New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered police on Tuesday to dismantle the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park, and later stated that demonstrators could return to the park without tents or tarps. As police swept the park of people and debris–including the 5,554 books in the camp’s People’s Library–agitated protesters moved to Foley Square and planned their next move.
In the final part of our three-day discussion on artists and the Occupy Movement, our panelists discuss the movement’s success and its potential for long-term impact and meaningful social change. If you missed earlier discussions in our Six Degrees Left conversation, you can read day one here and day two here.
Thanks once again to writers Myfanwy Collins, Katrina Gray, Jamie Iredell, Djelloul Marbrook and Marcus Speh, along with musician Bobby Strange, for sharing their time with us.
Should we return to a sponsor system for artists, as was the case for much of the arts prior to twentieth century, where artists received direct financial backing from a wealthy patron?
Bobby Strange: Another timely question for me. (Laughs) This past Wednesday, I did a show for the local NPR radio station, WBJB’s The Night. As a rare “right wing” singer/songwriter in the area, I actually do a lot of Facebook debating with my favorite DJ there. And might I add, he still is cool enough to play me. (Laughs)
I am against government subsidies. My belief is that great art is art that eventually finds its own following on its own merits. Great art is such a subjective thing that it is impossible for anyone to decide who deserves a grant or who doesn’t. I just never understood that. I’m sure the fact that I never received any grants may have shaped that opinion. (Laughs)
Private sponsorship is ideal. The person who supplies the cash does it of their own free will because they believe in the artist. What could be better than that? The ultimate sponsor by the ultimate fan. Or, keeping the day job and sponsoring ourselves. (Laughs)
Djelloul Marbrook: Well, I think to some extent the wealthy are still supporting the arts, although certainly not to the extent I would wish. The National Endowment for the Arts has never enjoyed the support its originators had hoped for, because deficit hawks in Congress are always attacking it. They regard state support of the arts as socialism. I think private wealth is still defining art in our country, for good and ill. But as long as our culture enriches a basketball player for being tall and hands out crumbs to artists and composers we will suffer the consequences.
It’s not the art or the skill we seem to cathect to, it’s the attendant celebrity.
It’s not the art or the skill we seem to cathect to, it’s the attendant celebrity, of which we ourselves are the source in our idolatry. I would certainly like to see more support for the arts, but I think it’s going to take a revolution, which may actually have started. If we can take to the streets to protest greed, then perhaps we will eventually find ourselves doubting the value of celebrity worship. Perhaps we’ll decide that we’re the celebrities.
Katrina Gray: I don’t think it’s a choice to go back to that system, and I’ve long abandoned the fantasy of returning to the days when an artist was supported by a benefactor. James Joyce had people supporting him because he was freaking James Joyce.
There are so many artists now that it’s not really that special of a thing to write, or play piano, or paint, and keeping the “unspecialness” of artistry in check adds a level of integrity to the work. Writing is not something only elite people are doing; it’s cheap and open for everyone to try. This, I think, is why today’s lack of sponsorship is a better way to go. A writer today is at no one’s mercy–not if the goal is production of a beautiful thing. It’s more egalitarian this way.
However, my husband was recently the recipient of our state humanities grant, and it felt damn good to spend the money he earned from his recognition as a great writer. It was a strange thing for us to imagine that art could be rewarded with money.
Myfanwy Collins: I don’t know how we could simply decide to have sponsors for artists. It is up to the sponsors to decide whether they want to put their money behind an artist. With that said, if anyone wants to send me some money, I will certainly take it.
Jamie Iredell: I want your money so I don’t have to teach anymore. Please give me some money. I am sad without money.
Marcus Speh: Funding of the arts is perhaps where Western Europe differs most from the U.S. In Europe, the arts are not primarily sponsored by the wealthy, except through regular and irregular taxes (like National Lotteries). European states do continue to shrink arts programs, but the rich (or corporations) are not readily moving in to fill the holes.
A sponsor system could be an answer to the growing needs across the map but I don’t know if it would work because I don’t know how I would measure the success of such a system or how the current solutions in the U.S. and Europe compare. Berlin certainly profits from a steady stream of artists coming from everywhere—but they come because of the low costs of living combined with the high quality of life and the thriving art scene and not because state or sponsor money is readily available to most. Artists seem to be more attracted by community, by other artists and by understanding (and consuming) audiences rather than by bureaucratic support systems. I know I am, but I’m not an artist in need. I do my art on the side as it were (which is what most artists have to do).
Having said that, any system of sponsorship that I am aware of has come with the danger of art being co-opted and used by the sponsors. A loaded question: could the financial system buy the silence of artists by establishing and funding an extraordinary sponsoring system for the arts? Not a question I’d like to answer but I think it illustrates the issue.
