Occupy is Culture

Just a couple of weeks ago I was walking through Living as Form with Nato Thompson, and he made a great point that’s been organizing my watching and reading habits ever since. To paraphrase, he said that we don’t know whether or not the work at Living as Form is art, but we know that it’s culture and that it’s important.

Paying attention to what is relevant in our culture and working to figure out why and how it’s relevant instead of working to define things as art is a surprisingly attractive guiding principle. It’s broadening. It allows for the idea that we may not know what we are looking for. It forces art and culture to do something.

And it means that most of what I am driven to watch, participate in and think about right now is the Occupy movement, which shows no signs of abating or crystallizing into something specific. Instead OWS is spreading, burbling and defining itself as an amorphous, emergent system—less protest and more amoeba-city than ever. Facing eviction, OWS negotiated a mutual win with the Bloomberg administration and Brookfield Properties, which owns Zuccotti Park, and this win charged OWS with maintenance, solving infrastructure issues like toilets, and otherwise continuing to self-organize sustainably and pro-socially. And a number of culturally-oriented tentacles or pseudopods have formed like Occupy Writers! Occupy Chelsea! Occupy Art World! and Occupy Museums!

Yeah, this is the same image everyone else is using. It’s like Jerry Saltz is the only person at Occupy Museums who had a camera.

These new legs or arms that are pushing out of OWS are being derided as missing the point of OWS, which is ostensibly economic justice. Critics of these offshoots wonder if it’s not diluting the movement to shift focus from Wall Street to the New Museum. Whether it’s not sour grapes for artists to whine about the inequality inherent to being an artist. Whether it matters that MoMA is charging $25 for admission at a moment when folks are worried about basics like jobs and healthcare and food.

But is that really the point? I don’t see a list of demands coming out of Zuccotti Park that call for increased bank regulation or the taxation of financial transactions or a new New Deal. I see a microcosm of meaning-makers who often disagree with one another but hang out in the same space anyway, playing city so that they can engage one another. I see people enacting what they want—giving one another food, education, medical care, a place to be heard and to listen.

I see a cultural movement that looks more like a physical embodiment of the internet than a protest.

If the point of OWS is that there is no point except the creation of an active, questioning culture of discourse, then the spread of these groups like Occupy Writers and Occupy Museums are part of its strength and not a dilution. The Occupy movement is a unique cultural product. To grow and evolve as such it needs to actively question its relationship to culture at large.

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