Personal Essay: Art and the Shame Economy

This essay published in Out of Place: Artists, Pedagogy, and Purpose, edited by Tim Doud and Zoë Charlton.

Art is not a practical career and people generally know this. One who takes it up ought to eventually make peace with this fact but that’s not me. Instead, the contrasting demands of artistic practice and the market economy have seemed in such jarring opposition that eventually they became the subject of my work and remade my practice, extracting me from the studio and pushing me out onto the streets; pulling me out of my solo career as a maker and into collaborative organizing.  Along the way, the horizon became social revolution rather than aesthetic invention.

I maintained an artist identity through years of political action, quietly returning to the studio for creative nourishment while building a practice and reputation based on collective direct action. This activism meant challenging art world elites directly as few artists have a chance to do; it was cathartic. Yet this didn’t prevent a shadow from creeping in when called to explain my role to others–or to myself. Reaching my 40’s, I noticed that I began to wonder about the connection between the public shaming of trustees and presidents who preside over museums, and the private sense of shame I’ve felt as an artist struggling into my middle age for a dignified social role. I’ve concluded that in order to contribute artistically or politically, it’s necessary to investigate shame itself.

Artists put ourselves in an extremely vulnerable position. We present personal visions, often times weird ones, to institutional gatekeepers who, if we’re lucky, present them to an audience for some kind of social transaction: hopefully acceptance and financial support.  It’s a high risk endeavor and means the possibility of a very personal failure. The trope of the failed artist is a victim of their outsized ego. But personalizing this shame is precisely the trap.

Economic conditions and an inability to articulate them, especially in relation to artist’s romanticized and relatively privileged position, constitute the deeper source of shame. Vying for a mainstream art career means overinvestment. There’s an apparent necessity to live in expensive cities where the opportunities of the art industry lie but where we face unaffordable rents and the threat of displacement. Then there’s the maxed out loans and credit card traps: the requirement for degrees, studio space, and expensive materials versus a meager-earning career.  And because the goal is time for often open-ended creative development rather than time converted to earnings, artists are likely to be expendable when we double as wage workers.  As a result, I’ve been caught, and many artists are caught, in a spiral oscillating between the poles of personal creative failure and economic precarity.  They compound each other.

Yet there’s a misunderstanding when it comes to specifying community struggles as to whether that necessitates victimhood and arguing for status as protected group.  US artists are seen as overwhelmingly white and more likely to hail from confortable classes than working class or immigrant backgrounds. Besides, many workers struggle with labor devaluation and obsolescence in a global economy, how are artist’s exceptional?  Many workers take risks to organize, what’s stopping artists from unionizing to better our working conditions as nurses or teachers do? It’s tempting, and common, to dismiss artist’s struggle as privileged whining.  But a dismissal misses the opportunity to understand a condition that perhaps the vast majority of Americans find ourselves in, which touches on the inner life of capitalism.

Structural Shame

Shame is an internalization of laws: divine, natural or social ones, depending on one’s worldview. It’s most often associated with religions: Catholicism or Judaism: human narratives that begin with Adam and Eve’s shame at the discovery of their own sinful nakedness in the Garden of Eden.

This shame was a positive attribute–if one didn’t feel it, bad behavior and then divine punishment would likely ensue and still today being “shameless” isn’t a virtue.  Ever since 2016 Trump’s shamelessness has been much discussed with commenters coming to the conclusion that “Trump has taught us that shame performs a vital democratic function – and how dangerous is the man who feels none of it.” (The Guardian, 2017)

However shame within our current belief system, which is belief in the market economy masquerading as democracy, holds up not so much the values of the bible as transactional values: failure to earn a prosperous or living wage is shameful. So is failure to invest at the right time, failure to consume expensive brands or catch the attention of wealthy people, and most of all, failure to pay back (or renegotiate) debts.

The political left practically defines itself as not accepting these as personal failures even though I imagine that most people in the US feel personally ashamed about their inferiority concerning these standards, and artists who trade in personal visions personalize the failure more. But capitalism as well known for its habit of creating a class of losers by design, so rejecting the personalization of market failures makes sense. But shame is not just an economic challenge, it puts one’s identity at stake, and identity is a construct comprised of both historical and emotional dimensions. Navigating this emotional territory in public and private is the work of the present moment, especially since social media has transferred both identities and emotions into both market currencies and political footballs on a level not seen in generations. Today’s public spaces online and off are filled with acts of shaming.

