Realism and Rancière: Arts in Occupy

Realism and Rancière: Arts in Occupy

by Ruth Erickson

Photo by Jeff Mitchell/ The Daily Collegian


Much has been written about the relations between the arts and the Occupy Movement (or, perhaps, occupy movements) because from the very beginning art and artists have played galvanizing roles. Nato Thompson, the Chief Curator at Creative Time and author of several relevant articles, writes in Art Papers this past May, “From its inception, OWS was organized by cultural groups and individuals whose interests went far beyond the arts and into the realms of social justice.”[1] In the fall of 2011, art and culture subcommittees were formed and have continued to mount contestations through various arms, including the groups Occupy Museums and Arts and Labor, the organization Occuprint, which collects and makes available smart and snazzy protest posters, TheOccupied Wall Street Journal, and groups working in solidarity with Sotheby’s locked-out art handlers. The old questions about the borders between art and activism–whether or not they exist, and if so, what they are–continue to shape the most astute discussions, as evidenced by Thompson’s phrase “far beyond the arts.”

To engage with such questions, a group of graduate students at Harvard University–Alex Auriema, Claire Grace, John Hulsey, Derin Korman, and Helen Miller–organized an open-forum discussion on March 27, 2012, entitled “Unstable Art (Art and the Occupy Movement)” at the Carpenter Center. “Present conditions,” they write in the event description, “challenge the very category of art altogether, and give renewed urgency to the question of art’s purpose or ‘usefulness’ in a period of social upheaval.”[2] The evening began with the presentation of a list of nine questions, which the organizers proposed as possible starting points for small group discussions. My own group hovered around the first question: “What aesthetic forms have emerged out of the Occupy movement and how do we interpret their specificity?” We compared such forms as hand-written cardboard signs, Zucotti Park’s accumulative dwellings, and the 99% “bat-signal” projected onto the Verizon building during an October 2011 march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Some felt that Occupy had to present itself more professionally in order to spur a mass movement, and others felt that more marginal forms of protest were stronger and less likely to be co-opted by the “establishment,” that is the US government, the banks, or the seeming complicity between the two.

When the open-forum was reconvened and each small group wrote their answers and reflections on blackboards, my group wrote, “Between the sleek design that adopts existing corporate channels and the rag-tag sign that threatens to be ignored, what aesthetic is most visible and legible? And to what audience?” Other groups inquired about art’s relationship to social and political change, envisioning and comparing possible aesthetic paradigms. Is this relationship instrumental (i.e. make populist objects with clear messages that can be directly used in the struggle) or “more complicated” (i.e. less legible objects that interrogate less explicit paradigms of power)? Is art a “carrier pigeon” for a message or a “lawless proposition,” as someone stated quoting Paul Chan? As with most things related to aesthetics and to Occupy, most questions bubbled up outnumbering answers. Does the fact that something is “readable” mean that it is already laden with certain historical, ideological, or optical regimes? Is opacity necessarily radical? Do politics happen at the level of content or form? To this last question–perhaps, the perennial question–the response, of course, has to be both content and form, but just how those two operate remains far from resolved.

During the conversation, two camps seemed to be forming despite numerous attempts to insert third options. I’ll call the camps “Soviet Realism” and “Jacques Rancière.” While such a division is necessarily artificial, approaches to aesthetics diverged according to the location of politics. The realist camp found politics in the readability of signification, in content. While no one advocated heavy-handed, naturalistic paintings, the clarity of symbols such as “99%” resonated with the potential of certain forms to reach and motivate “the masses.” The Rancière camp, on the other hand, argued for resistance to signification and located politics in form. For this latter group, art incites a perceptual shock, a “redistribution of the sensible” outside of “pre-constituted political modes of framing,” and this aesthetic experience constitutes art’s true politics.[3] Perhaps, for instance, the horizontality of the makeshift dwellings in Zucotti Park nestled among the sky-reaching architecture of lower Manhattan affected a radically different perceptual experience for individuals visiting the encampment. While somewhat caricatured here, these two models came up against each other again and again during the discussion.

It was nearing 10:30pm, and thoughts were still freely circulating among the circle of participants when the woman who had been working behind the bar all night asked about those who could not occupy. Occupying requires a degree of free time, which often comes with the privilege of certain classes or the destitution of other classes, and so what of the working classes who may not be present at the rallies or occupy camps but are sympathetic to the vision? With this question, the bartender quite innocently introduced herself into the discussion, making apparent the social and economic structures that subtended the event itself. Her labor of serving beverages had kept her out of the discussion, on the margin of the circled chairs. She was quickly invited to come join in and assured that we could help ourselves to beers and soda. However, her question made me think about the issues of invisibility/visibility and non-participation/participation. What about those people who cannot attend marches or protests, those individuals far from downtown Manhattan and other political and cultural centers? How do they register politically and aesthetically?

