There’s really no more to say about the relationship between Di Suvero and Occupy. This is what I wrote at the start of the movement, in the Guardian:
What would your therapist say, if you have one – and in New York, you probably do – about how the Occupy Wall Street protesters, their opponents, the media and just about everyone else have ignored the elephant in the plaza?
As many as 2,000 people have attended the twice-daily general assemblies, and thousands upon thousands of passers-by have read the cardboard signs – many eloquent, some bonkers – lining the entrance on Broadway. But nobody has craned his neck upward: the entire protest is going down under a 20-ton steel sculpture that reaches 70ft in the air and, by the way, is painted a bright proletarian red. Even in New York, that should be hard to miss.
The sculpture is ”Joie de Vivre”, by Mark di Suvero, and its simultaneous predominance and invisibility at Occupy Wall Street carries a biting irony. Di Suvero is one of the great artists of the American left, a member of the city’s crane operators’ union, who went into exile to protest the Vietnam war. Its irrelevance to the young folks down at Occupy Wall Street may be of a piece with their chant on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend that “the whole world is watching” – a phrase that a few of them must realise dates all the way back to the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Or the sculpture’s erasure may have a darker meaning: high capital has already absorbed one generation of protesters into its logic, and this one probably won’t fare much better.
And this is what I wrote a year later, on Governors Island, for Frieze:
But if you go to see the ICP show at Governors Island, you’ll do well to sprawl out in the grass and gaze at the skyline of Lower Manhattan, with Zuccotti hidden among the new, unfinished towers. All around the park, scattered around the main lawn and interspersed among the buildings, are a dozen sculptures by Mark di Suvero: an artist who was jailed multiple times during the Vietnam war, and whose Joie de Vivre (1998), a 70-foot-tall construction painted bright red, stood right at the centre of Zuccotti Park. Di Suvero’s work, it’s true, now decorates too many dreary pseudo-public spaces built by developers hunting for tax breaks – but even in one of those, as it did last September, once unimaginable collective action can still take place. And until it does again, we might do well to ask about the political valence of abstract sculpture and indeed of all art – how it lets us experience something beyond the world to hand, and in so doing may teach us more about our political condition than a thousand images.
What do I think now, a year on? That Occupy’s lack of sophistication with regard to art (the mistaken attacks on MoMA and the Whitney, the plodding, incompetent Zuccotti staging of Brecht’s Days of the Commune) are not the movement’s fault; that the inability to think aesthetically about Occupy, and the inability for occupiers themselves to think about aesthetics, is an indictment of an entire half-century of misguided and misplaced approaches to the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Di Suvero, while working on the Peace Tower in 1966, understood what we today do not: that it’s the experience of art that has political force; everything else is propaganda. “I believed that the ability to think abstractly necessarily led one to refuse the reactionary attitudes that were so prevalent then,” he said. Funny how fast that was forgotten.