But even though shame is wielded publicly it’s gnaws away on the inside; it gets its power from taboo and self-censorship; from the powerlessness of having to silently lift impossibly heavy social weight.  Shame therefore needs to be publicly exposed, the iceberg needs to be lifted into the sun to melt.  That’s where art comes in. Art is good at making murky and difficult things visible.  


I write about Debtfair as a member of a group, Occupy Museums, who developed it over a few years and presented it collectively at the Whitney Biennial in 2017. Our intention was start up a national conversation about art and structural shame. We felt the Whitney was the best place to do it because it’s a crown jewel for a gilded version of New York: The museum stands for global wealth that sweeps precarity, struggle and abjection under the rug just as the old Chelsea of drag queens and nightclubs, factories and workers in the manufacturing industries was sanitized by luxury brand temples, high-end hotels, jet setting tourists, and mega galleries. In Debtfair we would lift up the museum’s rug to expose the conditions of one of its primary communities: working artists.

Debtfair is an exhibition of artworks clustered inside wall openings according to the debts the artists owe. It’s also a slideshow of paintings and sculptures paired up like diptychs with statements about artist’s economic realities. Contemporary art, often mute and open for interpretation, is in fact pre-interpreted by the “frame” around it, whether it’s a high end white box gallery telling us the art is expensive and chic, or a linguistically coded curatorial text telling us its politically and intellectually important, or a café/ community space wall telling us it might be pretty or well meaning, but nothing to take too seriously. We wanted to make the struggle itself a “frame” for the work and thus bring economic reality to the same retinal level as the art.  So a quilt-like network of different colored wobbly bullseyes painted in acryclic by artist Nina Bovasso was paired with the words:

I got into debt because I really needed more money and I made an investment into a company that I thought was going to make me a lot of money so I made the mistake of skipping a few rent payments to pay for the investment. The business investment did not make any money at all and now my son and I are on the verge of ejection. I feel terrible about this, I feel like I am failing as a responsible parent. I am trying my best but I need help.

Everywhere you could see the internalization of a hard-edged economy into the attempt to live a creative daily life.  It made for a puzzling contrast; artists leading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde double lives: the will to creative play vs. financial entrapment.  Gazing at the clustered artworks in Debtfair, you stared at hard evidence that creative freedom is a human drive, but after reading the artist’s confessions the paintings transformed into dangerous lures.  Debt was the line and hook. Debt had snagged artists by creative aspirations and lashed them to the financial system on the bank’s terms. Artists recounted how debt transformed the aesthetics and meaning of their art over time.

We concentrated on debt because it’s a basic tissue of capitalism: almost everyone has it but the different types of debt articulate class positions.  These range from payday loans that oppress the poor to good and bad mortgages and student debt, to the high tech “fixed income assets” personal debts bundled together at scale to securitize investments, making the 1% richer each day.  We wanted to map these relations to the art community because if art is a search for freedom, the ballooning of private debt in the last few decades has produced a labyrinth that artists must somehow escape.

Visibility and Museums

Reading through what sometimes feel like confessions, (which can be seen on you begin to think differently about what art is. You get a sense that individual artistic expression answers a need to be seen in the herculean task of surviving capitalism. And this, we thought was where the iceberg could begin to melt. Occupy Museums would match this emotional visibility, which heals individuals and forms relationships with another kind of visibility: exposing the issue powerfully in the media. Yet as I learned from the Whitney Biennial, the politics of visibility is a double-edged sword.

Visibility lies at the heart of activist tactics. Movements from LGBTQ rights to immigrant’s rights employ it: pulling the narratives of marginalized groups into the spotlight where the larger public gains familiarity and ultimately replaces prejudice with respect for the rights of fellow citizens. The contemporary logic of visibility also includes acts of exposure: if something is revealed as unjust as we saw in the police violence videos that sparked Black Lives Matter, it’s supposed to automatically open an issue up for debate and ultimately reform, acting as “evidence” in a society governed by laws which activist demand be are informed by ethics and governed by democratic process. But visibility has gatekeepers; it depends on institutions: media mostly, and in the case of the arts, the white walls and social infrastructure of museums. The Whitney Biennial is a machine that produces visibility but with conditions.

Yet it would be disingenuous to say that it was simply a strategic thing to bring Debtfair to the Whitney.  Exhibiting there activated something extremely complicated inside of me: a place of unexamined desire; a vulnerable place. It exposed how profoundly my identity as an artist had formed around the need for institutional acceptance. This desire would seem to be in contradiction because my work with Occupy Museums had been all about working against this desire; reversing the one-sided relationships that artists have with museums. I spent years shaming the elites that preside over them in order to spark a taking back of museums as democratic public space, encouraging others to do it as well. Now our group was invited in to spread our message. We knew full well that museums can run progressive apps on plutocratic hardware. But we were in a murky situation, amplified by the political change of the 2016 election. And for me, a sense of social shame lay at the root. This requires me to relate some background.

