Exploring the Museum of Capitalism
I was looking and looking for a quote that I thought was from the philosopher Wittgenstein about how difficult—how structurally impossible it is—to analyze a cultural phenomenon from inside of it, but I was never able to find the quote and am now not even sure it was from Wittgenstein. It’s no matter because I found something else he said, in a diary entry in October of 1916, that is probably more applicable to the project that Museum of Capitalism has undertaken:
“What cannot be imagined cannot even be talked about.”
Our host at the Museum of Capitalism, in all its myriad forms, is FICTILIS, a collaborative based in Oakland, California. FICTILIS is not one thing. It identifies as a very wide swath of things, focused on a range of projects that fall both inside and outside of the art world, sometimes simultaneously. But its primary interest is in “waste” and the capacity of all things—art as well as consumer goods—to become waste.
So first and foremost, the iteration of Museum of Capitalism currently on view at the Grossman Gallery at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University should be recognized as a highly organized, well-labeled and -lit pile of trash. Not everything in the show is currently identified as trash, but rest assured that someday it all will be. It has this in common with every other art exhibition that has ever happened and with the material components of many of the other experiences we have as we make our way through our days and nights and lives.
Since this perspective equalizes everything in the exhibition, it must be set aside temporarily and replaced with an imaginative exercise; let’s say capitalism, the economic system currently most favored around the world, was extinct, or almost extinct, and its artifacts were still accessible—had not fully converted to waste yet. What would be the most emblematic artifacts of the era? What would they have in common? What ground, together, would they cover in terms of telling the story of their time?
FICTILIS has used this device as a way to sidestep the problem that the quote I can’t find articulates and at the same time does the magical thing that the quote I could find implies is necessary: It imagines a post-capitalist (American) moment that can be used by anyone who encounters it as a base to talk about what people do and don’t want next. It offers one vision of a new, non-capitalist universe up for critique as a means of imagining what could be next.
And so immediately, by being a museum of the present and the future simultaneously, it raises this question: Do we want museums that are anything like current museums in a post-capitalist future? Maybe we want our understanding of the past to take the form of a psychedelic smoothie in the non-capitalist future. Or a deep tissue massage. Or a children’s game that tells the story of now in the way that “Ring Around the Rosy” apocryphally tells the story of the plague. Why be trapped formally in the current, capitalist imaginary around memorializing and interpreting the past?
But okay, here we are in this museum, so let’s see what matters here.
There is a genuine effort to educate about exactly what capitalism is, and then there are lovely shifts back and forth through the show between humor and gravity, between artifice and genuine artifact.
Several key themes shine through as the most critical issues of the moment—policing is in the background in a way that never quite fades completely from consciousness. The links between racism and capitalism are foregrounded, standing out in sharp relief against everything else to underscore that capitalism does not oppress us all equally. There are many among us who are the most “victimized” (as FICTILIS puts it) by capitalism (or capitalisms—the exhibit identifies at least 12 kinds of capitalism, ranging from “Philanthro-Capitalism” to “Crony-Capitalism”) even if we are all impacted and implicated.
This exhibit tells some of the stories of these victims—like that of Beverly Henry—who worked in a textile sweatshop, making American flags, while she was in prison, as she has been most of her adult life, in California. She collaborated with artist/documentary maker Sharon Daniel, as a part of a larger project, Undoing Time, to express her experience of marginalization (or “targeting” as she puts it, by virtue of her intersectional minority status,) through an interview, performance, and an installed element—a flag that’s embellished with the text of an op-ed she wrote about her disillusionment with America’s values.
It also collects documentation—some real, some bootleg—of the 1968 “Poor People’s Campaign,” a massive occupation/encampment on the Washington Mall that Martin Luther King was championing just before he was assassinated. Artist Kate Haug has tracked down artifacts and images, and recreated them as needed to show a history that is somehow not really in our textbooks… This display echoes the whole show’s fluidity around moving between fact and fiction, highlighting not only how much fact is laced with fiction, but how often fiction can shine a light on the factual.
On the humor end of the spectrum, the vitrine full of magic wands (including many consumer goods marketed as magic wands such as a magic marker, a Radio Shack security wand, and the most infamous old-school vibrator of all time) presented by the Center for Tactical Magic is pretty tongue in cheek. As is a collection of branded disposable plastic bags wrought in moose, deer, and elk hides by Jordan Bennett. There’s even one piece that operates capitalistically—Igor Vamos is turning a solid dollar per squished/imprinted penny every time someone goes for the option of making a souvenir with the phrase “Remember Capitalism” or “Property Is Theft” as a way of commemorating their visit to the exhibit.
Which, as we are still standing if not firmly, at least stockily, within what is most likely late-stage capitalism, could actually be a good investment.
So I guess, get ’em while you can?
MUSEUM OF CAPITALISM. 8.29–10.25. GROSSMAN GALLERY & ANDERSON AUDITORIUM, SCHOOL OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, TUFTS UNIVERSITY. 10 AM–5 PM MON-SAT.