The Atomic Hobo

The Atomic Hobo etchingA funny thing happened at Sotheby’s the other night.  The consumers in this rarified marketplace, met Occupy Wall Street.  I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve gleaned from those who were, the OWS crowd showed up in support of Sotheby’s striking art handlers, Teamsters Local 814.

The august auction giant beefed up the security and escorted the bigwigs in under guard and, as Dennis Miller once said, “It was the sharpest bit of choreography since the Oswald prison transfer.”  The auction-folk were shocked, shocked I say, to realize that the art market too, is considered a valve in the malignant heart of the 1%.  If you notice, I didn’t say “art world,” though one can make a fairly decent case that many of its inhabitants are also the dreaded one per-centers.

And you know what? The OWS folks are right.  In that atmosphere, for that activity, the goosing, cajoling and casual brutality of the market mentality, i.e. rich imbeciles measuring dick-size.

The OWS people, as well as Local 814, the Teamsters striking at Sotheby’s for a living wage, or a living in New York wage I should say, the OWS contingent could not have picked a better target.  And the art world should get its head out of its ass and ask themselves just how the fuck they got there.

I think 50 years ago the artists would have been right out there in the streets with the myriad other folks,  carrying signs and fighting back.  Somewhere along the line we just got too damned complacent.  The work of an artist became about “career” and “career path” and we forgot that the creative world was part of the larger world.   Art people turned from scholarship to the market place.  A good curator was no longer who knew the most but who could raise the most money.  Museums started seeking out CEOs rather than scholars.  To their credit, the Art Institute of Chicago just reversed this idiotic trend by selecting a solid art man in its appointment of Douglas Druick, rather than a human cash register.

Mr. Druick is a long-time curator at the museum, with decades of impeccable scholarship under his belt.  Let’s hope other museums take the hint.

By all accounts, the Sotheby’s honchos were terrified at the prospect of some Adam Lindemann or Dakis Joanu-type encountering some unpleasantness with the great unwashed out in the street. So Sotheby’s did what the 1 % always does to protect its interests–they sent men with guns.  AFTER, they twittered themselves silly boasting of the most profitable number ever fetched for a Clyfford Still painting, did they think the striking art handlers weren’t going to see that?

Somehow saying they called the police doesn’t quite define it in this discourse.  When big business is pushed back (and make NO mistake, Sotheby’s IS big business), they send men with guns.  Just like Halliburton.  Just like the railroads and their Pinkertons a century ago.

Thirty years ago there were exhibits like Artist’s Call to protest the U.S. incursions into Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The artist as an agent of social change seemed alive and well.  And then the 1980s happened.  The culture of celebrity artists began in earnest.  Young artists as rock stars.  Instead of being reviled by wealthy assholes, they (and curators–their cultural caddies) sought proximity to the power-tit.  Dollar bills became more important than bain cells.  More important than content.  More important than beauty.

The Marketplace became a beast unto itself and artists worked assiduously to assure themselves a place in it.  Last Thursday at Sotheby’s was the morning-after moment; the place the market and fashion creeps have led us to. We have the art world we deserve.

A few nights ago, I watched Vik Muniz’ towering and humane Wasteland on cable wherein Mr. Muniz helps people working in a mountain of garbage, cull beauty and meaning from that which surrounds them–helping them gently realize the transcendent moments in their own lives.  When it ended, I was near tears and moved beyond words.  Right at a time that I’d felt artists had forgotten how to engage and include the world  in their work, Mr. Muniz’ film restored my faith a bit.  In a mountain of garbage, he elevated dirt poor people out of furious loss and despair.

It can be done.

Three years ago, I participated in the first New Orleans Biennial, Prospect 1, wherein curator Dan Cameron did much the same thing–lifting that beleaguered city’s art community into celebration and renewal against formidable odds, namely the city of New Orleans’ political structure, which barely lifted a finger in it’s own best interests.  Prospect 1 changed the way I thought about what artists can do for a community and what,
regrettably , we’ve not done.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a wake-up call.  We can play tag-ass in the art world, or be part of the larger conversation which wants badly for the participation of artists; our communities. Who knows, we might learn something. . .besides what the Clyfford Still painting sold for.

Published in: on November 17, 2011 at 12:21 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well said Tony!

  2. “…the creative world was part of the larger world…”
    “…The artist as an agent of social change…”
    “…what artists can do for a community…”

    And just as I’ve been standing here alone before my easel feeling silly about my dwindling faith in beauty and community and art as a social mirror and catalyst, I read your post and think, maybe I’m not so silly. Maybe I’m just too late. Or maybe not. I find your words both challenging and inviting. I’m one for joining the conversation.

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