Discovering Artistic Faith

I grew up on a Buddhist residential community before enrolling in art school, subsequently emerging into adulthood embracing the creative and spiritual search as an utmost value. Hitting the job market, I quickly intuited how personhood links to professional and economic status and my life goals began to shift. I realized I had to cling to a professional identity and a steady resume to avoid being a “loser” within my social class.  And this meant internalizing the authority of galleries and museums, because they could guarantee my status as a professional artist.

I was just out of art school and temping in Boston in the year 2000 where I walked around the city with a fake chef’s hat handing out flyers for a soon-to-fail dot com that was supposed to disrupt restaurants. That afternoon I perceived the trap for artists in the economy: in trying to spend as much time as possible developing one’s artwork, there would be not enough time to develop a reasonable career so there would be really only one high-risk play. Mindless shit jobs were the immediate solution, but one paid a price for them.  Without full time investment to move up the ladder, they would become more and more humiliating and less sustainable (which has proven true in the present, teaching as an adjunct). And as I moved around the city observing people of all ages working shit jobs: data entry, holding up sandwich boards, bagging in supermarkets, working at big box stores, wheeling around other people’s babies, I came to feel that capitalism is a parasite on personal dignity, shaming the less fortunate and laying the trap for high risk strivers like artists until they come to believe deep inside themselves that they are losers.

How then to escape this trap?  It required faith: faith that the world of art was a bit exceptional to the rest of the economy.  Sure, it was all about money in some circles, but the larger art world of academia and smaller art spaces, and public facing museums and art projects added up to a different value system: the value of visibility to a public and to peers; of the creation and circulation of meaning. And the relationship of the artist to the public was the key: the existence of an audience stood as proof of complete personhood for the artist.

So I gazed up at the sky in my dot-com chef’s dunce cap and wondered how to obtain an audience that would follow and support my work. The answer seemed to lie in a chain of institutions.

The first step was finding a gallery that would sustain me until curators took notice. Then biennials. An academic position would help shield me from market frivolity and solidify the institutional foundation. The final step would depend on museums: entering the art historical canon to commune with future publics. Artistic faith dictated that only museums could save my soul. That was where personal success and public contributions fused and shame fully dissolved into triumph and deathlessness. Riches would follow naturally. This mythology is still intact today in all parts of the art field including, perhaps especially, among artist-activists. It’s also the shiniest lure hooking aspiring artists into debt. And it over-empowers museums because only museums can convert the public into audience and certify the transaction between artistic production and its reception. Museums play the role ratings agencies play in the world of finance.

But just as I was launching my attempted institutional ascent into the public eye with solo gallery exhibitions out of grad school, 2008 happened. The abuse of power by the actual ratings agencies revealed the extent to which the US was operating as a corporate oligarchy. As a result, the vertical logic of museum worship now made little sense to me. Direct democracy resonated deeper.

Occupy Museums

I joined the Occupy Wall Street Movement and soon helped to form Occupy Museums; a group which connected the self-organizing spirit of the park and the calling out of financial elites, to the world or art. It seemed, for a few months at the height of the movement, that playing the game but its old rules was a thing of the past. The old rules stated: everyone compete against everyone for visibility and the favor of the collector class, be careful not to “bite the hand that feeds you” too hard. The new rules stated: gather together with strangers and hold public space, find points of unity with those frustrated or shut out of the game. Channeling collective anger in public space was cathartic.

Following the Occupy Museums manifesto I posted to Facebook in October 2011 which began: “The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%…” I spent years in collaboration, focused on organizing around tactics to make museums feel the fear of an activated public who would no longer stand for the brand-washing, art laundering and union busting practices of the collector class who sit on the boards of trustees. Eventually focusing on powerful elites felt like an obsession and a niche practice and we wanted to address the much larger bottom of the pyramid. That meant organizing artists according to their economic conditions as exemplified in Debtfair.

The dissolution of the movement had beached our movement-oriented work onto a smaller sphere. Within just a few years what had begun in the streets circulated inside museums (not in galleries or on the market) but the shift made sense for me: I was, afterall, committed to the work of museums  not only using them for political purposes. But moving toward the inside I found myself increasingly entwined in the logic of reputation and institutional visibility: of professionalism. The awkwardness of this entwinement became clear when the political language of the urban left shifted away from an urgent concern around financial inequality and Occupy Museum’s critique began to wane on the coasts. The shift revealed how much Occupy Museum’s collective work had been tied to the aftershock of 2008 but it also revealed how art activism is not unlike other types of art that have their moments. Then, when we brought Debtfair to the Whitney Museum, a political whiplash revealed a kind of shame I wasn’t anticipating: white shame.


