For a few months in autumn 2011, under an enormous red sculpture, a privately owned public park filled with thousands of people who would not leave. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t only a syncopated response to what many considered a corporate coup in 2008. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and the 15M anti-austerity movement in Spain, Occupy was anarchist in spirit, rejecting institutional alliances in favor of horizontal decision-making. One occupied physical space with one’s body, but to occupy encompassed the struggle for the cultural, political, digital, and environmental commons. Utilizing an optimistic early stage of social media, the Occupy Movement quickly spread across the United States and to nearly 1,000 cities in eighty-two countries around the world.
Physical occupation helped creatively channel the anger of debtors and precarious workers. Parks tended to fill with artists; they become training grounds, perhaps even artistic experiments, for life beyond the imaginary of transactional corporate culture. Then, on November 20, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s personal army—as he later called the taxpayer-funded NYPD—violently evicted the encampment at Liberty Park as part of a nationally coordinated action. But Occupy Wall Street continued in the mass response to Hurricane Sandy (Occupy Sandy), and internationally in Occupy Gezi (2013) and Occupy Central Hong Kong (2014). It awakened the American Left, feeding into successful grassroots movements and political campaigns. Yet despite its influence, Occupy represents a hard-to-recall optimism in the struggle for common space and democratic process, an improbable vision of a unified 99 percent.
Occupy resurrected class language for an age of extremes, naming the profiteers of 2008 “the 1 percent.” The diverging fortunes of the 1 percent and 99 percent were perhaps most evident in the art world. In 2012, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895) sold to hostile takeover specialist and MoMA chairman Leon Black for a record $119.9 million at Sotheby’s, which was, at the time, busy breaking their art handlers’ union. Occupy Museums, one of many groups formed in Liberty Park, organized direct actions with the Teamsters at Sotheby’s, MoMA, the Met, the Whitney, Frieze, and Lincoln Center in solidarity with people and issues targeted by the philanthropic class. Arts and Labor, another Occupy offshoot, focused on workplace organizing in museums and higher education. Occupy re-politicized the art world, reclaiming museums as political stages and helping spark the unionization of the cultural sector later in the 2010s.