Art and Protest

I walked beside three different kinds of barriers and many police officers, found 23 Wall Street, and opened the door. The building, the once famous House of Morgan building, has been abandoned for the last five years. It looks something like a warehouse inside: concrete floors, high ceilings with insulation showing, and a musty odor. Art hung on pop up walls and sat on tables throughout the room. The lighting was dim, and there was eerie music playing. I turned around and saw graffiti-like art above the door: “Occupy Wall Street.”

The sign above the door at No Comment Art Show. Photo courtesy of Sandy Johnston.

Last week, I defended my project of exploring the relationship between art and social change (and ultimately, seeing how that can be applied to environmental justice). This week, I am excited to share about activists who are doing just that: the protesters at Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti park. Photo courtesy of Sandy Johnston.

If you have not heard, the Occupy Wall Street movement consists of many protesters who are currently camping out in Zucotti Park. Their website describes them as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions” who are all working to end the corruption and greed of the wealthiest 1% of American society. They have inspired similar protests in many (they claim over 100) other cities, including Boston, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Times has an entire page devoted to collecting articles about them, and other news blogs and liberal activists have been watching them closely as well. OnEarth even featured an article about whether the movement is good for environmentalism (short synopsis: if Occupy Wall Street weakens corporate control of government, that can only bode well for an environmental agenda). My favorite description of the movement, from anthropologist and activist Sam Shuman, is that it is a “space where people can come together not just to air their concerns and complaints, but to build a better community.”

Part of that communal vision includes activism through art. As the curator Frank Shifreen explained to me, the No Comment art show evolved out of a show to reflect on and commemorate September 11th. When that show was drowned out because of the protests down the block, the artists and curators began to talk to the activists. Together they made a new show, to “provide a platform for an open dialogue about serious sociological issues…to create an environment where a diverse community of people can gather and begin to formulate solutions” (from their website). Shifreen explained to me his vision of the event:

One way to combat the capitalism of our society, and to combat the way the oppression of so many people is seen as normal, is through images. Images can challenge the assumptions that we have in ways that other media cannot.

JP Morgan building, 1914. Photo by Irving Underhill, in public domain

The venue was in itself powerful. JP Morgan built the building in 1914 to flaunt the wealth of his company. In 1920, a bombing on Wall Street which killed 34 people was assumed to have been perpetrated by anarchists targeting this symbol of excess, even though that was never conclusively proven—and the company never repaired the damage to the façade in defiance of the crime. The contrast between the historical significance and the content of the art show added another level of irony, surrealism, and ultimately power to the event.

The art was also powerful. Here are some photos:

A view from inside the art show. The building felt very much like a warehouse. Photo courtesy of Sandy Johnston.

Shifreen's painting "Zeitgeist" featured prominently in the show. Photo courtesy of Sandy Johnston.

Rainer Ganahl's "Credit Crunch" was featured in the center of the room. The pig's head is real, as is the blood coming off of it. Click on the image for more information about the piece. Photo courtesy of Sandy Johnston.

Many pundits and skeptics have looked at the range of complaints and concerns the protesters at Occupy Wall Street have expressed and wondered what the message is–where is the coherence? The No Comment art show showed that the point is not in the narrow expression of demands, but rather in the creative expression of protest. The art, in all of its loud colors, abstract and disturbing images, and even grossness in the case of the pig, requires the viewer to acknowledge the humanity of the artist and of the subject of the art, thereby participating in the protest in a way the pundits have been missing.