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Striking Back by Aviva Rahmani - Book Review

Monday, November 29, 2021 9:44 AM | ecoartspace (Administrator)


Striking Back by Aviva Rahmani

What is fascinating, informative, and important to ecoart about Laura Raicovich’s recent book, “Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest” (Verso Press 224 pages / June 2021), is that it is a thoughtful meditation on the paradoxical power relationships between disparate groups and values: museum personnel, business leaders, and activists representing disenfranchised groups. At a number of museums in recent years, that relationship has been tested, as, with British Petroleum, from whom the Tate, UK, was successfully pressured by Liberate Tate to divest in 2016, or with the Sackler family, which produced OxyContin, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What is significant about her meditation for the field of ecoart is that even though good ecological art can set the wheels in motion, we need more than one wheel to move the vehicle of change forward in mainstream consciousness before we all perish from ecosuicide. The museum world, despite caveats, may still house one of those wheels.

Critics maintain that the museum world is held hostage to figures whose financial success cannot be held up to scrutiny. Therefore, the museums’ ethical accountability cannot be assured. That is where art activists have stepped into the breach to demand that accountability. Raicovich’s insightful gaze on these relationships is cool but not cold. Her conclusions seem implicit: the wheel is broken but perhaps not irreparably. She analyzes several complex situations, including a frank examination of her high-profile resignation as President and Executive Director from the Queens Museum of New York, where she advocated a radical public commons, to show how a small, strategically minded, and determined group can effect change. The most careful investigation of that dynamic is in her deconstruction of events at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which ended with the reluctant resignation of Warren B. Kanders on July 19, 2019, then vice-chairman of the museum, whose company, Safariland, supplied tear gas used at the Mexican American border and in Palestine. Kanders' statement at the time was, “I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.” Before he resigned, five prominent artists announced they would withdraw from the Biennale led by Michael Rakowitz, then Korakrit ArunanondchaiMeriem BennaniNicole Eisenman and, Nicholas Galanin. They were later joined by other artists from the Biennale. It is worth mentioning that the honorarium for the artist’s participation was $1500., which they did not forfeit. Clearly, that modest figure is evidence that finances were not a consideration for the artists. The organization most responsible for pressure on the Whitney was Decolonize This Place. The formal statement from the latter ended by celebrating, “… a process of reformulating our museums to be responsive to the constituencies they claim to serve.”

Whether or not that optimism is justified today is arguable. But the dynamics Laura Raicovich so carefully and honestly dissected are worth close consideration. Raicovich’s deconstruction of museum accountability represents a deconstruction of the same dynamic the world recently witnessed in the denouement of COP26 in Glasgow. COP26 came to no practical solutions to the scale of devastation occasioned by fossil fuel corporations. The caveat to that comparison is that no one resigned after COP26. Nor did anyone implicitly express regret for any threat to institutions caused by their bad behavior.

And the caveat to that is that the art world often reflects attitudinal shifts on the broader culture. The outstanding question Raicovich leaves hanging is whether it is possible to work as an ethical museum director in our current culture. And the corollary to that question is can we find any respite to our climate crises in any powerful institution, or is the whole world held hostage to greed with impunity? What are the limits of our personal and professional boundaries, and where, when, and how can we exert pressure to change how Western cultural institutions function? If, as many believe, the museum is still the agora for public discourse, if as many believe the most critical discourse we must engage in now is how to end behaviors that result in ecocide, of which climate change is one devastating symptom, can we take space in museum culture to force that discourse and effect change? Can we hope for a horizon of accountability for the rich and powerful? As she writes in her conclusion about the challenge ahead, “… the single most important thing is to begin … by looking inward.” She has offered us that beginning.

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