[artinfo] Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest

art-agenda art-agenda at mailer.e-flux.com
Thu Jun 3 22:38:38 CEST 2021

Laura Raicovich, Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest

published by Verso on June 15, 2021.

BOOK REVIEW by Travis Diehl
	Who really thinks museums are politically 
neutral? Find these people, and you will have 
found the audience for Laura Raicovich's new book 
on the tensions between social movements and 
museum politics. In 2018, Raicovich resigned as 
director of the Queens Museum over pushback 
against her expressions of solidarity with 
immigrant communities and striking workers, and 
the board's decision to rent out the museum for 
an Israeli government event keynoted by Vice 
President Mike Pence. In the former case, she 
writes, the board argued that "a public 
institution [Š] should not, and indeed could not, 
'take sides'" in political debates; in the 
latter, however, it was Raicovich who argued for 
maintaining the practice of "not renting space 
for such political events." Neutrality is 
rhetorical; the public understands this as well 
as art world insiders.

So it's odd how often Raicovich returns to "the 
myth of neutrality" in Culture Strike. The first 
three chapters survey the legacy of colonialism, 
the "universal museum," and arguments for 
returning looted objects; the problems of 
philanthropy in a world of unethical riches; and 
well-meaning blunders into cultural 
appropriation. The fourth and sixth ponder ways 
to move forward by revising the narratives 
museums tell and committing to an institutional 
vision not based on an arch modernist posture of 
universality but imbricated with the needs of the 
public. The fifth section wrestles with "The 
Neutrality Problem"-having repeatedly put it 
down. Raicovich cites Barthes's idea of "the 
neutral" as an active, substantial "color" that 
carries the possibility for flexibility and 
change, an intriguingly non-neutral neutral. In 
the end, she argues for taking sides.

The book is especially urgent because the 
museum-based controversies discussed in Culture 
Strike are bespoke versions of intractable social 
conflicts, largely around race, labor, 
environmentalism, and other forms of inequality. 
Today, these debates erupt within museums' orbits 
and within progressive circles, as opposed to 
yesterday's us-vs-them rows around figures such 
as Robert Mapplethorpe or Richard Serra. Indeed, 
quoting Chantal Mouffe on agonism, Raicovich 
offers the museum as a site to stage debate. (To 
the point, see MoMA's recent ousting of Strike 
MoMA protesters from its premises.) Yet she 
immediately moves to a description of the Art and 
Society Census, an effort to survey "what people 
desire from cultural institutions and 
experiences" launched by the arts and culture 
division of the Brooklyn Public Library with 
Raicovich and Hyperallergic, and the more 
experimental "Look At Art. Get Paid." program at 
RISD, which offers people who have not visited a 
museum 75 dollars to tour selected institutions 
and give feedback. Such efforts, she writes, are 
"only a handful of examples of how care can be 
enacted in cultural space." This sounds less like 
agonism than customer relations.

It bears repeating that museums are 
"conservative" institutions in their bones; from 
their beginnings in the 1700s, they have first 
and foremost collected and protected valuable 
objects, reflecting the ideology of the white 
elites that built them. Raicovich's useful 
history of museums in the United States and their 
Enlightenment bent charts how the imperative 
shifted from pure "conservation" to include 
education. In the present, she proposes, "the 
single most important and impactful way to make 
changes is to radically slow down" (emphasis in 
the original) in order to address society "better 
and deeper" and with greater care.

It's not merely polemical to say that Raicovich's 
non-neutral, proactive, sensitive cultural 
institution resembles the "therapeutic 
institution" that Dave Hickey railed against in 
the 1990s: "a loose confederation of museums, 
universities, bureaus, foundations, publications, 
and endowments" united in the belief that "the 
'experience of art' [Š] is good for both our 
spiritual health and our personal growth."(1) In 
fact, the most egregious missteps Raicovich 
discusses, Dana Schutz at the Whitney and Sam 
Durant at the Walker, went forward not thanks to 
sloppy belief in neutrality or universality but 
because these institutions saw themselves as 
charged with presenting uncomfortable truths-to 
the point of blindly offending their constituents.

It seems too easy to reimagine cultural spaces as 
"locations of care, if not communal joy." Nor is 
it enough to leverage the will of the people (as 
Raicovich advocates in the chapter "Moving 
Forward") toward social services, unionization 
drives, and progressive propaganda. To paraphrase 
Mouffe: for an institution to accommodate real 
democracy could mean its own obsolescence, yet 
anything less would amount to rearranging the 
elites of the status quo. Yes, the museum can 
test new political models, provoke contests of 
ideas, act as a refuge, and perform many other 
social goods. But it will never do these things 
well if the museum itself remains a given. What 
if necessary wage equity overwhelms the museum's 
rickety finances? What if the museum's public, 
duly consulted, says they don't want the museum 
at all?

Unjust structures "can be undone," concludes 
Raicovich, "collectively, with intention, and 
with a fearlessness that comes from conviction 
and commitment, and also from an abundance of 
love." Such love is best demonstrated not by the 
vague democracy of care, but by the principled 
stand and professional risk Raicovich took when 
she quit her post in Queens.

Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of 
Protest by Laura Raicovich is 
by Verso on June 15, 2021.

(1) Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four 
Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 
1993), 53.

Travis Diehl is Online Editor at X-TRA. He is a 
recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation / 
Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and the 
Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.

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