Considering the degree to which much of the literary world is still defined by well-educated, white men from Western, English-speaking countries, does the claim that writing can advance social causes have any tangible roots or is it, at best, meritless or, at worst, does it smack of contemporary colonialism?
Djelloul Marbrook: Did you know that India publishes more books in English than the rest of the Anglophone world together? And did you know that there are more Anglophone readers in India than in the rest of the Anglophone world? I’m attuned to these facts because last April my novella, Artemisia’s Wolf, was published in India.
I think that while there is much truth in the premise that educated Western white men have and continue to have a profound impact on social causes, I also think the premise is being overtaken by events.
Myfanwy Collins: I’m not sure that the literary world is defined by white men. If you are talking about publishing in the U.S., it is my understanding that there are more women than men in publishing. In addition, I believe there are more women (in the U.S.) than men who buy books. In a couple years white males will actually be a minority in the U.S., right? That will be interesting.
As for whether writing advances social causes, there is certainly opportunity for that (depending on the type of writing). My impression with contemporary writers is that when an author writes of ideas the end result is one of an overarching concern and not an individual cause.
This is not so of non-fiction writers, especially those using reportage as their vehicle. I believe that is where the true opportunity [lies] for advancing a social cause.
Jamie Iredell: I have to simply agree with what’s been said already, and that the literary world is far from dominated by well-educated English-speaking white guys. I would say that that’s a pretty anthropocentric world-view.
Marcus Speh: Answering as a well-educated, white man from a Western country (albeit not English-speaking), I don’t see why we shouldn’t advance social causes like everyone else. One might argue that seeing us that way might stand in the way of advancing social causes.
In The Guardian, Jeanette Winterson wrote recently that “We are nervous about anything that seems elitist or inaccessible, and we apologize for the arts in a way that we never do for science.” She argues in favor of writing that “changes the way that even one person dreams.” Which is the beginning of all social changes.
The Occupy movement itself, as far as I know, doesn’t belong to any particular group—its strength is the strength of all true popular movements that bubble up from the streets—it’s the strength of inclusion.
How successful do you think the Occupy Wall Street movement has been thus far? In light of a recent series of arrests at Occupy protests in California and Georgia, are authorities on their way to suppressing the movement or galvanizing it?
Djelloul Marbrook: I think [the movement] has been astonishingly successful in taking the limelight away from such distracting issues as the president’s birth certificate, the flat tax, and the national debt and other scarecrows designed to lead us away from the conclusion that our pockets have been picked.
I think The Man’s response has been eye-opening. People are aghast to see someone in a wheelchair gassed by Oakland police. In four weeks the New York Police Department has undone all the great good will that attached to it after 9/11.
I think in many ways the Occupy Movement is an arts movement, because the arts are never removed from the society in which they exist. They’re always a major component of the zeitgeist. I’ve been telling poetry audiences for years—sometimes they listen because they know I spent a lifetime in journalism—that the arts are the news in our society, not the corporate media. Rappers tell it like it is. Artists tell it like it is. Nashville tells it like it is. Not USA Today.
Myfanwy Collins: My perception is that the movement has been highly successful in recruiting followers and in (finally) getting the mainstream media to report about it. I don’t actually see that any change has come from it in terms of legislation or in terms of the banks and corporations being prosecuted or forced to offer restitution or forced to keep their grubby hands away from the voting process. I’m impressed by the dedication of the people who are taking part, but what saddens me is that this movement–as it presents itself right now–seems to be less about human life and more about money. I wish, instead, the movement was about ending war, getting people fed, making it so that all have medical care, providing equal education for all, etc. I know that in a sense it is and you have to start somewhere.
There are organizations that have been taking corporations to task for a long time. There is an organization that used to be called In Fact but now called Stop Corporate Abuse which has been using grass roots organization for decades in order to bring about change. What I like about this group is that it uses factual information, feet on the street, and tactics such as boycotting to bring about change.
Jamie Iredell: The movement’s been successful at existing without clearly defining itself and thus being pigeonholed politically. There still is not a concrete list of demands (instead a bunch of different demands from different groups that are all part of the one movement). Once such demands exist then it’s easy to put a label on the protesters, and dismiss them. As it is, it’s a large group of Americans–and now people around the world–who are pissed about the status quo, and they’ve identified at least one perpetrator of that status quo.
Frankly, I’m glad to finally see people in developed nations shake out of the haze of complacency brought on by a high standard of living, cellphones, bank accounts, cable television, etc., and be a voice. In simply accomplishing that the protests have been hugely successful. Should this keep up, and local governments continue to clash with peaceful protests, those governments, and hopefully the federal government, will be forced to respond. For that alone, while it sucks that people are getting hurt, it’s good.
