent of political change in the venerable alternative weekly. On Friday, the crux of their disagreement continued to rest on Occupy Museums, a protest movement which has sought to concentrate the ideals and ambitions of the Occupy movement on New York’s major art institutions.

By and large, New York’s museums are non-profit institutions that almost anyone can visit, built with the ostensible purpose of educating and enriching public life. And yet, their role in the public’s eyes as an out-and-out good is rife with potential for misuse; Powhida argued that museums are often harnessed by well-heeled donors as “a justification and an excuse” that might reverse some bad PR. Schwendener seemed to agree, drawing historical connections between the present-day survey museum and the Napoleonic invasions. “The whole point was that you’d go to these places, you’d get all the booty, you bring it back to Paris, you parade it through the streets, in carts, showing, ‘Well, this is what your war dollars are paying for,’ tigers, lions, an obelisk, and then you put it in the Louvre.’” And, of course, institutions like MoMA accept donations from enormous corporations that, on different occasions, have abused their employees, polluted the environment, or defrauded investors.

From left to right, critics R.C. Baker, Christian Viveros-Faune, and Martha Schwendener

In spite of this, Viveros-Faune continued on Friday to describe museums as a “boneheaded” choice of target. “I don’t mean I can’t be convinced that it’s a good idea, but I object as a historical premise that the right place to go protest is a museum,” he said, summing up his case. Relative to an auction house like Sotheby’s, whose directors “haven’t budged an inch” in their recent conflict with the union that represents their art handling staff, MoMA, for all its potential for moral compromise, is a progressively-minded institution. If an outside group stages a protest on museum property, “Their politics are such that they can’t really kick you right out. They would risk significant face by calling the cops.” Protesting museums is picking fights with potential allies.

With regards to the struggle against public corruption and income inequality, Baker seemed to agree. Compared to auction houses, museums “are one of the few institutions in our community that happen to be fairly transparent and have some degree of accountability.” Still, while they struggle to answer serious questions about the links art and business, museums are destined to be a fraught environment for those looking to find solace from the politics of the day. If the relationship between art and commerce during fair week seemed like a never-ending honeymoon, the museum’s relationship to popular protest is destined to be a long, arduous marriage.

— Reid Singer