The political climate of 2017 rested on a totally reoriented notion of victimhood following the series of police shootings, the Standing Rock movement, and then the election of Trump. Black and brown struggles were newly visible to the mainstream, but there identities were under attack from the highest world power and needed more than understanding: they needed protection. For the left, it was time to make the struggle for racial equality, which had in previous decades often been a domain of tokenization and lip-service, as concrete as possible. It became crucial to see and hear those victimized, and to follow their lead. In this context the struggles of artists, or even of debtors, did not seem like an issue to be prioritized. But the concept of victimhood was not a simple one.

It became disturbingly clear that different victimhood narratives were produced simultaneously. Straight white men were painted as both racist patriarchs “punching down” on various groups, and also as victims of the globalist coastal political elites themselves. This surreal double-read on events proved possible in the same country, in the same year. It seemed like victimhood production was undergoing an arms race with a bright line dividing territories and the mapping tactic of Debtfair did not fit easily into the picture.

We had conceptualized Debtfair (in my personal view at least) in an attempt to discover political structure and nuance, positing that debt maps power relations across social and racial and territorial boundaries. We had included groups of Puerto Rican debtors, racially diverse groups struggling with credit card debt and student loan debt. The project complicated the idea of art as an act of privilege and it took time to absorb; it requested attention.  But the attention economy that Trump energized did not deal in nuance. In the post-election moment with white supremacist marches and anti-immigrant laws being passed, outrage was more appropriate.

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge to the framework of Debtfair was the rising lens of privilege and how it relates to art. Isn’t a life devoted to creative freedom the ultimate privilege? Even if you could prove that art doesn’t fit well within capitalism for most people, isn’t the concept of privilege practically defined by the choice for a life that isn’t practical when so many others are forced into jobs and conditions they never asked for? There’s a working class notion that pursuing art fulltime is selfish. This intends to shame people into adopting the value of simple hard work and the identity that goes with it. This forms the identity of worker, a traditional left identity, but one on a long decline since the 1960’s.

But the president’s mobilization of white identity politics and targeting of ethnic minorities made the racial aspect of privilege absolutely central.  Whiteness means unearned status. If artists are privileged, then white artists are doubly privileged. Creating a political map that included both white artists and artists of color, without centrally calling attention to this division, was no longer politically possible because outrage became a limited resource.  You needed a measure for deciding how much outrage to allot a given issue. Privilege became an important meter to allocate resistance energies. So most art world politics shifted from the Occupy-era horizon of organizing large solidarity groups, toward the politics of representation: diversifying collections and institutional hires while knocking out leading figures connected to oppressing women or minority groups.

Selfishness and Solidarity

Despite steps toward equality of access, the horizon for artist solidarity (for example organizing artist debt collectives) appeared dim for a number of reasons.

For one, the dimensions of the moment revealed political limitations in the figure of the artist who offer their work–and their identities–to a market driven by the ultra-wealthy.  While museum workers began to unionize, artists seemed to further fragment.

The focus on the identity of the artists, a focus that sometimes appeared as essentialist, struck me as a zero sum game with groups competing with each other for a shrinking pie: what amounted to crumbs tossed out by plutocrats, making solidarity across the lines undesirable. The continued expansion of capitalism into the realm of the self also deteriorated the project of solidarity.

Ceasing essential work or threatening to do so is an effective traditional tool of workers. But artists are not traditional workers, we make work which is often simply esoteric problems. Much of the work we do is focused on the interior: we’re deeply invested in self but there are two dimensions to the art self. There’s the internal creative well to draw from, and then the necessity to externalize the self as a brand, a small company that circulates in the markets. The internal experience is relevant to our discussion about shame.  The combination of focus, creative autonomy, and physicality of art practice promotes a flow or alpha state. This allows artists to create a highly articulated relationship with intuition. It’s a place that is not reliant on social acknowledgment; it’s free from shame.

On the other hand there’s the brand-self that needs to be invested in by the public. We float ourselves onto the market, compelled to navigate and compete. We look the other way when the market absorbs our personal brand, made visible by market tools like converting artists into stocks. This is how we forfeit all political power.

