Art and Capitalism: There has to be a better way


The first time I visited the Ox, late Spring of 2012, to see police films of our arrest at Wells Fargo, I knew, standing on the roof and looking across the vacant lot, the warehouse and brickscape, the Frankford El like a toy train in the distance, that this was the place where I would begin to make art again.

An unfinished, unheated warehouse, home to a collective of not quite 20 activists, queers, musicians, artists… and a soon to be grad student in particle physics who slept on top of what had been an elevator shaft that opened to the roof—here, I thought, there would be space and freedom to work, a return to where I left off some 40 years before.

The streets around the Ox were a rich source of materials, broken glass, rusted metal, torn sheets of roofing, weathered composition board, scraps of wood, cardboard. I had long been fascinated by found things—patterns, colors, forms of abandoned objects, invisible to those who passed them by without seeing. I began to drag in trash from the street, spread pieces out on an old dining room table, arranging them, observing how they came together to form new objects that freed them from their past identities as objects of use, from their place in the capitalist Empire of Money and Death.
I had no pigments, no brushes, only rusted nails and screws from the street, wire and string to tie things together, planks of wood or Masonite I would find to mount them on. I went to Utrecht and asked the art student clerk: what would could I use to bind such a diversity of materials—that would dry transparent, remain flexible to hold objects that would expand and contract at different rates in reaction to heat and cold? That’s was how I discovered Modpodge!

Here was a way of making art without grants or institutional support. Art from the streets—literally. Those great pieces of public art, I thought—cast bronze, welded steel beams, no matter how pleasing—what were they, but bound slaves, there to decorate and embellish the institutions of power, useful propaganda. You see! they proclaimed, this is civilization! Without the generosity of the predator class, where we would be? How would it be possible to have art like this? What public art has always done, these monuments of beauty and culture!—the equestrian statues of generals, heroes of conquest, genocide and patriarchal tyranny—no matter that they had been replaced by elegant abstractions, perfect representations of faceless corporate power. Art in chains. Artists as servants of the corporate police state.

I bought brushes. An easel. Pigments. Added color to my assemblages, worked on recovering my drawing skills. Began to make paintings. I had a show at a little gallery in Port Richmond—and put prices on my work.

It felt dirty. Wrong.

Where was this taking me? What was the logical path for this? O.U.R. Gallery, was not dependent on sales, but if I wanted to sell, if I had been a young artist hoping someday to live from their art, that was the route I’d have to take—assemble a fine expensive portfolio of photographs, find galleries that would take my pieces, give me shows–galleries that did depend on sales, and on buyers whose interest in art was for investment, or the prestige of owning—owning work that might someday be coveted by collectors, that would decorate the walls of the wealthy, that might one day hang in museums—the mausoleums that house the remains of dead creators–the artist’s dream-equivalent to winning the lottery. Or the field slave whose highest hope is to work in the house of the master. For those who make it, become part of a system of oppression that forces all but the very few to live by commercializing their skills, or find other means to support themselves and their work, a system of exclusion that has little or nothing to do with aesthetic merit. The artist: submissive servant of the Empire.

There has to be a better way. Capitalism, like abusive relationships, traps by maintaining the illusion that nothing else does, or can exist. Take your lumps, it’s all there is. And maybe—maybe you’ll be one in a million… or billion, who is selected for the dubious honor of rubbing elbows with the predators, thieves and killers who manage the levers of power.

Think about it.

Of related interest, Picasso’s granddaughter scaring the shit out of Big Dealers by threatening to sell his stored up work.

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