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Art in the Ownership Society

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If you're looking for the latest signs of America's cultural descent into inanity, look no further than this past weekend's Sunday Styles section in the New York Times, and its review of Maria Abramovic's performance piece at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's recent fundraising gala.

What you'll find is a double-dose of a certain kind of worship; on one hand, there's Abramovic herself, whose willingness to serve as the evening's "benevolent despot" stems from her own love of the power to make powerful people do her bidding amidst a surreal backdrop of human centerpieces, heads emerging through holes in tables, and mandatory white lab coats being donned by partygoers whose fancy outfits were intended to provide their own form of artistic expression. And then there's the Times review itself, which is less about journalist Guy Trebay's assessment of Abramovic's ability to surface submerged truths through her art, and more about his own infatuation with the event's outer trappings, from its 800 socialite and celebrity attendees to Abramovic's "$1,500 handbag from Givenchy."

I took note of the article because it was just a week ago that I first heard about the MOCA event, courtesy of the California-based collaborative artist, Brett Cook. Cook's own work is currently on display throughout the streets of Oakland as part of his Reflections of Healing project, a series of eight murals of local community healers whose portraits, colorfully completed by local residents with spray paint, depict each adult as he or she looked as a teenager -- "in order to honor the ways young people have reshaped their worlds and, by extension, transformed ours" -- and which are now permanent installations at libraries throughout the city.

"The goal of the series is to remind us of the everyday heroes and heroines who are sustaining life and change in our communities," explained the 43-year-old Cook, who is tall, thin, and buoyant. "And the murals are meant to be just one part of a larger community development effort that is designed to get local residents reflecting on some core questions: What sustains life in the city of Oakland, and how do we model the world we want to see?"

It was through the prism of those questions that Abramovic's piece came up amidst a small group of artists and friends who were sitting in the center of Cook's crowded, colorful Oakland studio on a recent weekday afternoon, surrounded by oversized portraits of labyrinthine faces and photographs of Cook's past public projects. To what extent should we be mindful -- as private citizens and/or public artists -- of modeling what we wish to see in the world? And if, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says, "Our actions are our only true belongings," what is the relationship between what we choose to produce, and what processes we use to (co) create them?

For Cook, the answers are clear: "The process I employ with others to create something together is just as important as any end product we produce. It's about learning to see in a new way with others, more than it is about me imposing my view of the world on anyone else."

By contrast, the core questions animating the MOCA event weren't representative of any shared vision of the world; they were reflective of an ersatz veneration of the art of the spectacle itself. As Eli Broad, the museum's major benefactor, put it, "I know other institutions don't do things the way we do, but people should do it more." (Do what exactly?) Museum director Jeffrey Deitsch added his own coda: "We can take risks. We can break a few rules. That's who we are as people."

To be clear, artists like Abramovic, and institutions like MOCA, must be free to take whatever risks they wish. It's also clear that the timing of the event coincides with the myriad upheavals mobilizing so many of us around the world -- from Tahrir Square to Zucotti Park -- all of which are based on a shared belief that what will sustain societies in the 21st century are not autocratic governments, invite-only fundraisers, and conspicuous consumption, but a more human scale of life and living, a veneration of process as much as product(s), and a commitment to equip all people with the skills and self-confidence they need to become equitable, visible contributors to the common good.

In a recent piece about the Occupy movement for the New York Review of Books, Mark Greenberg captures these values well. "Speaking to protesters in Zuccotti Park recently, I got the sense that they wished people would stop demanding a demand because the idea of one was of little interest to them. It seemed beside the point. What they cared about was the 'process,' a way of thinking and interacting exemplified by their daily General Assembly meetings and the crowded, surprisingly well-mannered village they had created on the 33,000 square feet of concrete that comprises Zuccotti Park."

"This," Greenberg writes, "was really the main project of the Occupy Wall Street organizers: to acquaint new volunteers with their new version of democracy. Why, they asked, curtail the growing mystique of [the movement] with something as ordinary as a political demand?"

Why indeed? After all, whether it's an Occupy camp site or a community-based art project, sometimes, in an ownership society that has gone bankrupt, what's most valuable is not what we produce, but which processes we use to help people recapture the human scale of life, and which spaces we open up for all of us to make visible what we wish to see more of in the world.