Signs of the times

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The latest at the Whitney is a bittersweet look at how social progress of the past could also be ripped from today’s headlines


  • The Whitney recently acquired a significant collection of posters related to the antiwar movement,  a selection of which is presented in the “An Incomplete History of Protest” exhibition’s “Stop the War” gallery. Photo: Ron Amstutz

The exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest” currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art might leave viewers with a touch of vertigo. Culled from the Whitney’s archives, the exhibition explores how artists have confronted Japanese internment, the Vietnam war, the AIDS crisis, racism, gender inequality and other political and social issues of their day from the 1940s onward.

“An Incomplete History” reflects on past events, but the questions it raises — of belonging, the dignity of basic health care, the rights to challenge the status quo and political dissent — are most certainly of our time. In fact, viewers may have the sense they’ve fallen through the looking glass.

“Bandaged Hands,” an iconic 1966 Gordon Parks photograph capturing Mohammad Ali sitting on a locker room bench, head hung long, is part of the “Resistance and Refusal” section of the exhibit, devoted mostly to antiwar demonstrations in the 1940s and 1960s. Ali, “the fighter who wouldn’t fight,” famously refused the Vietnam draft.

“Ali was sentenced to jail time, and we are today, literally right now, seeing professional athletes similarly being threatened with all sorts of punishments for exercising their constitutional rights,” says Rujeko Hockley, exhibition assistant curator.

Surprisingly, the exhibition’s timeliness is quite incidental. It was originally proposed over a year ago by David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and director of the collection, in response to the 1960s antiwar posters that had come into the museum’s collection.

Not unexpectedly, the exhibition leans heavily on art that critiques or calls out New York City’s politics and institutions. Carl Pope’s visually arresting “Some of the Greatest Hits of the New York City Police Department” drew on the NYPD’s record of violent interactions with black and brown residents. In 1993, Pope purchased trophies from businesses that made them specifically for law enforcement. He inscribed each trophy with both the names of the person killed or brutalized by police, as well as the officer who committed the acts. The trophies, which when viewed together have the effect of tombstones or memorials, cover five decades of violence. Though “Greatest Hits” was first displayed at the Whitney in the 1994 exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” it has new relevance in an age of Black Lives Matter and disturbing video footage of police brutality against black Americans.

The protest art of the past also informs the aesthetics of the present. A massive wall covered with protest posters from the Vietnam ear — “End the Draft,” “Stop the War,” “Resist” — is reminiscent of the barrage of memes and hash-tagged terms in the endless scroll of social media.

“In terms of political discourse, you could see there’s a corollary there between the appeal of that mode of address,” says Hockley, who notes that protest posters were made to be reproduced cheaply and shared easily. “[It’s about] being able to get the word out, get your opinions out to the public directly to whoever you see your audience is without spending a lot of money, or going through other people to meditate that message.”

The exhibition is meant to demonstrate the artist’s capacity to transform their time and shape the future, but one could easily draw the opposition conclusion: art is not a powerful engine of social change, given that similar issues have plagued our nation for decades.

But perhaps expecting art to change world is too lofty a goal. The exhibit is simply a way of making “an argument in space,” says Hockley, helping us think differently about power and inequality. If viewers look and listen closely, it just might show the way forward.

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