Flash Points

Lilly Ledbetter* Art

It is only a coincidence that the world’s largest franchised art fair and the international banking regulatory body share a moniker from their shared base, Basel, Switzerland, but no coincidence at all that each are currently in a bit of a funk. From Basel to Boston, institutions all over are now contemplating how to function in a financial black hole. Equally funky and oddly inspiring have been the community-based, democratically modeled responses to these crises-induced measures. One such example of this is an online petition to preserve the Rose Art Museum collection. No doubt this action is inspired by such tactics like the one that is lobbying the new Obama administration for a culture czar. How do we really feel about Quincy Jones at the helm of U.S. cultural institutions?

I’m more intrigued by artists’ responses to the increasingly challenging economic conditions—ones that are taking the form of community action groups. It seems that collaborations as community actions are the way forward for artists’ and art mavens’ take on large issues and institutions, even when the goal is individual empowerment. W.A.G.E. is one such feminist art group seeking economic parity for artists’ work.

Democracy in America: W.A.G.E. from Creative Time on Vimeo.

W.A.G.E. was formed well before the global credit crunch. In fact, it developed in the midst of a hyperbolic market where (generally male) artists such as Michael Landy, the Chapman Brothers, and Jeff Koons were parodying the same market forces that were feeding them. When the art world was awash in obscene amounts of cash, W.A.G.E. wondered why more artists weren’t seeing more of it. Granted, this is the complication of peculiar economic relationships in the art world based on buying, selling, and patronage, but not on the basic equation of labor and compensation. And thus the question remains: how do artists make a living from the practice of making art alone without wholly capitulating to market forces?

I have no answers at all to the big economic questions but personally, when things are a bit tight, I like to fall back on the old-school green motto that is both earth-friendly and cost-effective: the 3Rs. Below is an offering of some art projects that exemplify each in principle.

This collage is more of a collaboration between Art21 artist Andrea Zittel and MOMA curator Klaus Biesenbach featured in the latest W magazine. Biesenbach’s austere downtown digs inspired a collage, which adds some visual texture to his monk-like quarters. Granted, this is a design editorial for a luxury-goods magazine but it’s amazing how idealistically anti-consumerist it comes across.

 Photographed by Dean Kaufman for W Magazine

Photographed by Dean Kaufman for "W" magazine.

The largest of Phoebe Washburn‘s installations mimic landscapes and the most ambitious ones create their own biosphere.

Phoebe Washburn,

Phoebe Washburn, "Manning Stay Station," 2005. Installation view.

Yes it’s cool that Washburn goes on walks, collecting discarded materials on her meanderings and then sorts them with her own cataloging system, but it’s even cooler that she retrieves the materials when the installations are dismantled and re-catalogs them for possible use in future projects. Granted, there are all sorts of formal and conceptual issues to tackle in this work and it’s really more about an obsessive practice, but it’s great to think about these practices as self-sustaining systems that form a tacit critique of consumption-based market systems.

I think it may be high time to reinvigorate The Black Factory, William Pope.L’s peripatetic truck that solicits folks to bring objects they associate with black culture. The Factory’s workers then “convert” those objects into products to be sold.

William Pope.L's "Black Factory," 2006. Courtesy of sokref1 (http://flickr.com/photos/sokref1/) on Flickr.

William Pope.L’s “Black Factory,” 2006, via sokref1 on Flickr.

Perhaps these conversations on race would be interesting to revisit now that Obama is in office but, in a more compelling sense, I like that Pope.L’s art has often been based on the consumption habits of the working class and the poor. No one often thinks of the words “poor” and “consumer” at the same time, but those consumed things make for a material culture that has been fueling art projects for years.

* Lilly Ledbetter is the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, President Obama’s first official piece of legislation. It expands workers’ rights to sue on the grounds of race, sex, age, and/or disability discrimination.

  1. You are brilliant. Can you please write every day? And please, please, can we hang out some time?

  2. Marc Herbst says:


    Class interests. Do artists share the same interests as the institutions you write about? Are artists allied with all who work for culture, even “progresive culture.” Have we accepted an implicit judgement, internalizing a negative self-image when we wonder why some artists get paid for their work and others have to teach, as the WAGE video expands upon? Is the acceptence of the “political artists” to any term of participation within a major musuem a capitulation to a system that asks for the semiotic of dissent when that political artist might have better used their skills elsewhere?

