Protests! They’re full of crowds of wacky people and that’s why they’re so weird and interesting. The topics surrounding Occupy Wall Street – and of course the slogan of the 99% (most everyone) versus the 1% (the few who are the ultra rich) — pretty much stomp all over the idea of the tyranny of the majority, because, after all, it’s the minority group of the ultra rich who seem to have gained far too much political power via lobbying, specialty laws with loopholes in their favor: you name it, they got it. And everyone else doesn’t.
Probably the funniest and most disturbing fine art full of crowds that I can think of are paintings by James Ensor – one of the all-time great and strange painters:
Ensor’s portrayals of governance and religious leadership, sometimes comic, are full of vile opportunists controlled by the elite. He also loved to paint scenes from circus and carnival; readily apparent in the many masks within the crowds. And isn’t it true that every protest contains someone who’s wearing a mask? Gotta love the top-hat wearing, green-decorated skull-man in the lower left of the scene.
Yet the 1% is certainly a troubling problem for artists, since after all, it’s usually the wealthy who buy original art. We constantly celebrate the million-dollar sales of today’s well-known art celebrities, like this photo by Andreas Gursky, which sold at auction for US$4.3 million.
Gursky’s photo is a new sales record for photography, and it is the kind of purchase that only the 1% can make. I think it was a stupid purchase (for two reasons, first of all this is the most boring kind of photo that Gursky makes… he’s got far far better ones; and secondly, good grief, for the same amount of money one could set up a scholarship fund that would last forever and from invested interest could pay tuition for something like forty MA state college students per year!)
But let’s not forget that actually the 99% makes the most art purchases every year, in the form of $0.99 songs bought on iTunes, videos on instant download, and slideshows, and millions of e-books, etc. Popular art, sold frequently but in millions of small affordable doses, is a far greater market than the rarified million-dollar sales at the insular end of the museum establishment. These artworks tend to be reproductions rather than originals, made possible by the self-leveling anarchy of Internet marketplaces all over the world. Prior to the Internet, the print market was the place where artists sold fine reproductions. Ensor certainly did… another great artwork by Ensor is this print:
I love how Ensor pictures Death more than a few times in the print, and of course how Death’s scythe is so huge that with one swipe it could take out most of the crowd. That’s a brutal idea, I know, but think about it: we are mortal. Sooner or later, every person in the crowd will turn into a pile of dust. That tension between the liveliness of the crowd and it’s world-changing actions, versus its mortality, always reminds me of this famous photo by Weegee:
Which one of this crowd is the Angel of Death? I think it’s probably the little guy right in the middle of the photo. Yeah, that one. He’s hard to find. Because he’s one of us. Hiding right in plain view. Another famous photo of crowds is this one, by Serge Hambourg:
Note the incredible compositional similarity with Ensor’s Christ Entering Brussels, especially the banner in the middle-left background. Did Hambourg know of Ensor’s painting? Was the composition an intentional match? I’ve never researched Hambourg enough to find out if there’s anything more than an accidental connection. In 2008 there was a show of his work at the Berkeley Art Museum …
And finally no art historical peek at images of crowds would be complete without mentioning this astonishing painting of antiquity:
Crowd-sourcing, crowd-control, group think, mob rule… there’s every variation in the history of art. Crowds are power. Art Brut inventor Jean Dubuffet made many artworks involving crowds of people, but of special interest to OWS might be this one:
Dubuffet’s is an interesting, difficult to interpret image — does the title refer to any flood of people? Are these people the affluent? Or are they the majority who are not the affluent? But who’d like to be? Either way, the painting is a crowd of people, full of diverse expressions and good solid Dubuffet humor!
As for Occupy Wall Street, the movement has already won, in that it has dramatically and effectively changed the national debate. A few months ago the debate was always about debt and new austerity measures. Today the political debate – at nearly every level – is about fairness and income inequality. This is a hugely important shift.
And we must, however, also understand that the OWS movement is a quite different beast than these images from history’s crowds and artist’s imaginations… thanks largely to new technologies.
The speed of commentary via the Internet today is truly astonishing, and few in mass media are keeping up, while even fewer in government know what’s going on. But the OWS crowd is generally tech savvy. Radley Balko wrote the best commentary on the effect of new technologies on the ability of the protestors to organize, publicize their own process and ideas, while demonizing those who work against them. Balko even got some great hate mail for his article. Gee, I guess flame wars still exist… but it just goes to show that with easy reproducibility, any journalist worth his salt can make a fool of the inflammatory. And the same applies with OWS: arrest them? Then you’ll be placed on candid camera within microseconds, broadcast over the Internet, to be seen all over the globe.
I hope that OWS continues to reframe and alter the national debate.