Occupy Criticism, Occupy Spring
In honor of Mohamed Bouazizi, Dara Greenwald, and Mila Amie Econompolous Jones.
“In its turn in crisis, the concept of crisis would be the signature of a last symptom, the convulsive effort to save a ‘world’ that we no longer inhabit: no more oikos, economy, ecology, livable site in which we are ‘at home.’”
–Jacques Derrida, “Economies of the Crisis”
“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.”
–Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
The current essay series invites critics to address “what many have described as a crisis for the state of art criticism” in the past decade, a period in which the authority of an academic venue such as October has allegedly declined due to a “combination of political and economic shifts, technological advances, and, perhaps, a fatigue with ‘theory.’ ”1 Critics responding to a crisis in criticism: this is indeed familiar territory in recent years, especially in light of debates about contemporaneity, globalization, and the market: who or what is the public for contemporary art? What are the economic conditions and complicities of contemporary art relative to global capitalism and its crises? How can we arrive at critical judgments when strong narratives for aesthetic quality and political engagement appear to be exhausted? How do the participatory ecologies and accelerated temporalities of social media—blog posts, Facebook threads, Google group discussions, Twitter feeds—challenge the authority of the critic accustomed to writing for newspapers, magazines, journals, or even traditionally edited online venues?2
The advent of the Occupy movement in the United States has taken the time-honored discourse surrounding “the crisis of criticism” to a new level of intensity. One might even say it has brought the discourse surrounding the crisis of criticism into crisis, drawing out the etymological affinity between the words in question. As declared by the 16 Beaver Group for its nine-day convergence of artists, writers, and organizers from Egypt, Greece, Spain, Palestine/Israel, Chile, Oakland, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere this January: “The Crisis of Everything Everywhere.”3 Respecting no boundaries, permitting no outside, this omni-crisis has severely destabilized the cultural and artistic fields in which criticism has traditionally found its home.
Artists and cultural producers of all sorts have been crucially involved in the movement at all levels since its inception in the summer of 2011.4 Holding conventional institutions and discourses of art at a distance, they have undergone a process of simultaneous de-professionalization and re-training as they learn from others in the movement and in turn share their own aesthetic and intellectual skill sets. This process of disidentifying from one’s formerly specialized role can be challenging and disorienting. This is especially the case for those who continue to maintain some relationship to pre-Occupy institutions in academia, the non-profit sector, government agencies, or the culture industries. Many arts-related people in Occupy do in fact maintain a relationship to pre-Occupy institutions, because that is where they work to sustain their lives when not giving their time and energy to the movement. However, these institutions are beginning to appear less as bastions of cultural authority than as nodes in subterranean affinity networks and common resource pools that might be tapped in the interest of growing the movement. While the movement is structurally incompatible with these institutions—the Brooklyn Rail included—the latter can still provide, among other things, valuable spaces for discussion, debate, and speculation about Occupy and its future.
What is the future of Occupy? No one can predict it with certainty. But there are weather reports. #nowpromisenowthreat. Spring is about to spring. Escalation is in the air, and on the calendar. In mid-February, the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street announced that it “stands in solidarity with calls for a day without the 99%, general strike, and more!!” on May Day 2012.5 In thinking about what this May Day might mean for the arts, it is important to stress that the process of de-professionalization noted above has also entailed a renewed interest in the economic conditions of artistic and cultural labor. Consider, for instance, the following call, which appears in the March issue of the magazine Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy:
Art Strike -> Creative Strike
The arts will be crucial to our collective economic non-compliance on May Day 2012. The arts are embedded in the broader cultural and media sectors of the neoliberal urban economy. People who work in these sectors, including musicians and writers, performers and architects, dancers and designers, photographers and filmmakers, typically work numerous other jobs to make ends meet. We work as students, educators, bartenders, proofreaders, interns, tour guides, caretakers, art-handlers, administrative assistants, street vendors, and more. Though some of us belong to unions, cultural workers are largely precarious and unorganized. Many of us do not have jobs at all. And cultural workers are debtors—we share this “negative commons” with the rest of the 99%.