The Shame of Whiteness

We had set up Debtfair so the art community could reimagine their relationship to the market and rethink political power through the lens of debt. But a discussion about power and finance didn’t emerge from the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Instead a single debate arose: why did a white painter think it was ok to represent black death and suffering? The context was the 2016 democratic primary, particularly Bernie Sander’s inability to attract black votes. Economic inequality politics were now met with skepticism: read by many as an attempt to derail the momentum of racial justice.

Consequently, as the race and representation debate around Open Casket raged on, Debtfair met a critical silence and just as being in the Whitney activated an unexamined need for institutional acknowledgment, the silence stung personally. Note that I am only describing my own thought process as a single Occupy Museums member; other members have different backgrounds and different experiences.

For me, it caused a short circuit between recognizing my white privilege, as for example someone unlikely to face random police violence or not see myself in the halls of power, and mourning the loss of what I had unconsciously expected from it.  I experienced a kind of silencing or de-platforming without being called out and this activated a sense of victimhood.

This was a dangerously easy emotion to call up, because I had already come to narrate the story of the art community as potential victims, and had tapped into a kind of victimhood in my formation as an activist. From Occupy Wall Street days, I had harnessed this underdog identity, a voice of the 99%, which made it easy to ignore my own privilege, and it became the basis for a political intuition that green-lighted action, made it ok to shout in public. It had continued into the anti-gentrification struggle in New York City, which was personal. But now I recognized this self-identification as victim as an embarrassing social mistake out of tune with the larger social landscape. It was time for painful reflections and having prominent but silent political work at the Whitney Biennial was an awkward time for that.

Maybe the backstory of my artist-activist identity: facing a string of capitalist humiliations beginning with the fake chef’s hat, the story that converted my shame into an anti-elite warrior, maybe I had it backwards. Maybe the expectations of success and subtle assumptions of cultural superiority built into whiteness were generating crocodile’s tears. Maybe I had self-styled myself as a victim and champion of victims precisely not give up my unearned power.

Now whiteness, which previously has appeared as almost the lack of an identity, appeared in the identity market. I perceived the stock of cis white men progressive spheres losing value as protests called out the lack of representation of women and people of color in academic jobs, museum shows, and among curators eliciting white guilt and institutional reckoning. As a new father I felt a strong drive to stabilize myself institutionally, and had been applying for a full time college job for a decade without any luck.  Now that higher education institutions were forced to get serious about equitable hires, I felt a deep sense of despair about attaining the artistic personhood that depended on institutions: a desire which I had never managed to shake,

I caught myself falling into a trap, one that could lead eventually to resentment, dangerously personalizing the structural crisis: as if my own needs were pitted against my values; as if I had lost touch with anyone’s struggles besides my own. I recognized shame at the core of this infestation: the old shameful fear of being a loser, which was perhaps itself the result of the assumptions of professional success baked into whiteness. This complicated my enthusiasm for the historical reckoning that was unfolding on the left regarding racial equality; even if one I had actively supported.

Discovering a problematic and wounded person that was me, made it difficult to continue the thing I seemed to be best at, which, ironically, was shaming, because now a white male activist screaming with indignant rage didn’t seem like a viable position anymore, at least not anymore on the Left and it wasn’t emotionally viable either because I was too afflicted with my own shame to shame someone else.   


Twitter founder Jack Dorsey admitted that the platform was built to reward shaming: it has become the social norm and although its wielded for social justice, its not always aimed at the powerful. My identity crisis following the Whitney Biennial could have been an effect of not being careful enough with shaming; investing into the outrage economy without grounding the currency in self-examination.

In Debtfair, we shamed Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock Inc, the world’s largest holder of private debt who is also on the board of MoMA.  We put his name and resume, which tied him directly to Trump, on the Whitney wall and targeted him in direct actions wearing printed masks of his face. Previously we had shamed museum trustees for example an action to oppose renaming the public space in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as “Koch Plaza” I had even confronted David Koch himself, by accident, as he unexpectedly walked down the museum steps with a bodyguard while we sat on the steps preparing the action against him. Seeing a real person standing in for the abstract “target” was a bit of a shock. It wasn’t that he had a warm vibe in person. Certainly Koch, the father of the recent far right, a main funder of climate change denial, deserves to be shamed in public. But I also realized in that moment that shaming, as politically justified as it may be, creates, and may even depend on, dehumanization. Shaming can be an essential democratic tool when a public discredits those that have abused power but it is equally essential to examine one’s own privilege and motivation first. You need a generous and well-examined heart to wield shame in a nondestructive way.

