The 2013 campaign to defend the Detroit Institute of Arts

In May, 2013, bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr, who had been appointed by Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder as a dictatorial emergency financial manager of Detroit, announced plans for major cuts to public benefits and the looting of state assets. These amounted to a ruling-class conspiracy to use the enforced bankruptcy of the city to loot public assets and public worker benefits. Orr also sought an appraisal of the value of the cultural treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts for possible sale.

As part of its campaign against the bankers’ conspiracy, the Socialist Equality Party initiated an aggressive campaign to defend the DIA against a threatened selloff. In a series of public meetings and WSWS commentaries, the SEP explained why workers should defend the cultural heritage embodied in the DIA, which includes the world-renowned Detroit industry murals by Mexican artist Diego Rivera.

WSWS arts editor David Walsh explained:

There is a direct connection between Detroit’s role as the birthplace of assembly line production and the DIA’s character and appeal. The Mexican artist Diego Rivera was drawn to the area in 1932-33 because of its massive automobile factories. He left an indelible proof of his artistic vision and social commitment in the form of his renowned frescos in the museum’s center court. That episode and the history of the city’s rebellious working class continue to rankle the ruling elite and account in no small part for its vindictiveness toward Detroit in general, and the DIA in particular.

The SEP mobilized support for workers, students and intellectuals throughout the Detroit area and around the world to defend the unique collection at the DIA and opposed its selloff or privatization. A statement distributed by the SEP in thousands of copies throughout Detroit, headlined, “Why workers must defend the Detroit Institute of Arts,” pointed to Wall Street licking its chops over the art collection, valued at more than $20 billion, and condemned that indifference of the union leaders, summed up in the comment of one bureaucrat that “You can’t eat art.”

In a perspective published September 25, SEP National Secretary Joseph Kishore argued:

The fight against the sale of artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is of the highest importance to workers and young people in the Detroit area, throughout the country and internationally.

In the attack on art and the access of the working class to culture, the corporations and banks along with their political representatives reveal, in particularly noxious form, their antagonism to everything of value in the development of human thought and culture. And the great historical tasks of the working class come to the fore in the sharpest fashion in its struggle to defend art and culture.

This campaign laid the basis for a demonstration October 4 in front of the DIA, the only significant protest carried out throughout the bankruptcy crisis in Detroit, which mobilized some 500 workers and youth to oppose the threat to the DIA and demand that its collection be preserved for the enjoyment and education of people of the Detroit area and the world.

In a perspective published shortly after the rally, David North and Joseph Kishore analyzed the significance of the rally as a vindication of the Marxist perspective of mobilizing the working class as an independent political force:

Political opponents of the Socialist Equality Party among the myriad middle-class protest organizations habitually denounce our organization as “sectarian.” What they really mean is that the SEP strives to organize the working class in opposition to the pro-capitalist trade unions and the Democratic Party, and on the basis of an international socialist program. Friday’s rally provided an eloquent refutation of the slander. Not only has the SEP proved itself to be the only organization capable of organizing the working class in defense of its interests. The rally also expressed, if only in an early form, the intersection of the objective movement of the working class and the struggle for Marxist principles and the fight for socialist consciousness.

The rally was in sharp contrast to the systematic refusal of the unions to conduct any struggle against the bankruptcy, culminating in their predictable capitulation to the bankruptcy court’s decision to rob retired workers of their pensions and use the loot to pay off Wall Street creditors. The widespread opposition to the selloff of the DIA art collection, spearheaded by the SEP, led the court to carry out a more indirect attack, establishing a private foundation to take possession of the collection while it would remain intact and still available to the public.

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