Cultural workers are variously striated by class background, race, gender, age, immigration status, education, institutional affiliation, and cultural prestige, with the most elite often serving as the avant-garde of gentrification. Building a strike-alliance involving cultural workers will thus be complicated. Matters of privilege and hierarchy will need to be deeply examined. But it will also be quite powerful, given that the cultural workers of the 99% create the cultural commonwealth from which the 1% in the entertainment, tourism, and real-estate industries draw their astronomical profits.
As cultural workers, we can contribute our various skill sets to the build-up for May Day through creative media, research, and direct action. At the same time, we can do formal and informal outreach in our workplaces, institutions, communities, and social networks.
May Day will be beautifully disruptive. As we shut down the privatized city of capital, we will open new public spaces that are empowering and inspiring. The strike will be an exercise in radical imagination informed by dreams of beloved community and histories of militant resistance. It will draw upon and reinvent the creative tactics of earlier struggles for freedom, equality, and justice from across the world. We will continuously add and multiply our collective creativity so that every act of defiance also demonstrates the possibility of another world beyond neoliberalism.
When we withdraw from work, let’s not just stay home or go shopping. Imagine May Day and its build-up as a spring celebration of the arts, a people’s jubilee of the cultural commons. Everyone will be invited to the party: the kids and the elders, the singers and the dancers, the clowns and the monsters. Let’s go out into to the streets, parks, and lots to reclaim our city. Let’s march, converge, and assemble with our friends and families, communities and allies. Let’s make some art, pitch some tents, plant some seeds … and see what grows for the summer and beyond.
This little text is not a piece of art criticism, yet it performatively intervenes in the artistic, political, and economic spheres with a certain appeal to aesthetic language. As critics, what do we make of the reappearance of terms such as inspiration, beauty, imagination? Prior to Occupy, these terms would raise our critical suspicion given their various associations with Romantic and liberal-humanist discourses that have historically looked to the aesthetic as a way to escape or mollify the crises and antagonisms of capitalist society.6 Indeed, is not a certain hostility to the specialized category of “art” encoded in the Situationist DNA of the movement? Does Occupy and its expanded field of cultural activism not mark the end of art itself?
No it does not, and this is the beauty of Occupy. #occupybeauty. Occupy is not about teleological ends. Occupy is an apparatus of defamiliarization and dissemination that enables previously existing spaces and objects, words and concepts, histories and memories to leave home and take flight into the future. Occupy enables us to revisit the past, but with a distance and a twist. It summons the dead, the living, and the unborn in a great intergenerational carnival against capitalism.7 It pitches a big tent, and it remains vigilant about injustices related to homelessness and housing. Occupy is attuned to the violence that haunts every economy, every ecology, every regime of household management (oikos).
This cluster of terms is not foreign to the history of art and criticism itself. Indeed, #occupycriticism would entail reactivating these problems in texts that have been buried by years of critical familiarity. Exemplary in this regard is Robert Smithson’s “Fredrick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape” (1973), a text which deserves to be read—and criticized—as part of the same monumental canon of American criticism as Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” or Leo Steinberg’s “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public.”
Smithson’s essay is a hallucinatory scouting trip to Central Park. Having learned from the environmentally devastated margins of New Jersey, Utah, and “the strip-mining regions I saw last year in Southeastern Ohio,” he is looking for a place to experiment with large-scale ecological remediation projects in the center of the global metropolis. As he wanders through the park, camera in hand, he conjures up histories, memories and contradictions. #crazyeyes. Olmsted is his avatar—an “earth artist” avant la lettre. Olmsted/Smithson rejects the pseudo-sublimity of the American wilderness ideal—Thomas Cole, Ansel Adams—in favor of the materialist dialectics of the picturesque in which media technologies and living environments are inseparable. The city is the future of ecology, not its nemesis. Collaging together the unimaginable time-scale of the geological bedrock with the photographs, maps, and documents that accompanied the construction of the park over the course of decades, Smithson insists on the mutual entanglement of human and nonhuman histories. He forces us to think of “nature” not as an object of scientific research or aesthetic appreciation, but as the site of intensive cultural, political, and economic conflict.