    What is exciting in WAGE is their demand. Payment for work. I for one feel that in a time of political flux, artists should be going beyond the three R’s and their consumerist mentality and push agendas. So the WAGE call is cool.

    Yet while a cultural czar may be pleasant (ignoring the monarchist notions of the title which are doubly creepy when joined with the notion of state sponsored culture) the radical role of the artists in times like these is to constitute with social groups radical agendas and push push push. Our agenda’s are only as visionary as our agendas and our understanding of art’s (understood as culture’s) ability to challenge and constitute power.

    If we are at the edge of an economic freefall, if we are at the edge of environmental catastrophe- its interesting in the least that the Obama administration has managed (for a few days at least) to keep it together. This is not to question the severity of the crisis, this is not to question the Obama administration’s ability to govern. It is more to question the future social unraveling then redefining that will occur as America faces the end of our capitalist pillowcase, as America sits at the brink of environmental collapse. Artists can sit and idolize their peer’s window dressing on the museums, presenting radical semiotics meant to favorably shake the managerial class who govern with semiotics. At a certain level this work is very affective. But outside those windows is a world that is about to be changed dramatically, they say.

    Artists, cultural workers, stand at the opportunity to be a part of making the new demands and social patterns that will be consituted through of these crisitunities (thank you Bekka Economopolous). We can work in our cohorts among activists and plumbers, bakers and preschool teachers to demand more then fair pay, we can demand the right to sue our employers for wasting our time and wasting the entire planets resources.

  3. Marc Herbst says:


    Check out Lee Lozano’s statement as a part of her participation in the Art Worker’s Coalition.


    That sure is some art dreaming.

  4. Daniel Quiles says:

    Great blog Naomi. Interestingly I see familiar approaches in the works you show here in relation to the way that some contemporary artists in Argentina (and, I would imagine, throughout the developing world) have been operating for some time. Outside of the limited and conservative market there, artists have indeed been limited to their wits, reusable materials, and what we might call the “neo-arte povera” aesthetic you call attention to. Some artists who come to mind are Patricio Larrambebere, Mariela Scafati, Esteban Alvarez and Tamara Stuby, among many others.

    One quibble (I am an ISPer, after all!)– I’m a little confused how the Zittel piece is representative of “reduction.” Do you mean the fact that her apartment has very little in it? Because surely in terms of underlying capital a Manhattan beauty such as that is not exactly “more-with-less…” Since Minimalism became part of corporate architecture, this sort of “clean” look has become synonymous with money and taste, no?

    To Marc: artists indeed can and should place their practices in the service of various social agendas and movements. But I would be loathe to give up on art’s uniqueness as an “open” practice, one not fully hemmed in by capital or ideology. No matter how dire things get, asking questions, and doing so in challenging ways, retains value.

  5. Marc Herbst says:

    To Daniel.
    I too am loathe to give up art’s unique open position. I’m arguing for opening up the practice further. Thus, I question (especially in conversations regarding political arts and art in the time of political flux) why art needs the museum to maintain that open position. A does not equal B.

  6. Daniel Quiles says:

    Marc, could you clarify a bit what you mean? What would it look like were the museum to -not- maintain an open position?

    There is a problematic in here with regard to contemporary art institutions, of which the recently passed “political season” is a part– a homogenization of content and shows around topical events. But perhaps you are getting at something else.

  7. Marc Herbst says:

    I am not a big fan of the political season…
    Sure, its great that politics enter museums, but when they enter in programatic ways, it has many limits… just two being the limits of the audience patience and the other the ability for artwork to be understood as something larger then the programatics of the curation.

    Museums should maintain open positions- that said they are limmited not only by their curatorial and institutional limitations, but also by the way in which they create, gather and interact with audiences. As such I am suggesting the very easy position of doing artwork outside of such institutions, in collaboration with scenes, diy spaces, events, community groups etc. Working in dialogue or in residency (even self-appointed residency) with community groups or scenes.

    I might not understand you though.

    Or I’m I not

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