A familiar backlash alleging out-of-touchness and grandstanding has ensued. In The Guardian, the arts critic Jonathan Jones writes, “An art strike is just about the least effective idea for resisting Trump that I have heard. The American left is in for a long, wretched period of irrelevance if this is its idea of striking back.” Along the same lines, Artnet quotes a Facebook post from the artist Daniel Keller saying of the strike, “This is so pointless and anyone who doesn’t realize this is completely oblivious to the current political climate and of art’s utter irrelevancy within American culture.”
But the strike is partly a reaction to the specter of irrelevance—and has goals other than sending a message to the president-elect and his followers. At Hyperallergic, the critic Hrag Vartanian writes about how the Silicon Valley summit at Trump Tower made him realize just how structurally diffuse the arts are compared to tech and other industries. “There could never be an equivalent convening in art,” he says. “If you were to summon the leaders of art, who would they be? Who has that type of authority in our field?” A strike, he argues, could begin to reveal “the scope of our community as the beginning of a new phase of solidarity.”
More than that, a strike could be a moment for art workers to re-examine their relationship with the hypercapitalism and nationalism that Trump is seen by many to represent. Vartanian quotes the critic Yates McKee wondering if a walkout could “drive a wedge between staffs, on the one hand, and the upper echelons of institutional power—directors, boards, donors—on the other.” The artist Coco Fusco also suggested using the opportunity to begin thinking about how to disentangle from “the Wall Street financiers who stand to gain from Trump … the same ones who have thrown bundles of cash into art.” Last week, the artist Richard Prince seemed to act on that idea by retroactively “faking” a piece he’d sold to Ivanka Trump—which is exactly the kind of mind-scrambling, beyond-logic statement that art excels at.
None of these rationales directly speaks to stopping the president-elect’s policies or removing him from office. They speak instead to an existential quandary triggered by the rise of someone who, to many in the art world, seems at odds with truth, free expression, and egalitarianism. An art strike, according to its supporters, is about reflection, recalibration, and ideological stress-testing in the name of more effectively wielding power in the years to come.
Now, the question of whether a strike is the best way to achieve those goals is a valid one: The writer Joyce Carol Oates has been essentially holding a Twitter forum on alternative artistic methods of opposing Trump. But that debate is in fact the kind of industry-wide political conversation that, it seems, the #J20 Strike wants to inspire: “… It is an invitation to motivate these [artistic] activities anew, to reimagine these [artistic] spaces as places where resistant forms of thinking, seeing, feeling, and acting can be produced,” the mission statement says. There’s precedent, too, in the 1970 arts collective action responding to the Vietnam War.