Call to Action: The J20 Art Strike

By Gayil Nalls

Published January 12, 2017

Image courtesy of Nicholas Mirzoeff

All Americans generationally and collectively wrestle with the challenge of how democracy is defined. Artists are no different.

Since the 1960s, the arts have progressively turned towards a social approach. The evolutionary trajectory has been that art should not only extend the senses and concepts of beauty, but also promote participatory democracy and productive social transformation. Now artists are valuing and defining new forms of communication and technological modes of production. Many artistic projects have become ones of scale and complexity, and concern issues of social justice, sustainability and globalism.  Art is now often characterized by the collaborations of people not only from different disciplines, but also that comprise distinctly different cultures and ethnicities. These are people who are united creatively by the significance of truth and what will define our everyday existence.

It is not surprising that artists and art world professionals are calling for January 20th, inauguration day of president-elect Donald Trump, to be a day of non-compliance— a day of protest against “the normalization of Trumpism." This art strike and the disruptions it brings are promising to be just the first call for public accountability. This will be followed by the Women’s March on Washington D.C. and in other cites around the country on January 21st.  Regarding the call to action, the J20 mission statement on the e-flux website states, “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.”

MoMA, MoMA PS1, and the Lacma have made statements of solidarity but are planning to keep their regular hours feeling that they uphold the values of J20 every day.  However, the Queens Museum has organized the most forward form of resistance and will close on January 20th. They will be hosting the community from noon-2:00pm in the production of signs, posters, banners, and buttons in preparation for upcoming marches and actions. The Whitney is also semi-participating by employing a Pay-What-You-Can admission policy for the day of the 20th. Many other institutions are still mulling over the extent of their involvement in the event.

Signatories of the petition include: Nicholas Mirzoeff, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, and Joan Jonas, and Richard Serra.

On January 10th, I asked Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture and Communications at New York University and author of How to See the World, a few questions about his personal involvement and views concerning J20:

GN: Is there a personal or salient reason why you are a supporting member of J20?

NM: I am supporting J20 to mark my sense that this regime cannot be accepted as just another government. My grandparents were refugees and both my father and myself have been immigrants--he into Britain, myself into the United States. A world where refugees and immigrants are demonized has no place for my family so this is personal.

GN: As you have mentioned in your own work “How to See the World,” the world is saturated with images that define us for better or for worse. It has been said that without an image, it didn’t happen. As the J20 protest asks for the shuttering of cultural institutions, what image do you think would be the best visualization of this protest that could also achieve a viral status?

NM: If I could answer this question effectively, I would make the image myself! I am not an artist though. Viral images usually connect a personal response to a larger issue and make it meaningful to people without further explanation, like the 'Hands Up, Don't Shoot' gesture of Black Lives Matter marches. I think the J20 strike speaks mostly to people that are in and around art and visual culture. Glenn Ligon will have a new work in the window of the Studio Museum in Harlem that day called One Black Day II which I am sure will get a lot of art world attention. But it will be some gesture or action from one person that makes people 'get' the day.

GN: How might the closing of cultural institutions be defined as a type of aestheticization of a set of values?

NM: J20 is a refusal to accept the normalization of white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, prejudice against the disabled, fossil fuel madness and all the other extreme ideas of the regime. It cannot be just another day when a regime dedicated to such hateful politics takes over. It's important to stop and think both about what has happened and what happens next. Aesthetics is a set of responses from our body: it is at root something that is felt. The regime directs hatred towards so many of our bodies and we feel that now and undoubtedly many will do so in very direct ways over the course of the next four years, as the rise in hate crimes has already shown. To place entrance to a museum collection as a higher value than the necessity to resist violence to our friends, families and those who do not know but to whom owe the duty of solidarity would be a terrible statement. 

GN: How could this movement form a visual commons?

NM: In the refusal to normalize violence, actual or potential, we come together. In that moment we become aware of each other. We are not all the same. But as I enter into a common project, I wait to see what the other person needs to say or have heard. In this moment where we do not speak but wait for the other to be present and state their needs, we can more exactly feel what it might be to work and live together. We have experienced this before in many moments, most recently from the Black Lives Matter movement and the encampment at Standing Rock. It is not permanent but forms a powerful place of attachment and direction that enables further resistance. J20 is a refusal and expression of solidarity. It is part of people coming together to organize against this regime and it must be one of many such gestures. Yesterday I saw the minutes of the First International meetings in London in 1867. About a dozen people attended, including Marx. They did imagine that major change would come from such meetings of committed people and so it did. Do not measure this strike by the terms of success and failure that might hold in an industrial dispute: did we 'win' a pay raise or better conditions? There is no winning to be had here. It marks people's first step toward a different way of being together and taking action together. The world for now is lost and we have to begin to reclaim it.

To read more about the #J20 Art Strike, the event has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/events/1248373691886583/

 And the e-Flux signed petition for J20 Art Strike is posted at http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/90687/j20-art-strike-an-invitation-to-cultural-institutions/