Is art a luxury? There's a million possible answers and explanations of why art is art and why it’s a basic part of the human experience. But, if we bring it to the basics, one thing is obvious: beauty and aesthetics are an innate quality we all share. Even if someone has never taken an art history class, they have a notion of what they consider beautiful. We see representations of classical works in media, advertising, clothing, and even at the supermarket.
Art is an escape; it’s a route away from the madness of reality; it’s how we present what is wrong, as well as our own proposal for improvement. Artistic education is not just for future virtuosos; it opens the mind to new possibilities. Learning dance, painting, sculpture, music, or theater can be like growing up with a second language. These disciplines reprogram our minds to try different things, to take chances. While not all of us had the privilege to afford expensive classes, most of us were provided with the opportunity to attend these as after-school or community programs.
However, the foreseeable future does not look too bright for future generations. The current US presidential administration has announced budget cuts for numerous governmental agencies. Two of the ones that will be hit, the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment of Humanities (NEH) already struggle financially to keep going.
According to Brian Darling, former communications chief for Senator Rand Paul, “The Trump Administration needs to reform and cut spending dramatically, and targeting waste like the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be a good first step in showing that the Trump Administration is serious about radically reforming the federal budget.”
Waste. I can only imagine what would’ve happened to the poor man who’d said art was a waste to someone like Michelangelo or Monet. I have a feeling Mark Rothko would’ve spilled an entire bucket of red paint on them —let’s not even imagine what Jackson Pollock’s reaction would’ve been. I’m just talking about visual artists because I have a feeling Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound would’ve had some tougher words.
Luckily, we shouldn’t despair on the situation. A resistance movement has arisen, not unlike the one that led to the Women’s March on January 20. This one was organized by a collective of artists, art critics, curators, activists, museum staff, educators, and others within the art world. It’s called Occupy Museums, and it’s actually been going on since 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement happened. It seeks to bridge the gap between art and marginalized communities, and so make art accessible to all.
Prior to the inauguration, the organization urged the community to an art strike. Cost for admission to institutions would be on a donations-only basis; students, educators, and people working in the art sector were asked not to go to their place of employment or education in order to protest on the streets.
A manifesto was created, presenting the current political climate, their response, and their call to action. The following are summarized points from Occupy Museums’ #J20 Values Statement:
“Racism and xenophobia are real and alive today. Misogyny and homophobia are real and alive today. White nationalism is growing in political, economic, and symbolic power... We commit to joining in efforts to organize an anti-Fascist resistance.”
Art is usually seen as an unattainable abstract thing. Its power to change policy and hearts is greatly underestimated. However, at times, a song or a poem can do more than all the speeches in the world.
“Art has become a tool of propaganda. As this incoming administration dramatically reduces or eliminates public funding for the arts, museums will be relying solely on compromised private funding. We uphold the value of art and cultural production independent from financial and political coercion, free from appropriation and exploitation.”
What happens when an entity controls speech through political or financial power? The implications of having works of art filtered as appropriate or not by a ruling group is not only detrimental to creativity, but also a decadent step in culture and society.
“We reject a culture that ignores or celebrates US war and imperialism.”
When the only narrative allowed is the one with all the power, marginalized communities are invisible to society. The only way to achieve unity and solidarity is by ensuring all people have a voice.
“We commit to the ongoing struggle for increased presence of Black and Brown people, immigrants, and women in museum administrations, collections, events, and viewership, and in the return of stolen cultural heritage and objects.”
Domination through appropriation has led to the rhetoric we see today. Lack of equality and inclusivity makes the world appear one way, despite that only being one group’s perspective. One group that is part of this initiative is Guerilla Girls, who continue to raise awareness on the lack of women and people of color within the art sector.
“We believe that access to cultural institutions should always be free and we commit to a long struggle to take back institutions from the exclusivity of philanthropy and high-ticket-price corporate models."
This might be a hard point since the current environment seems to be leading to all museums having high admission costs. Culture and beauty should not be a luxury. They are part of our history as a society and as humans. To believe that only the wealthy can appreciate or understand art is a backwards way of thinking while also a form of oppression.
“We look to democracies across the globe who affirm the right to a living wage and even a basic income and call on our nation’s cultural institutions to pay all employees, contractors, and exhibiting artists a living wage for their labor.”
This movement was part of a protest in 2012, when Sotheby’s Auction House locked out unionized art dealers while also refusing to pay for their health care. Art is one of the most profitable businesses in the world, and yet its employees usually can barely make a living from the wages.
“It is imperative that institutions use their cultural and financial capital to support their communities of arts workers and their local publics rather than enable gentrification by participating in development schemes.”
As the cost of living rises, people are having to leave their communities and home. The art sector must try to be part of a solution instead of causing more problems such as gentrification,
“We call on all museums and cultural institutions to stand in solidarity with the artists, art critics, art workers, and public who will not stand by in silence as power is handed over to Fascists.”
For many of us, art is the one thing that keeps us from going insane from the everyday injustice and issues. It helps keep our heads above water while providing the hope that this will not last, that humanity will resume its path towards progress and evolution.
So, do you stand with Occupy Museums?
To find the entire manifesto, go to the Occupy Museums official website.