In 1969 a group of artists, critics, museum workers and others formed the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC). One of their achievements was to force the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to have a free admission day – to democratize access to the musuem’s collection. So it is fitting that last night, during MoMA’s “Free Friday" (February 17), a group of a few dozen protesters – joined at times by hundreds of other attendees – erupted in protest in MoMA’s lobby, demanding the removal of billionaire Larry Fink from the museum's board.
Fink, CEO of BlackRock, Inc., is also a member of President’s Strategic and Policy Forum – a collection of “business leaders” who advise the revanchist Trump administration. The protesters have rightly taken a position against any normalization of the Trump presidency.
Contempt should not breed complaceny. Over the past few days Trump has been set back; at times under pressure from grassroots resitance – and at times due to the "Russia" hue and cry of imperial Democrats and neocon Republicans. But, as of writing, Trump is still President and the white nationalist Steve Bannon is still serving as "Chief Strategist."
Beneath the surface the drive towards “normalcy” continues; normalizing white supremacy, attacks on Muslims, the rounding-up of immigrants, the further destabilization of working-class life, escalating attacks against women, queer and lgbt populations, and the ongoing public rehabilitation of fascism.
To MoMA’s credit, the museum responded to Trump’s Muslim ban by prominently displaying work by artists from the targeted nations in the permanent collection.
But if our museums are, as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts head Deborah Cullin argued, really going to “lead” resistance to Trump; nothing can be busisness as usual. The men and women in the suits with the deep pockets – who sit on the museum boards – provide unreliable resistance (at best), even when they are liberals like Fink.
“Fink is just one of many such oligarchs deeply entwined with MoMA… and the institutional landscape of the artwork more generally,” the protesters’ statement reads. “This is a situation that has long been taken to be the acceptable, if sometimes unseemly, norm in the art-world.”
Protesters pointed out that much of MoMA's endowment came from Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller's hostility to radical and emancipatory politics was demonstrated when he infamously destroyed Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads mural in 1934.
Bourgeois liberalism is a large part of what allowed Trump to win the election. It cannot, in the end, defeat what Trump represents. Indeed, Fink was slated as a possible Treasury Secretary in a would-be Clinton administration.
Fink’s presence on the Forum, protesters argue,
shows the extent to which the Clintonite consensus around neoliberal finance that is so deeply ingrained in the upper echelons of the artworld… can co-exist, however uneasily, with an openly white-nationalist regime.
As banners were dopped and protesters started a human microphone, artists and activists read statements and led chants. One person read poetry by Audre Lorde. Another read from Walter Benjamin’s “On History”:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.
I was on the third floor when the chanting started – in the exhibition A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde – watching projctions of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin. It was the Odessa steps sequence.
Earlier in the day I had attended a workshop at the College Art Association conference in which some panelists extolled the virtues of corporate globalization and its influence on the arts – as if the economic crisis, Occupy and Black Lives Matter had never really happened. As if Trump was merely a reaction against a globalized post-modern utopia. But I also attended a panel on “Conformism and Subversion: Aesthetic Strategies and the Problem of the Political in Contemporary Art” that drew far better, almost diametrically opposite, conclusions.
On hearing the chants, I made my way downstairs. It was as if the latter panel had eaten the former panel alive. I was handed the following statement:
THIS IS WHAT NORMALIZATION LOOKS LIKE!
FINK OFF MOMA BOARD!
-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BlackRock
-Member of Donald Trump’s Presidential STRATEGIC and Policy Forum
-Board Member and Recipient of 2016 David Rockefeller Award, MoMA
We would like to draw your attention to the presence of billionaire financier Laurence D. Fink on the board of MoMA. CEO of the largest money-managing firm in the world, virtuoso of the credit default swap, and an exemplary predator on the crushing debt burden of millions of people, Fink is just one of many such oligarchs deeply entwined with MoMA in particular and the institutional landscape of the art-world more generally. This is a situation that has long been taken to be the acceptable, if sometimes unseemly, norm in the art-world. Like most of his fellow members of the 1 percent who use the art-world to enhance their cultural prestige and demonstrate their civic-mindedness, Fink identifies as a liberal, and indeed was slated to be the Treasury Secretary in a prospective Hillary Clinton presidency.
Along with Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, Bib Iger, CEO of Disney, and Doug Macmillion, CEO of Wal-Mart, Fink has recently become a member of Donald Trump’s Presidential Strategic and Policy Forum, the body convened to offer advice about economic policy to the new administration The forum is officially non-partisan, and like Fink, many of its participants are identified as Democrats who have openly criticized the president. Indeed, Fink himself penned a letter on behalf of BlackRock proclaiming the virtues of multicultural tolerance for global capitalism in response to Trump’s Muslim ban. And yet he continues to participate in the Forum.
This should not shock us or appear as some great hypocrisy. It exemplifies the normalization of Trump that is pervasive among ruling elites in business, media, and government, even as such normalization becomes more difficult to sustain by the day in the face of both the Trump regime’s own incompetence and the groundswell of popular outrage at those who openly collude with it. The CEO of Uber, for example, removed himself from the Forum earlier this month when the company was boycotted following its attempt to profit from the Taxi workers strike against the Muslim ban. His resignation from the Forum per se was not the goal of the boycott, but it was index of the social and economic pressure coming from the resistance. Many liberals were pleased with the face-saving by Uber, and smugly announced they were reactivating their Uber accounts. In other words, a literal return to business as usual, rather than an opportunity to challenge the exploitative labor model of Uber itself in favor of the longstanding work of the Taxi-workers Alliance and new experiments in drivers’ co-ops.
This example is pertinent to drawing attention to Fink’s collusion with Trump. We are not simply here to pressure Fink to “do the right thing” by dissassociating himself from Trump. Indeed, his presence on the Forum is a useful object-lesson for the art-world. It shows the extent to which the Clintonite consensus around neoliberal finance that is so deeply ingrained in the upper echelons of the art-world, such as the board of MoMA, can co-exist, however uneasily, with an openly white-nationalist regime. Historically, this process of elite normalization has been the necessary condition for Fascism.
A figure like Fink requires us to look beyond the Trump regime itself, both in terms of how we got to where we are now, and how things will go in the future. Neoliberalism itself, led by people like Fink, is founded on racialized dynamics of debt, precarity, poverty, austerity, dispossession, displacement and criminalization. The newly awakened sense of emergency that so many people in the art-world – especially those who have reaped the poisoned benefits of white supremacy – feel in the face of Trump must become an occasion for deepening our analysis and action to take aim not only at the grotesque symptoms, but also the deeper causes, of our current crisis. Institutions must look closely at what they help to legitimize, directly and indirectly, and take bold actions that align with their stated public values. MoMA’s placing an exhibition of artists from countries subjected to Trump’s ban is a significant move; but in the end, how different is it from Fink’s open letter extolling the virtues of tolerance? What other, perhaps less comfortable, moves might a museum like MoMA be prompted to make that would demonstrate where it stands in the face of the regime? Ousting Fink would be one way. Further, as mass deportaions intsensify by the day, the imperative of Sanctuary becomes all the more imperative for institutions of all kinds.
***I asked a few of the protesters if they had a organizational name or who “called” the protest. Not knowing me they were circumspect. I will update this post with any new information.
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