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STEPS TO FAIRNESS: Radical Accessibility as the new Status Quo

1. The Closing of Institutions

2. The Debates around Labour Conditions in the Art World

3. A More Equitable Reopening of the Cultural Field

 

Eight months after I moved from Sydney to New York City, museums and galleries got shuttered in both places. The first layoffs to be announced were unsurprisingly those of precarious freelance or part time contracts with cultural institutions, mostly in museum education, visitor services, front of house, retail and hospitality. A significant portion of the artistic community, including many ex-colleagues and friends, were quickly out of work. Not to mention the workers whose labour belongs to companies often outsourced by cultural institutions, including cleaners and security. Galleries and museums were scrambling to maintain their exhibition schedules, substituting them with virtual shows and doing openings via Zoom. 

Exhibition openings weren’t the only social gatherings that had moved online. Shortly after my otherwise healthy grandfather was admitted into a London hospital in late March I had to prepare a eulogy for his virtual funeral. I recalled our trip to Venice in 2011 coinciding with the Biennale d’Arte curated by Bice Curiger titled ‘Illuminations.’ I took photos of my grandfather looking bored in the national pavilions in the Giardini. We visited the Peggy Guggenheim museum and in the gift shop my grandpa put on a pair of the twenty euro Peggy-style cat eye sunglasses for tourists, the lenses replaced with kaleidoscopic novelty glass.

In the wake of his death to COVID-19, and as a distraction from digital mourning, I was moved to consider the political and aesthetic dimensions of disappearance and dehumanisation in relation to the arts. 

 

The Closing of Museums

“The exhibitability of a painting is greater than that of a mosaic or fresco that preceded it,” wrote Benjamin, distinguishing between the cult value and exhibitionary value of art (1). The former demands that the work of art remains hidden for spiritual purposes, but modernity broke with this and produced an engagement with art whose value was contingent upon its visibility.

One hundred years later Hito Steyerl gestures to the return to the cult value of art under neoliberalism (2). She explains how the rampant financial speculation of contemporary art has led to the proliferation of freeport units enabling the ultra-wealthy to store and trade their art without it ever being seen. She describes it as “a model of terminal impermanence, of privacy and concealment, of constructive instability”.  

During the pandemic the inaccessibility of art feels different. Art seems to reveal, in its current invisibility, a personal, collective and institutional (in)significance, (im)potency, in ways that are surprising to some and entirely predictable to others. 

The playing field has been leveled, but in the negative. It is not only blind or visually impaired visitors who cannot optically engage with exhibitions and it is not only the work of women artists collecting dust in collection storage. It is not only the collections of the uber rich that are hidden, but all art. The ‘limitations of seeing and being seen’ today, as Colin Lang writes in Spike Magazine, are currently under scrutiny – and for good reason.

My grandfather passed away in the middle of Spring semester, as we were about to start reading Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in one of my classes (3). In it, he writes that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that ‘the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule”, and that the most urgent task for those opposed to the maintenance of the status quo is to bring about ‘a real state of emergency’ that would critically examine and redress the failures of the past and present. 

We might then consider the current crisis as a chance to ask where and who has already experienced a state of emergency, even before “the state of emergency.” The politics of accessibility and labor issues provide one of the ways in which to work through this question. I want to propose that the urgency to reflect and act on both of these today is not just of political importance but of an aesthetic one, as well.

 

The Debates around Labour Conditions in the Arts

Fayen D’Evie has written brilliantly on blindness, visibility and performance: “From blindness… we can resist the ocularcentric conspiracy” (4). She talks about the privilege of visual spectatorship over other forms of sensual engagement with art and knowledge. This entrenched aesthetic hierarchy has not just denied those with visual impairment an access to art; it has also stunted the radical conceptual and practical artistic possibilities offered by conditions such as blindness. D’Evie argues that we would do better to consider visual impairment and ocular diversity beyond what she describes as the segregated accessibility model and rather as the potential to unlock various modes of ‘perceptual attentiveness’ for all audiences, sighted and not.  

The irony is that alternative modes of sensual and perceptive exploration are exactly what galleries and museums are encouraging when they release digital art experiences and projects. In her essay D’Evie even quotes the blind French resistance fighter Jacques Lusseyran who developed the ability to visualise geometry on a mental screen whilst his peers were relying on blackboards. He wrote that the “screen was as big as [he] needed it to be. Because it was nowhere in space it was everywhere at the same time…”(5)

As galleries provide content that is both nowhere in space and everywhere, the artists and the audiences for whom alternative digital tools were both a practical and an aesthetic necessity, have been overlooked by many American arts institutions. Dana Kopel states that “Critics have lamented the lack of tactility—of presence—in digital exhibitions. But not everyone was able to be present in the gallery in the first place.” An open letter calling for museum staff retention authored by staff from DIA, MoMA, The Smithsonian and the New Museum makes a similar point, highlighting that, “...engagement strategies for multiple audiences across multiple platforms... [have] until recently, been an afterthought.”

It is important to consider why it was only when the perils of inaccessibility were suddenly extended to everyone that the issue of accessibility was taken seriously as an aesthetic proposal. 