I don’t think that most Americans outside of the south thought the Civil Rights Movement was that big of a deal until they saw those firehoses and police dogs unleashed on little black girls and boys standing in a park in Birmingham. After that aired on television, I think much of the nation agreed that something was wrong and it needed to be addressed. It was easy then to dismiss local white governments that kept calling the protesters “outside agitators.”
Marcus Speh: I can only talk about Germany—the movement has been very successful in the sense that it occupies headlines and space of major weekly newspapers and magazines and has kicked off dialogue across the country. The number of people involved isn’t as large as elsewhere, certainly not compared to the U.S., but you don’t have to be on the net or be an intellectual to know that something’s brewing, that clever, informed, celebrated people, artists among them, have joined a new social cause and that it’s worth finding out what they want and how to join them. This of course poses a threat to the existing powers. In Germany, a new “Pirate Party” with a largely anti-capitalist agenda, has just entered the local parliament in Berlin with 9% of the votes (mostly from young voters), scaring established parties.
I don’t know enough about the climate in the U.S. but I just returned from London where two prominent clergymen have recently resigned over OWS as a sign that the public is ambivalent [about] how to react to the anti-capitalist protests. Clearly OWS has the potential to be a global and local response to issues both global and local. Making things happen–e.g. in terms of redistribution of wealth, support for education and health–may be easier now than ever and I hope we can keep the momentum going and anchor the activities in real political outcomes and in good stories, too.
The protesters are not going away without a fight.
Katrina Gray: Nashville made national headlines for making a rule overnight that no one could be in Legislative Plaza–local site of the protests–after 4pm. The ACLU sued the government, calling the curfew a violation of free speech. The ACLU won, but not before there were some pretty brutal arrests. I drive by the plaza every day, and it’s always buzzing with downtown office workers until at least 6pm, so the curfew was laughable. When the arrests happened, people stayed put, and ordinary citizens replaced the protesters’ groceries that state [police] troopers had confiscated and tossed. Their tenacity amazes me, so I think it would be a disservice of me to take bets on how long they’ll stay, or how much they’ll accomplish before they leave. The protesters are not going away without a fight.
What do you think of the longevity and long-term potential of Occupy-like protests to effect real and meaningful social change? Will the little guys ever stop screaming that they’re “mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore”?
Myfanwy Collins: The movement needs a leader. Someone who can clearly articulate the core issues and who can provide a list of demands for change. I don’t see that right now and it makes me wary. I know what I am angry about and I know what I want. I also know how I can individually make change and that is to a) vote in every election and b) not buy things from or invest in corporations that I have a moral issue with.
Katrina Gray: The potential [for real and meaningful social change] is great. In the South in the 1960s, the lunch counter protests–where black students sat at whites-only lunch counters to fight for their right to be there–were effective. Nashville’s mayor Ben West made it legal for black people to patronize “white” establishments, and eventually other cities followed suit. Change happened after peaceful protest.
Efforts to articulate the requests of the movement have not been as focused or concise, but I think that this is where artists step in.
What will happen now? I think this goes back to Myfanwy’s statement about needing a leader. Leadership is not a bad thing; it doesn’t have to mean that anyone “underneath” is being oppressed. The biggest complaint I’ve heard about the protesters is that no one knows what they want. In a sense, I think it’s enough to call attention to fishy practices and corporate greed. There’s value in that. But that can only go so far. And I think it’s a matter of adjusting the message to meet the ears of the people who can actually make changes, which means listing small, reasonable demands, and reasons why the changes are needed.
The lunch counter protests were successful because it was clear what the protesters wanted, and they were heard by the right people. Efforts to articulate the requests of the Occupy Wall Street movement have not been as focused or concise, but I think that this is where artists step in. Many of us are skilled in taking a nanosecond and creating a tweet or a poem or a flash fiction story about it; we can use these skills to narrow the scope and gnaw down to the core of the movement.
Jamie Iredell: Protests could keep going at the rate they’re going and nothing will happen. They’ll either gain steam and support from the public or they’ll fizzle and subside. In the former, leaders will have to make changes to acknowledge the growing unrest. If they don’t then we have a civil war on our hands. Or, in the latter scenario, the economy will get better enough for the huge middle class to be placated with jobs and food and cellphones and Transformers movies, until new wars start because of mass migrations as a result of global warming.
Bobby Strange: In the short-term the news coverage brings the important messages that need to be heard to the forefront. In the long term I think the public gets bored. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the most catastrophic oil spill in the history of mankind was polluting the Gulf of Mexico for at least “the rest of our lives.” If the movement can focus its effort into a voting block it can lead to meaningful change. I think the Tea Party movement was an example of what focusing can accomplish whether you agree with [the movement] or not.
I believe that we can only give equal opportunity in this world, not equal results. So of course there will always be someone who is mad as hell.