Pedagogy and Artistic Anxiety

Understanding the power of shame has impacted my pedagogical approach. I came to see that in the current climate, with the duel elephants of student debt crisis and structural racism parked in the room, artistic pedagogy could easily stagnate in the space between escape from reality into the interior or the zero sum game of the branded self floated onto markets. Students know that their chances at success are too limited, and I think they figured out that privilege rather than merit likely determine their chances even if it was unspoken. As professor whose salary was paid by their debt, I was meshed into the awkward risk they had taken.

Yet my work could be described as a critical stance toward the framework for art precisely because I believe in its intrinsic value. And since art taps into these duel spheres connecting the personal to the public, I began to sense a value in teaching it. I was thinking about structural shame in the form of debt the students took on: the intimate power relations with financial institutions that ultimately occupied one’s interior life. In a climate ruled by financial data that buzzes with shame and anxiety, learning to create art could mean un-learning shame.

Even though the condition is real, the faith in it is where the negative power comes from. The act of making, which is where a vision dances between the mind and reality, makes a rich interior life. The joy of teaching is sensing this rich life growing within students.  I reasoned that basing one’s worldview on this richness rather than the default of market logic could liberating, but only if it didn’t crash into the violence of the debt markets, precarious job markets, and art markets upon first launch.

But that can resolve only through large scale structural change in society. I decided to concentrate on nurturing a shame-free space of experimentation in my classes.  The political power of the endeavor was unlocked when it flowed from private universe into public space where it could activate shame-free places in others. Instead of thinking of art pedagogy as making artists battle-ready for the markets I focused on crafting a shame-free practice in the transition from private to public. And it was possible to set conditions where this worked within the social sphere of the class. But transition from private world into the larger world (spatially, temporally, institutionally) is the hard part.


Writing this, I’ve assumed that shame is something to escape from. Debtfair maps how shame can manifest as financial power governing over our inner lives and decreeing silence. Yet maybe we can think of shame differently.

Maybe shame is a sensor for the connection between the private and public notions of self. Maybe we can use this sensor an instrument for solidarity rather than allowing it to be used as an instrument by the powerful who impose the shame of a racist law enforcement system, or an extractive debt system, over our individual and collective body.

I was reading about Claudette Colvin who refused to give up her seat and went to jail months before Rosa Parks. She was 15 at the time, and when she became pregnant soon after, it was decided this was too shameful: bad optics: the action depended on visibility.  She would not make a good icon to rally the movement around.  But her brave action was seen. It shamed other civil rights activists into ramping up the desegregation campaign, and they subsequently planned the successful Rosa Parks action.

Shame then is a kind of accountability in the biblical sense almost, but in this case to the collective social body rather than to God. When we see a person being free or fearless, or catching fire creatively and tapping into something deep, we are pushed to examine what holds us back and to take on the necessary and risky work that we might otherwise justify away. Perhaps we feel shame because we want to tap into the same energy, and be able to activate others in turn, to pull ourselves collectively out of lethargy and impossibility.

Shame is not an intrinsically friendly force. We must learn to listen to it while not internalizing it. I’ll try thinking of it as a push toward individual and collective emancipation. And emancipation is that artistic value that is invisible to both the financial economy and the outrage economy. This is the invisibility I can aspire to.


Public Seminar: Artist-as-debtor, Debt-as-Creator The unseen debt sustaining the art market

This article is part of a series of texts published on Public Seminar in the lead-up to the Digital/Debt/Empire symposium in Vancouver in late April 2019, convened by Benjamin Anderson, Enda Brophy and Max Haiven.

Is there a better place to glimpse the logic of capitalism than at art fairs, those ultra luxury trade shows where art galleries show their wares? Contemporary art, as seen among the stalls of a sprawling art fair, might seem like a collection of styles, subjectivities, and strategies more or less randomly valued by an opaque corrupt global market (the art market is often considered the largest unregulated market). But there is a logic to its valuation and to understand this logic, it’s helpful to think about art as political narratives boiled down into object form, and offered for sale.

Think, for example, of the David Hammons piece Fur Coat, a collection of fire-singed luxury fur coats, part of the artist’s long history of working irreverently and minimally with symbols of race and class. The artist once stated: “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”

Hammons is represented by, and his work is prominently displayed at the Mnuchin gallery in New York’s wealthy Upper West Side. This gallery is run by class warriors: Mnuchin is a former partner at notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs who is credited for developing the “block trade” in the 1970s, allowing banks to sell large sums of bonds leading to the rapid growth of the financial sphere of the economy. Robert Mnuchin is also father of Trump’s current Secretary of the Treasury, the man primarily responsible for writing the 2017 tax bill that further shifted tax obligations away from the ultra rich. Why would Hammons want to show at such a gallery, and why would Mnuchin want to show “Fur Coat?”

