One week ago today the Occupy Museums (OM) offshoot of OWS staged a protest inside MoMA during which a banner was unfurled and promptly confiscated by MoMA security. (Read a decent account here.) Today, in a cheeky but perhaps brilliant move, OM sent a letter to MoMA’s Acquisitions Committee claiming that the “confiscation” of the banner was in fact a “unilateral acquisition” of a work of art that is by, and so belongs to, OM. In the letter, the banner, which quoted Camus and called for the end of the Sotheby’s lockout of its art handlers, was designated by OM as both a work of art and ‘historical’ by OM. Writing that “institutions around the country are negotiating with OWS to acquire archival materials for their collections,” OM designated its banner as one such artifact and then enumerated the three conditions that would have to be met for its return, none of which, in good OWS fashion mind you, were monetary.
The rhetoric of the letter and its demands aside, the OM letter to MoMA raises a host of interesting questions, one of the least salient being, Is the banner a work of art or an artifact, however limitedly ‘historical’? One could go around and around on that one for a while. More interesting is the question of how OM is playing the institution’s game against itself. If MoMA doesn’t take the banner, which it likely won’t, who will pick it up? The Whitney? The Met? Another American, or European, Latin American, or–wouldn’t it be great–Chinese institution? (I’d like The New York Historical Society to step in personally, but I imagine it won’t get any takers for a while.) Does the claim of the banner’s immediate historicity, so seemingly easily and retrospectively secured by the letter itself and by the rapidly disseminated documentation of the protest, hold legitimacy? And legitimacy for whom? (Paradoxically, the letter demands recognition from the very institution whose policies it questions.) What’s puzzling, though, is how quickly a protest over the treatment of people–namely the art handlers at Sotheby’s, who are being held up as emblems of labor in general–is being mediated through a conflict over an object? Is this not the logic of the commodity fetish itself?