From my visits [to] Zuccotti Park, I’m seeing it dissolve into a very loud tent town mess. I also think with some of the cities’ protests getting violent now, the movement will lose the sympathy they were getting for the initial great reason for having the protest in the first place. I believe that we can only give equal opportunity in this world, not equal results. There will always always be those who won’t be happy with that. It’s a lot easier to scream about it than to work super hard to change it. So of course there will always be someone who is mad as hell.
Djelloul Marbrook: The media sensationalize the dots but never connect them. You can rely on them to ignore the central issues of the day. For example, there was the run-up to the Iraq War. The press had available to it some of the best Arab studies centers in the world, and yet it chose to whip up war fervor. Why? Look at who advertises in the press. Boeing, Lockheed, Halliburton, banks—all the major beneficiaries of war-making.
What I notice is that press reports are about crowd containment [at the protests] and the inconveniences being caused by people exercising their First Amendment rights. Well, tsk, tsk, who ever said democracy was convenient? Who ever said it was efficient? Who ever said it was about business as usual. The story is about what is being protested, but the press would rather write about the protesters because it distracts us from the plain truth that the press has been, by design, complacent about a massive transfer of wealth from the many to the few. There is always a reason for what the press doesn’t do. Its omissions are usually the big story.
Marcus Speh: No, they [the little guys] won’t [stop screaming] and why should they? There are no “little guys” anyway. That little guy is an invention of TV. In real life, guys and girls are all people and they ought to scream some of the time. Life begins with a scream, after all.
I think that social media continually build and send the powerful message that the “little guys” matter. Information goes viral and turns into something bigger until, at some point, people are fed up with just sharing news and move out onto the street. With a global population participating in changes even only on the level of information sharing and creation, humanity moves into a completely new historical situation. There are no real guidelines for how to steer this social ship through the universe. To me it looks less and less likely that it’ll all just fall apart. To me, the great dystopian fantasies of the future really begin to look like bad dreams. That makes me happy for me and especially for my daughter.
Day one of our three-day discussion on the Occupy Movement examines whether writers, musicians, and artists have a moral obligation to social justice and social movements. Day two looks at the democratic potential of music and the arts in the face of increasing corporate involvement.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Six Degrees Left is a monthly conversation that pulls the plug on the respirator of partisan consensus and delivers oxygen through heated exchange. Six Degrees Left dismantles the walls of literary elitism through open and frank dialogue among leading writers, critics, and thinkers on topics that matter. To help keep our fingers on the pulse and beat of everyday culture, please leave a comment on this page or send in your questions or topic suggestions to laceyd [at] atticusbooks [dot] net.
Myfanwy Collins is the author of Echolocation (Engine Books, March 2012) and a collection of short fiction, I Am Holding Your Hand (PANK Little Books, August 2012). Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Potomac Review, PANK, and Quick Fiction, among others. She lives on Boston’s North Shore with her husband and child. You can follow her on Twitter @myfanwycollins.
Katrina Gray is a writer specializing in flash fiction and has been published in Blip, The Northville Review and Metazen, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She lives in Nashville with her husband, the writer John Minichillo, and her son, and can be found on Twitter @Katrina_Gray.
Jamie Iredell is the author of Prose. Poems. a Novel. (Orange Alert Press), and The Book of Freaks (Future Tense Books), as well as three chapbooks: Before I Moved to Nevada (Publishing Genius Press), When I Moved to Nevada (The Greying Ghost Press), and Atlanta (Paper Hero Press). His poems, stories, interviews, and essays have appeared in, among other places, in The Chattahoochee Review, GSU Review, The Literary Review, Elysian Fields Quarterly, elimae, 3:AM, and PANK. As an editor, he co-founded New South, is the fiction editor of Atticus Review, and designs books for C&R Press.
Djelloul Marbrook, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is the author of the poetry collection Far From Algiers (2007) and a recent novel Artemisia’s Wolf. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Solstics, The American Poetry Review, and Istanbul Literary Review. He lives in mid-Hudson Valley and Manhattan with his wife, Marilyn.
Marcus Speh is a writer, ex-particle physicist, professor, executive coach, father, former fencer & paratrooper. His fiction has been published in > kill author, Mad Hatters Review, elimae, Metazen, Atticus Review and elsewhere. He serves as maitre d’ of Kaffe in Katmandu & can be found on Twitter @marcus_speh. He lives in Berlin, Germany.
Bobby Strange is a singer songwriter from Asbury Park, New Jersey. “On some nights he can be seen sharing the stage with the likes of Bruce Springsteen in front of two or three thousand people…on other nights he can be seen in some little coffee house on Cookman Avenue in front of two or three people…He sounds the same either way…” – Asbury Park Press, 2010