For the last few years, I’ve been focusing my work as an activist and an artist on understanding how art functions under capitalism, regardless of the intention or politics of the artist. This question has led me to studying and seeking to intervene in both the financial and the emotional markets that prop up empire.


Since at least the early 1970’s, any form of expression, whether visual or invisible, permanent or ephemeral, has been accepted as art. At the same time, the cultural scope of art has been widening in parallel with the internationalization of art shown in museums, and sold on the art market. As a result, contemporary art is like a vacuum cleaner that can suck any kind of cultural expression anywhere in the world into its capitalist core. From this ability, art has taken on an important social function within capitalism: it transforms potent political capital into impotent aesthetic currency. The magic ingredient is abstraction.

I was born in 1977, and have therefore lived through the period marking the rise of the current neoliberal empire. Throughout my life I have witnessed the empire’s accumulation of literal and metaphorical territories: different spheres of existence have been pulled into the private market, from utility companies to schools, from friendships to attention to emotions. Throughout my life, I have felt a shift in democratic agency, but it had always been difficult to name .

In the financial crisis of 2008 it became clear that, just like contemporary art, the magic ingredient of the neoliberal empire was abstraction. We learned about credit default swaps and the other abstract financial instruments that triggered the economic crash, thanks to decades of government deregulation. Because these structures of at the heart of an empire of inequality were so abstract, understanding them (let alone organizing against them) was extremely difficult.

Existing left social movements in the US seemed incapable of contesting these new abstract forms of power until 2011, when new movements emerged who mirrored their complexity and network formation. Occupiers organized against austerity in Greece and Spain, against the capture of public space in Egypt and Turkey, against student debt in Canada, and against the overruling of democracy by the banks in the US. The movements were not only protesting against the status quo, they were also creating a pre-figurative culture of mutual aid.

Debt and The Occupy Movement

I joined Occupy Wall Street early on as an artist because I felt that art institutions would be a particularly important stone for the movement to overturn in its quest to demystify the tools of capitalist empire. I co-facilitated a group called Occupy Museums, which brought direct democracy tactics from the main protest encampment at Zuccotti Park to New York’s preeminent arts institutions, like MoMA. The assemblies we held outside museums invited the public to join in and give shape to the struggles and demands of the 99%. The collective and creative body we formed together contrasted with the tightly branded, narrowly curated voice of the museums, which are basically run as corporations. For the next few years we focused on direct actions meant to reposition museums as contested democratic spaces and political stages. We took aim at the philanthropic collector class (most of them the direct or indirect beneficiaries of an empire of debt) that govern museums, rebranding them as takers rather than givers.


In 2013 Occupy Museums shifted our approach toward a project called Debtfair, which focused less on politically shaming the 1% and instead on radicalizing the 99% of artists who struggle in relative silence and invisibility. We asked: how does your economic reality affect your art?

When we began Debtfair we thought of ourselves as an anti-startup seeking to set up an art fair whose economic activity would alleviate artist debt, rather than making collectors — and debt market-beneficiaries — richer. This idea was inspired by the campaign of another Occupy-affiliated movement: Strike Debt’s 2012 Rolling Jubilee that managed to “hack” the secondary debt market and crowd fund money to buy people out of medical and other debts. However, after a few experiments we realized that attempting to deploy this tactic in the interests of artists would rely on gaining the goodwill of those holding capital and asking them to shift their financial behavior. We didn’t want to re-empower this class with a new feel-good option but rather to build stronger bonds among those who are struggling at the grassroots.

The Morality Trap

The neoliberal debt empire is not only a system where many of us make endless interest payments without ever paying off the principal. It’s not only about how this payment regime demands we perform extra labor, taking time and energy away from our creative work and transforming us into precarious corporate workers. Debt is deeply connected to a whole system of western morality: a moral person is one who gives back what they have borrowed. American law builds on this by enshrining the rights to private property, rather than collective good.

This means that the system encourages amorality because today, going into debt is almost unavoidable for working people, but escaping debt is also almost impossible. Citizens of capitalism, reconfigured as debtors, therefore carry a burden of structurally encoded shame. Artists laboring under this shame are especially vulnerable to the art world institutions and the collector class who can seem to offer a balm for their lack of value and self-value with money or institutional acceptance.

