Quick notes:

  • Wall Street and what it stands for — capitalism, corporate America, greed — has been a provocative subject for artists to capture for years.
  • The late ’70s and early ’80s saw protest art move off of canvases and into the public sphere as performance art.
  • The Occupy Wall Street movement was important in the development of politically engaged art.


Wall Street has always inspired artists

Early iterations of Wall Street included a site of government-sanctioned slave trading in 1711 (as if it didn’t already have a bad rap), a public library, and the meeting place for security traders to trade under a buttonwood tree in 1791.

Eventually, Wall Street evolved into the epicenter of U.S. finances and the symbol of the evils of capitalism we know today — y’know, to put it mildly. The notion of Wall Street, and all that comes with it, has proved provocative to artists for decades, often prompting protest art.

“When artists these days criticize Wall Street, it’s not necessarily Wall Street as such, but it’s this particular economic system,” says Carin Kuoni, director and chief curator of the Vera List Center at The New School in New York City. An art institution, Vera List investigates pressing world concerns. “They are not so much criticizing it as rather providing real demand (for) structural change.”

When protest art went from museums to the street

Kuoni says artists have questioned the U.S. economic system for quite some time. An early example is the 20th-century paintings from the awesomely named Ashcan School.

Carin Kuoni, Occupy Wall Street movement
Carin Kuoni of the Vera List Center | Photo by Matt Matthews; courtesy of Carin Kuoni

It wasn’t an organized school but rather an American realism-style artistic movement. Some Ashcan subjects included robber barons and images of the New York Stock Exchange, says Kuoni.

The term “performance art” developed in the U.S. in the 1960s (flower power!), soon led to protest art coming out of museums onto the street. Artists like Dread Scott have burned dollar bills on Wall Street in 2010 (Dread, I’ll take those if you’re just going to burn them), staged a sale of Manhattan to the Dutch (Jimmie Durham), or sold vials of their own blood on Wall Street (Blood for Sale by Khaled Jarrar).

Art brought into the streets doesn’t always take the form of performance art. For example, anonymous graffiti artist Banksy painted a scene on a Brooklyn wall depicting what seemed like a real estate developer brandishing a whip/rising red line graph at a fleeing group of people. It’s now painted over, but was a clear commentary on capitalism.

The Occupy Wall Street movement started new movements

Plenty of individual artists have expressed their thoughts on what’s wrong with the U.S.’ economy, but Kuoni finds art movements particularly interesting developments. Kuoni was a founding member of the art group REPOhistory in the late ’80s/early ’90s. REPOhistory’s projects included installations about what Wall Street means in contemporary society.

No one is camping out in Zuccotti Park anymore, but Kuoni says the Occupy Wall Street movement was inspirational for other art groups like REPOhistory to develop.

Jim Costanzo, Occupy Wall Street movement
‘Advantages of An Unregulated Free Market Economy,’ by Jim Costanzo for REPOhistory’s Lower Manhattan Sign Project, 1992 | Courtesy of Jim Costanzo

“Occupy Wall Street was so incredibly important (as a) moment in the development of politically engaged art and basically created an alternative sphere where different ways of being economically engaged were practiced,” says Kuoni.

Some art groups of note are Decolonize This Place and the New Red Order. They’re doing things like looking into art world finances. For example, Decolonize This Place revealed that a Whitney Museum board member owns Safariland, a company providing tear gas used against asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The group questioned how the Whitney could be inclusive of the Hispanic perspective with this type of leadership.

“After Occupy Wall Street, which created an alternative parallel system of how to live, newer groups are looking structurally at how the art world is built and who finances it,” says Kuoni.

Why protest Wall Street with art?

Whether or not Wall Street is truly evil is up for debate (Patrick Bateman seemed to really like it). However, protest art can identify weak points in our way of doing things that we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, says Kuoni.

“It allows you to think differently about our system — how society could be organized,” says Kuoni. “In its most successful iterations, it’s inclusive, it reaches different audiences, it seeks to have an impact and make a difference by involving other groups than just those who are presenting the artists or people in power.”

It’s easier to watch Dread Scott burn fistfuls of dollars than read Noam Chomsky’s entire catalog, right? That’s what I thought …

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Think Occupy Wall Street was cool? Richard Oakes basically did Occupy Alcatraz back in 1969.

Thieves gotta make money too.

We wouldn’t mind protesting student debt.