Institutions might respond by emphasizing that they simply do not have the resources to cater to everyone, so, now that the mainstream audience is requiring accessibility provisions they can suddenly afford to host screenings, public programs and exhibitions online. But is utilitarianism even the right model when justifying the allocation of resources? In any case, it is worth mentioning that proposals like D’Evie’s emphasize that it is not only blind or vision-impaired audiences who benefit from work that engages with often sidelined perceptiveness, but all audiences. 

This problem is connected to a bigger issue, namely the gap between the liberal rhetoric often espoused by cultural institutions and the structural inequalities that they meanwhile help to perpetuate

The last few decades has seen global cultural institutions align themselves with democratic tenets, as evidenced by the recent International Council Of Museums proposal to change the definition of a museum to foreground the aims of equality, diversity and inclusion (6). Democracy is a complicated and multifarious proposition, contingent upon the relationship between political, economic and social mechanisms. For all its buzzwordiness in the arts, however, the idea of democracy is often radically reduced and simplified.

Such simplification allows for the simultaneous embrace of a liberal rhetoric and a blind eye turned to poor or precarious labour conditions, for instance. Art and creative content are often caught in this cross-fire where politically oriented artwork and exhibitions are used as evidence that cultural institutions are liberal and progressively minded seeing the material realities, poor labour conditions and anti-union sentiments as a separate and unrelated issue. 

 

A More Equitable Reopening of the Cultural Field

We might understand the American art world's response to the pandemic as loosely split along these lines. Those wielding significant economic or social capital in comfortable employment emphasize the importance of art and artistic expression in the times of crisis. In doing so, they gesture toward the exceptionality of artistic labour. On the other hand, furloughed or unemployed workers, unions, organizers and other politically minded constituencies stress the unexceptional nature of artistic labour and emphasize the inseparability of artistic labour and work in the cultural sector from the broader social class-based systems of oppression (8). The former have interests in maintaining the status-quo, while the latter aim to transcend it.

In the 1960’s when artists belonging to the first wave of what is now known as ‘Institutional Critique’ caused furore in the artworld by highlighting the circularity of finance between museum funding, gentrification, arms manufacturing and fossil-fuel industry; it seemed as if such duplicity would no longer be tolerated. By making such links visible, artists like Hans Haacke attempted a new political role for artistic content. Work by Haacke and subsequent generations of artists within the ‘institutional critique’ lineage is now, however, collected by most major modern and contemporary collecting institutions and firmly written into the canon of art history – controversy and all. 

Workers from galleries and institutions who have been laid off and furloughed use recent exhibitions by Haacke and others to highlight the contradiction at play. In the open letter by museum staff cited above, the writers state: “It has never been more apparent that those at the art world’s helm are happy to bask in the afterglow of radical politics in art without ever considering implementing those same politics into institutional practices.” They continue: “Institutional critique is fine if it never reverberates beyond the exhibition space. Artists’ critiques of the heteropatriarchy, ableism, white supremacy, and capitalism are acceptable if they turn a profit” (8). The manifesto of the recently formed Art Workers Italia likewise shifts attention away from artwork and instead to art work, and is quick to distance itself from being an artistic or curatorial project.

Art historians and theorists within the Marxist tradition have long been making similar points. Benjamin, again in the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ states that “The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist”. He argues elsewhere that cultural treasures have an origin ‘which owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.’ 

The New Museum Union – one of a growing number of American arts institutions that have unionized in the past few years – echoes Benjamin’s sentiment in their mission statement. They cite the artistic initiatives of the museum, often celebrated for their progressiveness, diversity and inclusivity and ask that the institution reflect these values in the very material realities of the employees.

With the red-carpeted treadmill of the international art world and its adjacent operations slowing down, the usual hum of business-as-usual and cacophony of co-optation, complicity and competition that normally exclude sounds of resistance have clearly not been muted, but they are definitely not as loud. Unions like the New Museum Union are successfully amplifying the voices of the workers responsible for empowering the machine, providing a different kind of content to audiences that is not art per se but nonetheless have aesthetic implications.

We could consider the material conditions of cultural workers not just as intrinsic to the politics of art institutions but to the aesthetic value of the works they show. What then follows is speculation on whether, with an increasingly organised labor force, institutions might find it difficult to display their collections of political art without being subjected to public scrutiny or internal unrest amongst staff, just as upcoming exhibitions dealing with issues of class or accessibility might risk losing the poignancy of their author’s intentions. 

The role of cultural workers – curators, mediators, educators and others – in buttressing contemporary art by making ideas accessible and available to wide audiences is widely accepted, but perhaps the interesting point here is the negative situation in which such workers prove their indispensability by threatening to remove or interfere with such meaning. 

Some might object to this idea on the basis that it assigns an overly moralistic or ideological role to art, however if we are to assume from ICOM’s proposed definition change that museums and cultural institutions today should be judged to a significant degree in accordance with their ability to safeguard ‘human dignity’, then the dehumanising impact of poor labour conditions and accessibility oversights should surely be urgent. To address these systemic issues may cost more, but perhaps the moment is ripe for institutions to enact a ‘degrowth’ strategy that draws a line under the exponential growth in the value of art since the 1980’s and pivots toward a new era in cultural governance. 

 

Written with the chutzpah of Alan “Humpert” Samuels in mind (1931 – 2020).

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Note from the editors: This is the first installment of the AWC Online Exclusive, "Steps to Fairness" which focuses on concrete improvements to life and work after the pandemic.



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