What’s the Point of Finger Pointing?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The past year—hell, the past month—has been unusually full of political activism. Every day seems to bring some fresh new outrage worthy of a mass demonstration, or at least a sharply-written tweet. “I thought that my marching days were over,” a woman wrote to the New York Times back in April, “but in today’s chaotic, scary political context, my boots are ready to go and my brain is in overdrive as I consider how to resist the interlocking oppressions that mark our society today.” While Trumpism itself may be narrow, opposition to the man and his policies has opened the door to a wide range of discontents with the status quo, and all the old assumptions that held fast ten months ago are suddenly up for negotiation.

Now into that fray comes “An Incomplete History of Protest,” a well-timed new exhibition at the Whitney looking at protest art from 1940 through the present day. The show casts a wide net, featuring everything from clandestine photographs of the Japanese Internment to posters by the Guerrilla Girls to a bust wearing a leather gimp mask (symbolizing, uh, Vietnam). For better or for worse, there’s no real distinction made between single-issue agitprop and jeremiads against society at large—whatever the cause, if at least one person was incensed enough about it to make art, it’s probably represented somewhere in the Whitney’s galleries.

That broad interpretation of “protest” can sometimes cause trouble—photographs by Larry Clark of teenaged society dropouts shooting heroin, for example, don’t feel particularly substantial when set against lynchings and AIDS. But it generally works. Many of the best pieces on display are great precisely because they don’t have any particular target, like Daniel Joseph Martinez’s 2007 installation Divine Violence. In that piece, Martinez covers three walls of one of the galleries with 125 wood panels, each bearing the name of a group that’s given itself the right to practice violence. It’s an uneasy meditation on injustice, one that creates no distinction between “Central Intelligence Agency” and “Janjaweed – a man with a gun on a horse” and knows better than to offer a solution.

Elsewhere, art that has lost some of its immediacy—posters protesting the government’s action in Vietnam and inaction in the AIDS Crisis, or documentary photos of the Civil Rights movement—are sobering reminders of the many ways that 20th century America failed to live up to its promise, and of the bold men and women who agitated for change. Even when the pieces work mainly as historical curios, they’re still stirring reflections of art’s power to effect change.

At least, I hope so. There’s a nagging question that hangs over this whole enterprise: does protest art actually make a difference? The Vietnam material is some of the most artistically inventive work in the entire show, but it was also deeply ineffective. The seamless transition from posters attacking LBJ (“Johnson pull out like your father should have”) to ones skewering Nixon (“would you buy a used war from this man?”) underscores the fact that for all the protests, nothing really changed.

Or take Edward Kienholz’s Non-war Memorial, an installation from 1970 of five military uniforms filled with sand. It’s part of a broader series called “Concept Tableaux,” which also included a plan to fill a field in Idaho with 50,000 uniforms that would decompose as they returned to the dirt. The exhibition’s wall text refers to that unrealized project as “a bracing repudiation of the war and its consequences.” And it certainly would have been, had it ever actually been constructed, or had 10,000 more American soldiers not died before the war’s end.

Once you strip away the impassioned wall text, the show’s tone is surprisingly cynical. The entry gallery includes three pieces, all made in the past 15 years, yet hearkening back to older protest movements. On one wall hangs Theaster Gates’s Model Majority, a collage of red, white and blue decommissioned fire hoses that brings to mind civil rights protests in Alabama. Nearby plays Josephine Meckseper’s 2004 film March on Washington to End the War in Iraq, 9/24/05, a silent documentary clip of an anti-Iraq war demonstration shot on super-8 film stock deliberately reminiscent of newsreel footage of anti-Vietnam protests.  And not too far away hangs a black flag by the artist Dread Scott, with “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” written on it, an update of a similar flag flown from the NAACP’s New York headquarters during the 1920s and ’30s. The wall text calls these works a reminder “that yesterday’s counterculture can become today’s style and that we can learn from the past to address the needs of the present,” but to me, they seem more like testaments to how little art can actually do to stop racist violence and unjust wars.

On that point, the painting on the show’s poster, Annette Lemieux’s 1991 Black Mass, feels even more disillusioned. A photograph of marching Chinese communists carrying placards of Mao, but with the Chairman’s photograph blacked out, it’s difficult to take as anything other than a mocking satire of the very act of following a cause.

So is that all there is? Is protest art just an ineffective waste of time? Maybe not. In the last gallery of the show, right next to the picture of the Chinese communists, is Ja’Tovia Gary’s short film An Ecstatic Experience, a piece that seemed, if only for a single moment, to justify the whole protest art endeavor. Over the course of three distinct sections, it tells something like the story of America, mixing harrowing reminders of our racist past with hopeful pleas toward faith and the power of protest. The film opens with black-and-white footage from the 1950s of black parishioners in church interspersed with full-color hand-painted frames, scored to Alice Coltrane’s swooningly spiritual harp. Next comes a clip from the ’30s, a close-up of Ruby Dee reciting a slave narrative for the Federal Writers Project, her image altered by halos, cubes and other drawn-on shapes. Finally, it ends with Dee and other actors singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” alternated with footage of protestors in Ferguson and elsewhere demonstrating against police in riot gear. The whole thing is incredible, an excavation of America’s 400-year history of racial injustice and a meditation on spirituality in the face of oppression that also manages to be beautiful to watch. When Dee’s narrator recalls her mother’s refusal to till her master’s field—”the Lord showed me the way! I ain’t gonna grieve no more! No matter how you treat me and my children. The lord has showed me the way! And some day, we ain’t never gonna be slaves no more!” she shouts as he whips her—and, one scene later, a protestor puts a trashcan through the window of a police car, accompanied by “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!”, it feels cathartic, like a necessary response that’s been centuries in the making.

Thinking about this piece, it seems that so much protest art fails because those two concepts—art and protest—are inherently in tension. Protest is by its nature direct. It can be emotionally wrenching, or clever, but it can rarely afford to be subtle. That couldn’t be further from art—the good stuff, anyway—where nuance and openness to interpretation are paramount. An Ecstatic Experience and all the other best pieces here succeed precisely because they transcend any one issue. The revolutionary, questioning spirit behind them applies to any injustice. 

There’s a lot to be against these days, and no shortage of targets at which artists can point their paintbrushes. We haven’t seen too much Trump art yet, and thank God—most of it, probably all, will be absolutely terrible. But if our tense moment can make us reflect on more than just politicians and ideologies, and force us to ask bigger questions about society and the world, then maybe, hopefully, something good will come.


“An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017” is currently on view at the Whitney Museum. No close date has been announced.


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