I immediately thought of the “we are the 99 percent” gallery.[4] This online Tumbler feed features thousands of photographs of people holding hand-written accounts of their lives. It not only provides more accessible means of participation and visibility but also offers a model for thinking about art and politics that merges realism and Rancière. Chris and Priscilla, the two activists behind the effort, published the first post on September 8, 2011, in the earliest days of Occupy.[5] Quickly the blog was flooded with hundreds of submissions per month testifying to how given economic, political, educational, and health systems have failed so many people. The gallery has thousands of what I call “sociological snapshots.” “I am 19, a college sophomore, $6,000 in debt, working two jobs and these are my shoes,” one woman wrote while holding up a pair of sneakers with holes worn through the soles. Curly adolescent handwriting on notebook pages, stocky letters in marker on poster board, and computer typed treatises describe oppressive student debt, unbearable medical bills, deficient insurance, sicknesses, joblessness, and the generally dim outlook of “the American dream.” Individual stories pile on top of one another, creating a sedimentary register of life and struggle. Using the self-portrait, written word, and web, the project creates an economical structure through which myriad expressions erupt. Here, content and form accommodate one another, and the merged efficacy of personal stories with quotidian aesthetics renders a powerful masterpiece. Whereas the realists would likely celebrate the straightforward expressions by “the people” and the simple language, the Rancière camp might appreciate the occasional space of identification and community formation.

The gallery does not resolve the tricky issue of reception. Visitors to the site likely encounter and understand the myriad messages differently. How does one account for the varying emotional, perceptual, and cognitive dimensions? Is the experience as aesthetic one? Is aesthetic experience equally available to all? I am not sure. However, I think that the gallery has developed a visual and formal language that enables the sharing of a wide range of complicated personal experiences. By bringing together these images, it makes visible that which often remains invisible due to shame or injustice or inequality. However, the visibility is partial, and opacity often retained. Faces are obscured and information dispersed at the discretion of the each contributor. The 99% gallery is a museum of proletarian art and a temporary forum erected by donated time to register the failures of American capitalist democracy.

During our very long and rich discussion about the arts in Occupy, the moment when the bartender chose to speak up and to participate was an aesthetic experience for me. When the woman who had been standing vertical all night came to sit on the horizontal plane, she completed the most beautiful of all aesthetic forms: the circle. In that moment, the space that we inhabited became a touch more egalitarian. For me, the contribution of art and artists to the ideals of Occupy lies in engaging and modifying the social, economic, and visual relations that make up society by working at the level of both content and form. Whether that means making a painting, starting a school, giving up art, or simply raising one’s hand to ask a question, the smallest gesture possesses immense strength. And so in reference to the last question, “Is art useless?” I will answer a definitive “No.”


1.) What aesthetic forms have emerged out of the Occupy movement and how do we interpret their specificity? (for instance, in relation to the intersection of art and direct action in ACT UP, the anti-globalization movement, or other historical precedents.)

2.) What is the value of interpreting Occupy’s attributes and strategies through the lens of art when, from the beginning, artists and creative work have been integral to all aspects of the movement?

3.) What is the role of the artist in social crisis? (Skeptic; vanguard; consciousness-raising; solidarity…?)

4.) How have the decentralized, leaderless politics of the Occupy movement reinvigorated debates surrounding authorlessness, anonymity, and collectivity in art.

5.) What has the movement illuminated about the rights of vulnerable artworld-related laborers, such as preparators, art handlers, artists, and teachers?

6.) Historically, artists have often been at the sharp edge of gentrification. How do we think through the movement’s strategy of spatial occupation from this perspective?

7.) What is the particular relevance, and challenge, of the Occupy movement in the artworld (and elite universities), which in many ways can be seen as the cultural quintessence of the 1%?

8.) What is the difference between artistic practices modeled on critique and art that seeks an instrumental relationship to social change?

9.) Is art useless?


[1] Nato Thompson, “Cultural Producers at the Wild Heart of Occupy Wall Street,” Art Papers, May/June 2012, 14-19. Available online at See also Nato Thompson, “The Occupation of Wall Street Across Time and Space,” October 2011, available at Interview with Nato Thompson by Gregory Sholette for his Dark Matter blog, September 28, 2011, available at

[2] The Harvard Crimson newspaper covered this event. See Lauren Rubin, “Students Celebrate Occupy Art,” March 28, 2012. Available online at


[3] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2006), 64.


[5] Adam Weinstein, “‘We Are the 99 Percent’ Creators Revealed,” Mother Jones, Friday, October 7, 2011.

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