Whose Art? Our Art!: Occupation as an Aesthetic Project

Watercolor by Jen Tracy. Pic from Etsy.

Between Wednesday’s “Leap Into Action” targeted at the American Legislative Exchange Council and Thursday’s student strike, the Occupy Movement is looking at an unusually busy itinerary this week. I’m choosing to be optimistic and read this as evidence that the winter of our discontent is about to thaw into an American Spring, but after three months of relative (though far from complete) hibernation, resurrecting the passion of the autumn isn’t likely to be easy.

It’s no wonder, then, that there has been so many panels (here and here) and articles (here, here, here, and so on, ad infinitum) concerning the future of the movement. Some of these musings have been insightful and others profoundly dumb, but they almost invariably represent Occupy as a political interest group that will successfully or unsuccessfully go about the business of campaigning and politicking to achieve its ends.

This, I’m beginning to think, is a misinterpretation of what the movement is and a misreading of where its strengths lie. Rather than understand OWS as a more strident version of MoveOn (or even as a hopeful vanguard of radical revolution), it might be better conceptualized as a collaborative work of political art. I think I’d be paraphrasing anarchist, occultist, poet, and pirate fetishist Hakim Bey if I answered your hypothetical question “Is Occupy merely an aesthetic project?” with “What do you mean ‘merely’?” The tools that OWS captured last autumn were those of narrative and visuality (or, as my teacher Nick Mirzoeff might put it in his The Right to Look, countervisuality). Its resonance with the American people was not produced by lobbying and super PAC donations–tools accessible only to the über-rich–but through image and narrative.

I hope I look as awesome as Hakim Bey when I grow up. Pic courtesy of Traditionalists.

Access to the tools of aesthetic production is, of course, uneven. Occupy doesn’t own any television networks or run any media conglomerates. But unlike the plutocracy of traditional channels, the channels of image and narrative are not complete closed off to the movement. Just think back to the fall. I’m not speaking only of the photographs and videos that reached iconic status, like the shots of 84-year-old Dorli Rainey doused with pepper spray or of Lt. John Pike raining liquid pain down on a line of students as casually as he’d water a bed of tulips (although I am speaking of these shots). I mean the entire aesthetic enterprise of the Occupy Movement. Its protests. Its tent cities. Its signs. Its internet memes. Its stories. And yeah, even its drum circles.

In his book T.A.Z. (available free online), Bey theorizes the concept of “aesthetic-shock,” a reaction to powerful and surprising art that is “at least as strong as the emotion of terror.” With its spontaneous and nationwide seizure of parks, its mass arrests, and its long-term encampments, Occupy constituted such a shock. We were loved, hated, and gawked at. OWS was visible from the windows of skyscrapers, reproduced on television screens and on the front page of the newspaper, livestreamed on the internet, and lived through our bodies in the parks. The movement represented a clear and visible break from business as usual. And this break was not achieved by the conventional political means, but through the power of the aesthetics we created.

Let me quote from the conclusion Frederic Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism“:

This is not, then, clearly a call for a return to some older kind of machinery, some older and more transparent national space, or some more traditional and reassuring perspectival or mimetic enclave: the new political art–if it is indeed possible at all–will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is, to say, to its fundamental object–the world space of multinational capital–at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.

Yeah, I know. Mimetic, capital, blah, blah, blah. But looking past the critical theory jargon, I can’t read that passage without asking myself if Occupy is answering Jameson’s call for a postmodern political art, his “as yet unimaginable new mode of representing.”

Perhaps the appropriate aesthetic response to a diffuse system of globalized inequality is a similarly diffuse system of resistance and creation. The modernist paradigm encourages us to understand art–including political art–in terms of individual works of individual authors. We perpetuate this even when we speak of artists and theorists who reject such a model (how many times have you heard someone talk about Pynchon or Foucault with a reverence that seems distinctly un-Pynchonian or -Foucauldian?), so to view the collective enterprise of a social movement as an aesthetic project feels a pretty strange. But hasn’t it, to return to Jameson, helped its participants and sympathizers to “grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle”? By establishing temporary autonomous zones of occupation and by choosing a horizontal model of organization and cooperation, aren’t we addressing “our spatial as well as our social confusion?

OMG? Has anyone told Geitner? Pic courtesy of some certified jackass.

Corporate interests are currently so entrenched that even our socialist Mau Mau President wants to lower the corporate tax rate. 25% of super PAC donations have come from just five outlandishly wealthy individuals. Grassroots activists aren’t going to find many victories in orthodox channels of government institutions. Political art, by contrast, changes reality by changing culture. The horizontal capabilities of the internet have made it easier to disseminate our self-produced aesthetic packets and even to see our own viral images occasionally dominate the mainstream news cycle. Narrative and image: these are battles we can have without ceding the outcome in advance.

I’m glad that there are progressive folks who do electoral politics and who obsess on the details of policy. We need them. But Occupy is not them, and it shouldn’t try to ape them. It was, sayeth the New York Times, “the efforts of Occupy Wall Street and other protests” that persuaded President Obama to include a mortgage crisis investigation unit and a program to help devastated homeowners refinance their loans in his 2012 State of the Union Address. Before our aesthetic spectacle, even these relatively minor victories were beyond the reach of the traditional political organs who continue to deride our lack of clarity and resistance to hierarchical structure.

The challenge going forward, I think, will be to make sure that the project stays fresh. The tactics that worked in the fall are unlikely to be as effective this spring. Art that forever attempts to repeat itself is no art at all. So our relevance, then, is not dependent on making a choice to get sucked into a corrupt political framework that robs us of our most vital capacities. It’s about using these capacities–our artistic and poetic imaginations–to ever-more inventive ends.

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