Yet even as he liberates nature from the “spiritual snobbery” of wilderness fetishists in favor of an incipient political ecology, Smithson enacts his own inadvertent ecological violence. He describes the site on which the Park was built as a “desert…a man-made wasteland.”8 The land in question was in fact a commons, an ecological life-support system for the African-American and Irish settlers of Seneca Village. By describing it as a “man-made wasteland,” Smithson intimates an ecological pathology on the part of the commoners and inadvertently aligns himself with Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” which holds that without legally enforceable private rights, resources are selfishly gobbled up and society collapses into just such a wasteland of neglect. Since Locke, commons have always been perceived as “wastes” of potentially profitable cultivation by would-be private owners. Olmsted is softer and more democratic in his approach. Central Park is not a private enclosure, but a new recreational training-ground to hold at bay a potentially revolutionary urban working class: landscape aesthetics, fresh air, public space. #strategicbeautification.
Seneca Village was demolished when construction of the park commenced under the command of Olmsted, “the sylvan artist,” who “yearned for the color green as ‘Nature’s universal robe.’ ”9 Central Park, our beloved green urban oasis, is thus founded on an eviction.10 #evictiondefense. This is a history that would return to haunt the space in the early 1930s, when squatters occupied the park with Hooverville settlements to protest the precarious living conditions of the 99% and the negligence of the Hoover administration.11
Excavating histories such as the Hooverville settlements will be a crucial part of our training for Occupy Spring. #springtraining. Spring starts early in 2012, just as it did last year in the Arab world. Average temperatures in New York City have been in the mid-50s for the past month. But our unseasonably warm weather is not only due to our proto-revolutionary fervor. It is also related to a crisis that is rarely articulated with the claims of Occupy,12 but which could bring into alliance a chain of large-scale goals and initiatives on the part of anti-capitalists as we move toward what will no doubt prove to be a burning-hot summer: climate crisis.
Anthropogenic climate-change raises fundamental matters of species-survival, and it radicalizes Smithson’s remark apropos the glacial bedrock of Central Park, that “the magnitude of geological change is still with us, just as it was millions of years ago.”13 Rather than an ecological sin on the part of “man” in general, climate crisis is directly tied to the enshrining of corporate personhood by Wall Street and its bipartisan advocates in Washington. As Naomi Klein has suggested, any sustainable solution to climate crisis will necessarily involve a rethinking of our economic and political system as a whole.14 For this reason, questions of ecology, climate, and sustainability could potentially constitute the cutting-edge of Occupy Summer. Politically addressing the climate crisis would involve transforming systems of production, consumption, transportation, food, water, waste, energy, and more. The arts could play a crucial role in creating visionary ecological alternatives to the present system: imagine large-scale outdoor climate camps, free experimental eco-universities, and massive community gardens with the capacity to feed entire urban populations. #centralcommons.
But such visions could only be sustainable if they were grounded in initiatives, campaigns, and projects undertaken by marginalized people most immediately affected by ecological crises. In this sense, they would not be visions in the top-down “visionary” tradition of Olmsted, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Smithson, or Agnes Denes—they would be collectively elaborated through horizontal spaces of education, empowerment, and mutual aid of the sort prefigured in Liberty Square. Such efforts would need to carefully negotiate the irresolvable tension between law and justice, reform and revolution; between proposing specific measures, policies, and programs on the one hand, and insisting an unconditional transformation of the status quo in the name of planetary sustainability on the other.15
This would in turn would also require disarticulating ecology from three dominant cultural horizons: 1) uncritical hippie nostalgia that posits love, peace, and harmony between humanity and nature as the end-all-and-be-all of history; 2) doomsday survivalism that grimly awaits environmental apocalypse as the only true revolutionary opportunity; and 3) techno-utopian consumerist ideologies of the post-Inconvenient Truth era that are content to call for hybrid cars and the expansion of Whole Foods while leaving neoliberal market-fundamentalism unquestioned.16 Each of these horizons contains elements that could be occupied or deconstructed, thus they should not be simply denounced as mortal enemies of Occupy. But left alone, crunchy hippies, nihilistic eco-insurrectionists, and glib lifestyle environmentalists all enforce “the unbearable whiteness of green” and fail to address larger claims for justice, freedom, and equality bound up with violent postcolonial histories in the United States and the rest of the world.17 In the words of an anonymous Occu-poem floating around the Google threads during the debates set off last month by the inflammatory moralizing of Chris Hedges18:
we don’t pour fuel onto the fire.
we are the fuel, we are the fire.
green fuel, green fire
green is the new red
green is the new black
electric green revolution
a sustainable power-grid for the energies of the 99%
- Phong Bui and Jonathan T. D. Neil, invitation to contribute to the Held Essays on Visual Art, October 28, 2011. I say “allegedly” because while the popular readership of academically-oriented critical writing of the October variety may indeed be miniscule, academic criticism is hardly on the decline: it has proliferated, and is more influential than ever in the making-and-breaking of careers in the institutional realms of art magazines, galleries, museums, biennials, foundations, publishing companies, and university departments.
