Back to list

Greg Sholette: Public Art, Protest, and 21st-Century Politics, Part I

July 20, 2020
Gregory Sholette

Header image: L to R: On May Day 2015, a group of artists and activists including members of the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction unfurled a large parachute and dropped thousands of On Kawara-influenced flyers in the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, while demanding to meet with the institution’s board of trustees to discuss the labor conditions at its Abu Dhabi site; image courtesy of Gulf Labor. In February 2017, drawing on the legacy of the Art Workers Coalition, Occupy Museums staged a protest at the Museum of Modern Art calling for the dismissal of Larry Fink,CEO of investment mega-firm and military contractor Blackstone Inc., from the board over his ties to the Trump Administration; image courtesy of Occupy MuseumsDecolonize This Place launched Nine Weeks of Act and Action in March 2019, a weekly series of protests leading up to the 2019 Whitney Biennial during which protesters demanded that the museum remove Warren B. Kanders, vice chairman of the Whitney board of directors and the owner of Safariland, a defense weapons manufacturer which produces tear gas, from the board; image courtesy of Andres Rodrigues/Decolonize This Place, via Hyperallergic.

We are witnessing today the full-on return of socially engaged cultural activism.”

We believe that socially engaged public art puts art in service of the social body. Full stop. But, in order to better understand that social body and what kind of justice socially engaged art may bring about — including the modes of resistance and expression it can and cannot offer and the models, political and pedagogical, it builds on and replenishes — we turned to artist, activist, and educator Greg Sholette. In considering the history, present, and future of socially engaged art (and perhaps more generally, of art that, as he puts it, “for its ephemerality, politics, and market resistance, might otherwise remain invisible”), Sholette is quick to complicate an already non-linear lineage. Deftly recalibrating one’s way of thinking to be more expansive, he asks: Are these lineages within the history of art, or external to it, in the broader social sphere?

In More Art in the Public Eye, Sholette’s essay, written in 2018 and early 2019, contextualizes and introduces three projects that we felt embodied the vision, the will, and the labor required to truly be considered as “Working Towards An Egalitarian Society,” the chapter’s title. We at More Art set the stage as such, writing in the book’s preface: “Ten years after September 11, and following the horizontal structure of the Arab Spring, a new generation experienced a shared sense of possibility with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but faced a difficult road ahead. The egalitarian aspirations of the Occupy movement, despite infusing new forms of life into many facets of society and providing new language for the left, were seemingly swept away by an upsurge of illiberal rhetoric and white nationalism, coinciding with the rise to power of right-wing politicians around the world. A recent resurgence of the politics of civic resistance, boycott, and the right to clear and articulate free speech may help us finally move towards a more equitable society.” Mutiny from below, as Sholette might say.

How did we get here? Sholette’s rollicking, wide-ranging, thought-provoking essay, “Can a Transformative Avant-Garde Art Survive in a World of Lolcats, Doomsday Preppers, and Xenonphobic Frog Memes? Do We Have a Choice?”, tackles that not so simple question; here is Part 1 of a longer excerpt, with more to come later in the summer.

A mohawk-topped black man defiantly marches forward across a public plaza as a weaponized water cannon blasts him back, creating a visceral spectacle recalling civil rights confrontations in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, but the year is really 2014, and the place is New York City. A series of free workshops teaches eager participants the art and history of protest songs, all the while repurposing such musical dissent to accommodate issues of contemporary resistance. A mysterious huddle of white-clad scriveners silently documents the routine behavior of urban passersby, including those everyday acts of drudgery, pleasure, and resistance that theorist Michel de Certeau described as the “murmuring voice of societies.”¹ Who are these persons, agents, performers? What do they want? And how did they and their projects materialize in the city’s public spaces?

Three projects by three artists — Dread Scott, Pablo Helguera, and Ernesto Pujol — all set against a backdrop of routine unfreedom, were each developed in an effort to foster creative collaborations between communities and artists. It is an objective especially suited to our times, when the very term “art” is radically shifting, twisting, inverting, if not undergoing an outright self-expulsion by moving out of its familiar dwelling places to occupy the public sphere at an ever-accelerating tempo. Unavoidably, as art joins in the everyday social world, its status as a privileged realm, set apart from the ubiquitous materialistic pursuits of consumer society, is likewise receding from view. This essay argues that this trade-off is one that artists and critics have yet to really confront, especially if they wish to remain relevant in a world of Lolcats, Doomsday preppers, and xenophobic frog memes.²


L to R: Dread Scott, On The Impossibility of Freedom in Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (2014); Pablo Helguera, El Club de Protest/The Protest Club (2011), photo by Marco Monti; Ernesto Pujol, 9–5 (2015), photo by Nisa Ojalvo. All projects commissioned by More Art.


