By David Martinez
A New York arts patron owns a defense manufacturer that produced the tear gas canisters used by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last November against Central American migrants, as well as against the Black proletariat uprisings that started in 2014 in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities.
Warren B. Kanders, vice-chairman of New York City’s Whitney Museum board and major donor in the New York art world, purchased Safariland and Defense Technology in 2012, a ‘non-lethal’ weapons manufacturer that also makes riot gear and other defense products primarily used by police. Their products are sold to US law enforcement and other states around the world.
Soon after the news on Kanders was reported by Hyperallergic, more than 100 members of Whitney Museum staff issued a public letter calling for Kanders’s removal. Unfortunately, little has been heard from Whitney staff since then, with reports of intimidation and repression coming from their bosses.
While the museum staff letter of protest should be supported, the momentum of their resistance may be weighed down by the notoriously liberal and passive politics of mainstream arts workers. They operate more comfortably tackling big ideas through symbolism, but back down when major issues hit close to home and more direct action can potentially upset their ruling class patrons who are their main sources of income.
Other actions and calls have been more direct than letters. Decolonize This Place, an activist group in NYC, has expressed solidarity with Whitney staff and headed up a protest in the lobby of the Whitney Museum on December 9, 2018. They occupied the indoor space and front steps for two hours, holding speeches and calling for Kanders’s immediate removal.
Protesters filled the lobby with the smoke of burning sage, recalling the tear gas smoke that suffocated migrants at the border. For days following the action museum-goers could smell the sage.
Despite clear calls that Kanders must go, museum leadership has doubled down in their defense of him. The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, issued a condescending statement dismissing the staff’s and public’s concerns, stating the museum cannot right “all the ills of an unjust world.”
Decolonize This Place pointed out no one is asking the Whitney to do that, or expect it to, but for them to specifically address one clear connection between the violence against Central American migrants and the profits earned by capitalists like Kanders. Weinberg is using a distracting argument to act like he’s powerless to deal with Kanders.
Kanders even claimed that as the owner of Safariland he doesn’t determine how or where his products are used. Using their liberal illusions of neutrality, they want people to stop paying attention to how they use their power and where their wealth comes from.
The art world under capitalism is nothing more than another source of profit for the ruling class. As Kanders shows, being a patron of the arts is just another notch in the belt for the imperialist bourgeoisie who want to add a veneer of culture to their exploitative dealings. At arts board meetings and fundraisers, they hobknob with other ruling class criminals and applaud themselves for backing the ‘radical’ work of avant-garde artists, especially when those artists are claimed as representatives of oppressed groups.
Imperialists use the arts as a way to cover up their countless crimes against the people. This phenomenon has been dubbed ‘artwashing,’ in particular with regards to the process of gentrification, in which the arts are used as driving force to raise the profile of areas targeted for investment and redevelopment.
Kanders and many of his fellow Whitney museum board members are necessarily involved with real-estate exploitation, which they facilitate through institutions like the Whitney. The museum itself sits in the Meatpacking District in lower Manhattan, formerly a working class hub of industry and housing, now a mostly gentrified wasteland.
The use of Sanders’s tear gas to police migrants at the border and Black neighborhoods in the US shows the clear ways the imperialist bourgeoisie provide the means to repress the uprisings of the exploited masses internationally and domestically. The exploitation of Black people in the US, who are deprived of wealth and treated like second-class citizens, is carried out by the same imperialists who oppress the home countries of Central American migrants.
When the masses take matters into their own hands, whether by trekking thousands of miles to escape murder in Honduras or Guatemala, or by rising up against their local police occupiers in Ferguson or Baltimore, Warren Kanders manufactures the products used to brutalize them, all while attending black tie affairs and funding Andy Warhol exhibitions. Like all members of the bourgeoisie, his privileged world is drenched in the blood of the exploited.
As the art world profits from imperialist violence and the gentrification of our cities, artists and arts workers must fight where they are at – not just through their art, but with direct blows against the profits of their ruling class patrons. While this comes with risks, the families fleeing tear gas at the border, or struggling in our working class neighborhoods, deserve no less than our full solidarity against those who profit from their exploitation.