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The Art of Activism: Histories of Art strikes

Bread and Puppet theatre piece on Fifth Avenue, New York. Part of the Angry Arts Week, 1967

'In the meantime, Occupy Everything and see what happens.' – Lucy Lippard (2013)

In 1967, artists in New York organised an anti-war effort that protested against the American War in Vietnam. Held in various venues around the city on 26th January to 5th February, the Angry Arts week included public happenings showing artists’ dissent of war in various venues through the mediums of performance, film, dance, painting, posters and flyers. Today, fifty years later, artists (some of whom took part in the first organised anti-war efforts) have proposed a general strike, called the J20 Art Strike, to close artistic practice, schools and businesses on the day of Donald Trump's Inauguration (Friday, January 20th). Many galleries will be closed, websites offline and professors will strike in an attempt to occupy the positions of artists and critics as both culturally and economically important. Critics of the J20 Art Strike have called it futile, a useless demonstration by the cultural elite, yet the proposition of occupying the arts against the fascism imposed by Trump's administration is a lesson in solidarity. The Whitney Museum of Art and LACMA will have their doors open to offer a safe space for conversation and education amongst the anticipation and anxiety surrounding the impending hardship and tensions of the next four years.

Cultural protests surrounding governmental oppression under the guise of war, racism and repression began with the Peace Tower, constructed by artists in Los Angeles in the summer of 1966. 400 artists from all over the country participated, painting and constructing a panel each, which was applied to the metal structure that stood at the end of the Sunset Strip. In addition, with the money they had crowdfunded, the Artists’ Protest Committee rallied against the use of Agent Orange, a herbicide deployed in military tactics to harm the ecology and civilians of Vietnam. (In 2006, the Peace Tower was replicated at the Whitney Museum of Art, as a symbol of artist’s dissent of the war in Iraq.) This mass protest was echoed on the East-coast, in New York, where the Collage of Indignation was erected for the start of the Angry Arts Week, with placards made by artists adorning the walls of New York University, writing their names and drawing satirical anti-war slogans. In 1969, the Art Workers Coalition bought protest back into the institution, asking Picasso to remove Guernica, a war protest in itself, from MoMa for the duration of the war in response to the atrocities perpetrated by the United States in Vietnam. This was just the start of various pressures by art activism on mainstream institutions, as in the four years from 1967-1970, many artists protests were staged within museums.

In 1970, The New York Art Strike against War, Repression, Racism and Sexism picketed the Metropolitan Museum of Art after it did not meet their demands and close in protest against the Vietnam War. The point of these series of protests was to examine the responsibilities of art institutions in times of social dissent. The demands of the Art Workers Coalition and other artist collectives were instrumental in reworking art institutions positions as central to art production and practice, thus producing a counter-narrative. The Personal is Political is the slogan that came to define the era: the politicisation of the personal and the personalisation of the political. Artists produced work that tormented the oppressiveness of the government and institutions in all facets of oppression; gender and race relations, and the devastating effects of war that were perpetrated by the administration in the name of the American people. The assertion that the personal was political gave rise to art practice that merged anti-war sentiments and creative practice; artists used their unique position to interact with and create images of war in a complex array of practices. These artist protest’s converged micro protests into mass political stands against governmental oppression.

At present, artists, critics and smaller art institutions are banding together to boycott the Trump administration as an act of non-compliance. Although it is a small gesture confronting a larger, all-encapsulating political and social condition that cannot be stopped by strikes and protests, it acts as a symbol of solidarity and resistance against the impending doom of the new administration. Following in a line of other art strikes and actions, it appears that art workers, like other workers, are persistent in their strikes against the oppressions of people on a wider scale. While many regard the J20 Art Strike as futile in its efforts, it is impossible for contemporary art workers to ignore politics, and this precedent is seen throughout the last fifty years of art practice. The merging of art with political practice, taking art outside of the museum and into the public realm by staging actions in museums contribute to the wider protests against fascism. To recall the statement posed at the beginning of this article by Lucy Lippard, a curator, critic and member of the Art Workers Coalition, occupying art institutions and the voices of artists (privileged by their fame and celebrity) is an act that merges art workers and their dissent for the current political climate, promoting an insistence towards the personal as political.

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