While artists are generally known to be progressives there are strong libertarian strains. Perhaps this is because many artists are oriented toward the goal of participating in unregulated markets as entrepreneurs, rather than assuming the identity (and tactics) of workers. In this context, debt is seen as a necessary part of the risk-taking, instead of a trap. As long as the aspirational dream has a hold over someone’s life, it’s nearly impossible for them to achieve a structural view of power.

As in previous Debtfair projects, this time we issued an open call in which artists were invited to show their work collectively at Art League Houston. In return, we asked for them to provide extensive data about their debts, (most of which we kept private). We ended up displaying their artworks in the gallery in collective “bundles” based on to what institutions they owed their debts. Their artworks were accompanied by their testimonial narratives of their economic reality. These results were also posted on our website, The narratives made class position and other experiences and privileges visible.

In this way, Debtfair is a tool to map the intersectional overlap between economic and social/racial conditions of oppression and marginalization. For example, we created a Debtfair iteration focused on Puerto Rican debt that made visible the connection between colonial debt and student loans, as experienced by the artists themselves.


As we accumulated data and relationships in the Houston show as well as other iterations of the project, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial, we wondered if it could be used to map empire. The artists were indebted to so many different institutions that our original goal of organizing a robust group of artist-debtors from one particular bank proved elusive. However, further research led up the finanical food chain, from the banks issuing the retail loans to the wholesale markets where these loans are traded. Huge financial players have developed Robert Mnuchin’s block trading of the 1970’s exponentially, combining these debts with thousands of other assets in highly complex bundles, sometimes called EFTs (exchange traded funds). We sought out a firm that was dealing in and profiting from all the various forms of debts our artist-participants were experiencing and found one: BlackRock Inc.

BlackRock is the world’s largest asset management firm and deals primarily in bonds (debts). BlackRock is currently managing 6.44 trillion worth of assets, a figure larger than the GDP of Germany and England combined. This scale makes it more than “too big to fail” and it wields an incredible amount of political power.

Before 2008, BlackRock’s assets were relatively modest for the industry. , It’s founder and director Larry Fink was called in to “clean up” the wreckage of the crash by valuing the “toxic” assets that the U.S. government bought from private banks as part of the bailout of the 1%. In this way, Fink gained access to the highest levels of financial governance, which BlackRock mobilized to corner the market and develop lucrative positions on the debt markets. BlackRock’s rise represents the post-democratic triumph of capitalism: it offers a good view of empire today.

Larry Fink is also connected to the world of contemporary art, including as a board member of New York’s trend-setting MoMA. He is quoted as saying that “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art… and apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London,” unintentionally exposing the fanfare of high dollar art sales as simply the flip-side of the much larger debt market.

For artists, the ultimate success is considered to be one’s work becoming a stable asset while in fact, the real source of capital propping up the 1%’s success is not the success of the few, but the failure of the many in the form of debt. BlackRock’s 6.44 trillion “fixed income” (debt) assets under management create the wealth that is able to buy luxury art and real estate. In the current era of capitalism, failure is like the raw material that fuels the production of wealth.

Noah Fischer’s drawings, installations writings, and performances bridge intuition and political struggle while his organizing practice engages it head on. Fischer is a founding member of Occupy Museums, a group that formed in Zuccotti Park and brought horizontal assemblies to MoMA, Lincoln Center and other cultural institutions. Fischer’s work has been seen with and without invitation at Guggenheim, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, ZKM and in the 56th Venice Biennale, 7th Berlin Biennale and the 2017 Whitney Biennial. He currently teaches studio art at Kenyon College in Ohio and Parsons School of Design in NYC.

Debtfair at 516 Arts, Albuquerque

Debtfair New Mexico is a project of Occupy Museums. Debfair is our platform for organizing artists based on economic realities, asking what if debts and the institutions that profit off art students and the creative community in so many ways could become visible and  used as an organizing strategy. You can learn more about the overall project at Debtfair is part of an exhibition called “Currency” that also includes Mel Chin and Jennifer Dalton, curated by Josie Lopez and Manuel Montoya.

516 Arts, Albuquerque
November 17-January 26, 2019

Counter-Commencement Debtor’s Ceremony


What does commencement mean for artists in the billionaire feeding frenzy of the Trump era? Commencement symbolizes the entry of studied, curious individuals into a world that they have been prepared to influence and impact. But what is this world into which graduates are entering today, and what impact can they have amid a reactionary crackdown on art and cultural difference, saddled with backbreaking amounts of debt? These are the questions that tens of thousands of new art school graduates and hundreds of thousands of American artists are asking this spring. We cannot accept what appears to be offered: A mass competition for the few available court painter positions as democracy unravels and less privileged citizens come under threat…

Hyperallergic reports