- For a provocative overview of these questions that looks to fiction as a new mode of critical practice, see Martha Schwendener, “What Crisis? Some Promising Futures for Art Criticism,” The Village Voice, January 7, 2009, available at http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-01-07/art/what-crisis-some-promising-futures-for-art-criticism
- See And And And, “To the General Assembly and Affinity Groups of Occupy Wall Street,” October 4, 2011, http://andandand.org/event10_letter_to_ows.pdf/ and Yates McKee, “The Arts of Occupation,” the Nation, December 11, 2011, http://www.thenation.com/article/165094/arts-occupation/
- See Nathan Schneider, “Occupy Wall Street Calls for May Day General Strike,” Waging Nonviolence, February 15, 2012, http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/02/occupy-wall-street-calls-for-may-day-general-strike/
- See Alexander Alberro, “Beauty Knows No Pain,” Art Journal, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Summer 2004).
- See Claire Tancons’s excellent “Occupy Wall Street: Carnival Against Capital? Carnivalesque as Protest Sensibility,” e-flux journal 30 (December 2011), which draws out the often unacknowledged postcolonial and diasporic histories informing the performative repetoire of the carnivalesque; available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/occupy-wall-street-carnival-against-capital-carnivalesque-as-protest-sensibility/
- Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 158.
- Smithson, 158.
- See Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996).
- For a compelling account of the nationwide Hooverville phenomenon in light of Occupy Wall Street, see Frank Rich, “The Class War Has Begun,” New York, October 23, 2011, http://nymag.com/news/frank-rich/class-war-2011-10/
- Smithson, 170. See also Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climates of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009), and Eduardo Cadava, Emerson and the Climates of History (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997).
- Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” The Nation, November 9, 2011, http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate/
- For a concise account of this aporetic negotiation between the calculus of law and the unconditional revolutionary demand for justice, see Gayatri Spivak, “General Strike,” Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy (December 2011); available at http://occupytheory.org
- See Van Jones, “Vanity Fair: The Unbearable Whiteness of Green,” The Huffington Post, May 17, 2007, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/van-jones/vanity-fair-the-unbearabl_b_48766.html. This article prefigures the broad-ranging and often radical arguments put forward in Jones’s Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (Harper Collins, 2009). Unfortunately, Jones and his “Rebuild the Dream” initiative have approached the Occupy movement as if it were simply a way-station to a left-liberal electoral politics. For an example of Jones’s recent approach, see “Now, Let’s Occupy the Ballot Box,” Yes!, February 1, 2012, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/9-strategies-to-end-corporate-rule/now-lets-occupy-the-ballot/. See also Nathan Schneider’s counterpoint, “Change Now, Vote Later,” Yes!, February 1, 2012, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/9-strategies-to-end-corporate-rule/change-now-vote-later/. Strangely, neither Jones nor Schneider mentions ecology at all.
- See Chris Hedges’s ill-informed denunciation of Black Bloc tactics, “The Cancer in Occupy,” Truth Dig, February 6, 2012, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_cancer_of_occupy_20120206/, and David Graeber’s critique thereof, “Concerning the Violent Peace Police: An Open Letter to Chris Hedges,” n+1, February 9, 2012, http://nplusonemag.com/concerning-the-violent-peace-police/. For a definitive squashing of the supposed beef between “non-violence” and “diversity of tactics” in the nationwide Occupy movement, see Zakk Flash, “A Principled Stand on Diversity of Tactics: Avoiding Uniformity of Failure,” February 18, 2012, http://occupyeverything.org/2012/a-principled-stand-on-diversity-of-tactics-avoiding-uniformity-of-failure/.