Jan van Raay


De Volkskrant, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Saturday, February 16, 1980


As much as we know here about American art movements, we know so little, actually, about the American artists' protest movement. About ten years ago the BBK was started here in Holland. During that same time in New York, the Art Workers' Coalition began its' very active and short life.

Jan van Raay, an American artist with a Dutch father, took part in the protests at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies participating photographically. At the moment a very well documented exhibition of her photographs can be seen at Galerie "A" on the Kleine Gartmanplantsoen in Amsterdam. The exhibition will continue until the 7th of March.

Jan van Raay tells during our conversation in the gallery that the whole thing started with the Greek artist George Takis when he wanted to remove one of his old works during the exhibition "The Machine" that began in January 1969 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This piece was owned by the museum, but Takis had already protested during the preparations of the exhibition the fact that this was an old work from 1960 and shouldn't be used. He found that even though he was an artist and the piece didn't belong to him he felt he should still have a right to make decisions about his work.

This deed brought one hell of a lot of activity in New York art life. In studios all over New York artists began speaking to each other which led to the beginning of the Art Workers' Coalition. There arose many complaints, especially questions that had to do with the structure and functions of the leaders of the museums. They concentrated mostly on the strong conservativeness and the fear of experimentation in the leadership of the MOMA, and the same goes for the structure of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the Board of Directors there were also people who had great interests in business and in politics, and therefore were involved in American leadership and the war in Vietnam.

Such a Board of Directors would have to exist with at least one third being made up of artists, according to the AWC. The museum would have to give free entry, and also be open evenings so that the working class people could also come. The museum should not only be in the expensive center of the city, but also decentralized in areas such as the Bronx, Queens and the ghettos such as Harlem.

Black and Puerto Rican artists would have to get more attention, and women artists more opportunities. Also, the AWC wanted such things as material improvements such as artists documentations, better financial rulings, and more open dialogue. This package of demands was brought forth in the form of actions, sit-ins, demonstrations, and crashing in on gatherings where the AWC was not wanted.

In the Board of Directors there were also people who had great interests in business and in politics, and therefore were involved in American leadership and the war in Vietnam.

Jan van Raay sees a clear connection between the political and social activities at that moment in America. "The things that touched us didn't have so much to do with art as to what it had to do with the system and what was behind it."

"Along with this, the fact arose that this was the same system that was responsible for the war in Vietnam, the butchering at My Lai, the invasion of Cambodia, the prison uprising at Attica, and the shooting and killing of four students at Kent State University."

"Because of all this we began to look at the whole business with a more political eye. Even if we were busy with something else, it still had to do with the same system, and we protested against the injustice of this. With the My Lai poster we tried to integrate the war with what we were doing."

"We had seen the photo of the murders (My Lai) in Life Magazine and wanted to use this as a protest poster. The photographer, Ron Haeberle, gave permission to use the photo, and we made appointments with MOMA to put the poster out together. When everything was ready the MOMA backed down. And this motion came from the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. It was then that the artists held a protest action in the Museum, in front of Picasso's "Guernica," which dealt with the same theme. The fact that one-and-a-half years later that same poster was used in an exhibition in that same museum was, of course, another reason for protest."

"The Metropolitan had artists on their front steps then, too. An art critic, Alex Gross, dressed in Egyptian royal symbols, presented a series of signs with photos of the members of the Board of Trustees, summing up their commercial and political activities. The AWC verified that the Metropolitan's investment to the war in Vietnam was approximately 1650 thousand dollars."

With these actions, in any event, there were various facts reached. A free-Monday was introduced at the MOMA, however, the entry fee for the other days was raised. And subsidies came for cultural centers in eight black and Spanish speaking neighborhoods in New York. Jan van Raay found that not only this, but also very important, was the fact that there was now a dialogue possible with museum people, something which before this was impossible.

After the summer recess of '71, when everybody stayed in the studios and their work was more important than their anger and frustrations, there was still something happening in the 'help' organizations for artists, and a powerful and successful women artists organization was established. Above all, the actions continued through the ideas from artists who began work again in connection with protest and so forth. Jan van Raay describes it for herself as "a consciousness of humanity and social justice," and a yearning for people to be aware of this consciousness on all fronts, and that then it would keep active.

The sketched background of the activities of the AWC give us a clear picture of the sphere from where this NEED came to make art that couldn't circulate in this system. In other words, art that is practically unsaleable, for example, the conceptual art, the workings of earthworks, and the results of a more objective and criticle understanding.

Not only the great number of artists who wash dishes to pay for paint and canvas, or gave services for washing floors formed the AWC, but also via exhibitions here in Holland from known artists as Carl Andre, Bob Morris, Hans Haacke, Kosuth, Dan Graham, art critics such as Lucy Lippard, Lil Picard, Willoughby Sharp and Gregory Batcock also took part.

From these facts one can put a finger on Hans Haacke, for example the Guggenheim project in which the commercial backgrounds of the people in the Guggenheim were treated. There are very true connections between the society and the works of the above mentioned artists. At the moment that these works "are growing out of their time" they're not very recognizable anymore. The documentation of Jan van Raay is, for this reason, so interesting (and even enough for a doctoral thesis) because it gives us the possibility to bring back these ties.

The comparison between the Dutch BBK and the American AWC pushes itself forward. Even here, the protest actions also had something to do with the emancipation of the artist. The ideals have fallen into a material sphere through the years from where the original chaotic union of artists developed reaching a serving of interests union which, unlike the AWC, is still active.

Written by Lilly van Ginneken
Translated from the Dutch by Leora Rosner

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