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Art Strike’s Back Manifesto
In the late 1980's, a loose confederation of artists in London, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and San Francisco (among other far flung locales) proposed an Art Strike for three years, beginning in 1990. Each city’s Art Strike coordinators took different, and often contradictory, stances in regards to the purpose and meaning of the Art Strike, as well as to how to conduct one. In San Francisco the effort was coordinated out of the Valencia Street media gallery Artist's Television Access (ATA).
Most of the activities and statements surrounding the proposed Art Strike were predicated on the very absurdity and unlikelihood of such a thing actually occurring, hoping instead to draw attention to the cultural and economic conditions in which art was made, and distributed, at that time. One primary argument proposing the strike was that art making was an act of unwitting conspiracy with the prevailing forces of capital. As such it served as cover for the more profound gagging of every and all individuals' agency and creativity that the informational/industrial/financial multinationals were aggressively pursuing through worldwide monopolistic dominance of media, and the consequent control of the information and opinion available, both for expression and consumption. While tolerating supposedly challenging and critical art making as evidence of the plurality of opinions available in the supposedly 'free' market, the dominating corporate media owners could use such tolerance as a tool to further gain control of the processes and outlets of expression. The Art Strike was, according to the argument, intended to cast a light on this ill understood conspiracy by threatening to cease creating the cover behind which this cultural totalitarianism was operating.
Ridiculous or not at the time, ten years later the Art Strike now seems a strangely prophetic gesture, the absurdity of which is fast becoming a material reality in the city of San Francisco, and perhaps foretelling the future of art-making everywhere. The city of SF now faces a de-facto art strike, or perhaps better formulated, Art Lock-Out. The problem is not as simple as rising rents, though that is proving to be a fatal symptom. The new digital dot-com culture, unforeseen and unanticipated a scant ten years ago, has effectively usurped the role of art making in the new information age. Though not even particularly covert, the web, and all those who reside within it, has taken upon itself the role of the 'free thinking, creative, rule shattering outsider', which by it's very nature challenges and alters the 'dominant paradigm' wherever it encounters it. This role provides even more effective cover for the voracious capture and consolidation of all media production and portals, because a member of the family is acting it out, as it were. It is difficult to believe that a child is entirely the agent of a parent that is constantly ridiculed and challenged by that child. However, such is the case with the new information order. In fact, the dot-com-ers obvious and rather pathetic relation to capital and acquisition points this fact up rather plainly. All that obstreperous creativity seems to be in the service of an even more malevolent acquisitiveness than that of the 'parent'. Somehow, though, the new digital dot-com thinkers fail to observe this conundrum in their own self-absorbed critiques and challenges to the old 'dominant paradigm'.
We are in the eye of one of the most intense and thorough-going storms of acquisition and consolidation of wealth and power in history, one that is leaving a larger share of humanity out of it's benefits while expanding it's exploitive capabilities over them, and is able, at the very same moment, to tell the world with a straight face that it is about empowerment for all! The supposed unwitting co-conspirator artists of the original Art Strike critique ten years ago seem ineffectual and useless by comparison. And so they are, to the dot-com culture. As a result, there is no urge or need felt to assist, or even tolerate, art making in 'their' acquired environment. Artists and art organizations are subject to the same rigors of the market place as the dot-com-ers, and inevitably lose and are forced out. Further, by usurping the role of the alternative, the digital paradigm seeks to own the very conditions of experience (sadly, not just metaphorically!) by eliminating all portals of experience outside of it's control, other than the immediate lived experience, and by coaxing younger and younger children to avoid even lived experience as much as possible. The result is a completely commodified condition available for experience. The issue of what information and opinion is available becomes moot in such a world -it is as if everyone is given a white piece of paper and a white crayon, and are told that they are free to write whatever they please, and are further free to read, and believe, whatever anyone else has written! It is a cultural slavery of digital literacy with many perceived, but no real, alternatives. One of the cultural smokescreens that is used to hide this usurpation is the celebration and support of the 'civic art institutions' by the digital elite. By pointing to the increased adventurism of mainstream institutions, and their growing popular support, they argue that art making is alive and well in San Francisco. Unfortunately, this is a classic conflation of cause and effect. For an increasing lack of actual art making in this city, which is directly the result of the economic conditions created by the frenzy of acquisition, the powers that be point to the institutions that behave most acquisitively as the evidence of the dynamic's non-existence. There is no denying that art, even great art, exists in these institutions, but for a lack of context that healthy on-going art making provides in a community, those works are in grave danger of becoming meaningless. The institutions are increasingly becoming acquisitive archives of texts written in a language no longer spoken. No matter their original vitality, they become archaic and meaningless under such conditions. Nothing happens without unforeseen consequences, however, and this dynamic, though suffuse with unseemly strength, proves that rule.
If art was indeed a dupe of capital at one time to a degree sufficient to call for an Art Strike, then it is now without question a true outsider, and though difficult and embattled a position as that may be, spiritually and materially, in San Francisco in the year 2000, it also affords those art-makers that are left a rare opportunity to truly fight for its' own, and humanist cultures', very survival.