Framed Art

Art, protest and politics of the body

Power Beatniks: Tuia and Mary, a photograph by Larry Fink.

Power Beatniks: Tuia and Mary, a photograph by Larry Fink.   | Photo Credit: Whitney Museum of American Art

Artistic emotion in the U.S. peaked during the campaign against the Vietnam war

The unambiguous role of the art of protest to stir public imagination strikes at the heart of repressive rule. An exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, titled An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney Collection 1940-2017, lays out the major art movements of the U.S. and their frequent origins in protest.

Closer home, the best recognised artist of protest, Mahatma Gandhi, adopted dramatic means to instigate social change. It is well known that Gandhi staged or performed protest with characteristic economy on his own body. The image of Gandhi and the charkha had antecedents in the body of the Indian artisan, who became a contested figure between British imperial rule and Indian nationalists.

Gigantic picnic

In 1851, when the British Crown launched the Great Exhibition in The Crystal Palace, an enormous glass palace, it put the Koh-i-Noor on view for the curious public. It also showcased the process of the mechanical spinning of cloth, daguerreotypes, the first public toilets, and an early version of the fax machine, thus demonstrating to the world Britain’s undisputed industrial power. To the nearly six million visitors, this “gigantic picnic” demonstrated India’s stellar place in the British Crown.

However, in the 1886 Colonial and Indian exhibition, the inclusion of 44 live artisans was to set in motion an extended debate on the body of the artisan. Seemingly oblivious of the crowds, these artisans demonstrated weaving, carpentry and other skills, as a part of the “living arts” of India. The fact that these 44 ‘artisans’ were inmates from jails in Agra, especially trained in these skills, only heightened the enactment’s performative quality. By the time the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley came around in 1924, there was much Indian resistance to such displays of the artisan’s body. Gandhi not only made an argument for the unchanging arts of India, but also assumed the role of the master artisan, the weaver, whose body became the bearer of the critical concerns of India, of the preservation of its cultural traditions.

Gandhi as the artist of protest performed art, sponsored art and understood its power for change. His actions may not have been bested in the political domain, although both Nehru and Indira Gandhi patronised art and architecture and used spectacular events as image-building exercises. Nehru with the Republic Day parades and Indira with the Festivals of India.

In the American instance, however, we see that over nearly a century, art activity broke the status quo to change its contours and direction. Acts of defiance towards the state are grouped together and recorded in separate sections in the Whitney exhibition. Beginning from 1940, sections include one on ‘Resistance and Refusal’, which challenged the structure of American politics. Larry Fink’s photographs of the Beatniks generation in the 1950s, and Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings after World War II mark the disaffection with war. In the last 10 years of his life, Reinhardt painted enigmatic black square canvases, seen as “non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting”. Even as pure abstraction, these transcendental works are regarded as a disavowal of conflict.

In ‘Spaces and Predicaments’, two artists relate to the issues of gender and racial abuse. Senga Nengudi stretches and extends pantyhose until it looks like flayed skin, rendering the vulnerability of women in painful view. Melvin Edwards, a leading black artist, creates two pyramids entirely from barbed wire, fusing abstract art with black politics. Growing up at the height of the civil rights movement, Edwards spoke of African protest art as ‘a familial experience’, and became known for his works on lynching. Contextually, these works link with the section ‘Abuse of Power’, with its focus on the black male figure who populates American jails and is at the centre of recurrent issues of power and discrimination.

Collective power

Artistic emotion probably peaked during the spontaneous campaign against the Vietnam war. An outpouring of graffiti, posters, placards, steeped in sarcasm and mockery of the powers of the state, appeared in public spaces, dormitories and college cafeterias, creating a truly homegrown movement of resistance. The antiwar movement with its collective power also made way for other protests — of race, women and later, sexual minorities.

The Whitney puts on view an outstanding number of works related to the women’s movement with a fine collection of the Guerilla girls’ intense interrogation of museum hierarchies. That political concerns tend to see-saw between the domestic and the global is seen in the clutch of works in the section ‘The Usable Past,’ the least well-articulated section in the exhibition. American engagements in West Asia, their overt and covert wars become the subject of engagement. An artist like Julie Mehretu who creates bombed-out smoking buildings, too small to be identified, as if viewed from the distance of a drone, evoke a sense of the damage inflicted from afar and how it barely registers in the national consciousness.

The exhibition holds important lessons because it is an honest exercise on the art of protest. At its core lies the institution itself, the monolithic museum. A barrage of letters written by artists in protest against non-inclusion, for being too black, too figurative even, and the museum’s preference for white male artists reveal the Whitney’s own conflicted history.

But most importantly, for people in every context, the exhibition is a reminder that it is artists who seek change and redress, who articulate issues and confront governments. In the process they not only change art itself, but the course of history.

The writer is an art critic and curator who, while preoccupied with her art website, is also contemplating a book on the Middle Ages

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 10:52:28 PM |

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