We are witnessing today the full-on return of socially engaged cultural activism, not only amongst embedded movement artists and community-based cultural workers, but by professionally trained, MFA-bearing artists who refuse the conventional opposition separating art from politics, from current events, and from life in general. Decades of work by artists such as Scott, Helguera, and Pujol (and many others) now serves as inspiration for this emerging cultural shift that concurrently loops back to energize their own creative practices.

This new wave of cultural activism ranges from the deconstructive installations and raucous performances of Debtfair, who collectively call out the intolerable burden of overextended credit obligations suffered by students, artists, and workers, to the visually bracing public interventions of Decolonize This Place, who stage confrontations over issues such as anthropological bigotry at the American Museum of Natural History and the ethical challenges represented by board members of the Whitney Museum.³ Since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, the activist coalition Black Lives Matter has mobilized many artists who are infuriated by police shootings of unarmed African American people. Meanwhile, in the UK, the group Liberate Tate managed to wean the London-based museum off British Petroleum’s addictive feed of petrodollars.

Especially since the 2008 financial crash, we have seen a surge of creative hybrid art and activist experiments that address fair labor practices within the multimillion dollar art world, by groups such as Working Artists for the Greater Economy (WAGE), Occupy Museums (Debt Fair, mentioned above, is a facet of their work), and the multilevel tactical interventions of Gulf Labor/Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), who have targeted Guggenheim museums in New York and Venice, Italy, with boycotts, occupations, and charges of abuse towards migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi, the site of a future Guggenheim outpost, presently on hold. Recently the staff of the New Museum successfully voted to form a union, despite overt efforts by administrators to stop them.



A projection by Gulf Labor/Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) and the Illuminator on the facade of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City from April 2016.


Still, what makes this return of a highly politicized cultural consciousness so very robust and far-reaching today? After all, the post-war fusion of art and politics was fully mapped out between 1968 and 1984, from the uprisings of the New Left across the globe, to post-colonial and identity liberation movements, to mass resistance against Ronald Reagan’s push to invade Nicaragua and station tactical nuclear missiles in Turkey. Is it this historical precedent? Or a certain pedagogical influence from one generation to another? Advances in communications technology? Or is it something new and unprecedented in our present moment? And why is this burst of socially committed culture taking place as the very category of art as autonomous object is dissolving from view, but also as the regressive forces of nationalism, racism, and misogyny are dangerously gaining in strength across the globe?

1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), foreword.

2. A Lolcat, or LOL cat, is a captioned image meme of a housecat engaged in humorous behavior, Doomsday preppers are individuals preparing for a civilization-ending catastrophe by building often extravagant survival shelters, and the racist version of Pepe the Frog is an Internet meme that has been hacked and adopted by the tech-savvy, neo-fascist alt-right movement.

3. Debtfair is an ongoing artistic campaign from the collective Occupy Museums, which aims to expose the relationship between economic inequality in the art market and artists’ growing debt burdens. See Decolonize This Place is a self-described “action-oriented movement centering around Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification.” See Since 2016, Decolonize This Place has organized an annual Indigenous Peoples Day/Anti-Columbus Day tour of the American Museum of Natural History. Starting in December 2018, they began an ongoing protest campaign aimed at the Whitney Museum, demanding the removal of Warren B. Kanders, the chief executive of Safariland, a company that makes tear gas canisters and other products used against asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border, from its board of trustees.

Continue tracing Sholette’s history of cultural activism, from the Art Workers Coalition to the rise of Tactical Media to Occupy Wall Street, in Part 2.

Gregory Sholette PhD is a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution PAD/D (1980–1988), which issued publications on politically engaged art; of REPOhistory (1989–2000), a collective of artists and activists who repossessed suppressed histories in New York in the 1990s; and more recently, of Gulf Labor, a group of artists advocating for migrant workers constructing museums in Abu Dhabi. His books include Art as Social Action (with Chloë Bass, 2018, Skyhorse Press); Delirium & Resistance: Art Activism & the Crisis of Capitalism (2017), Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2011, both Pluto Press), and It’s The Political Economy, Stupid (with Oliver Ressler from Pluto Press, 2012), and he has contributed to such journals as FIELD, Eflux, Artforum, Frieze, October, Critical Inquiry, Texte zur Kunst, Afterimage, CAA Art Journal and Manifesta Journal among others. He is a Professor of studio art and co-directs the Social Practice Queens MFA concentration and certificate at Queens College CUNY, and is an associate of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Sholette’s blog is Welcome To Our Bare Art World.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.

This article is also published on More Art’s Medium site here.