Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Whitney Museum of Art: An Incomplete History of Protest: 1940-2017

 Amid the sea of signs during last month’s Women’s March, one poster epitomized the event: “Too many demands to fit on one poster”. This more or less summarizes the ambitious selection of activist art in Whitney Museum’s 6th floor exhibition. The show reflected on finite forms of protest over the past eight decades, organized into eight themes ranging from protests against the Vietnam War to self-reflective appeals within the museum walls. Rooms filled with poignant war posters are juxtaposed with works such as Ad Reinhardt’s non-objective, relation-less black field painting to show that protest can happen in many forms.        

     The exhibition's inclusiveness is the outcome of a protest titled “Strike, Boycott, Advocate: The Whitney Archives”. Featuring objection letters from renowned artists against the Whitney, they disputed the museum’s bigotry and demand a more inclusive and accessible representation of artistic styles. It is a relief to read these letters and then witness how the Whitney was willing to admit its imperfections and has made efforts toward change. In recognizing their past faults, it is admirable to see protested institutions and authorities take the humility to acknowledge their protestors. Artists as protestors continues explore their ongoing relations with politic. 


  1. I think your comments on self-referential protests against the Whitney can be expanded to the current day, an example being the backlash and controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket painting at the Biennial last year. It would be interesting to compare reactions of the museum in the past and present; while the Whitney seemed the relent to the demands of artists and the public in the past, the painting was never removed last year.
    On the inclusion of abstract works, such as the inarguably objective painting by Ad Reinhardt, I personally felt conflicted about that painting and others because they seemed to suggest a pretentious and elitist mindset of the creation of art being an act of protest in itself. While I found some abstract pieces, such as the barbed wire and nylon installations by Senga Nengudi and Melvin Edwards viscerally impactful, I wonder about the success of abstract protest art where there is no discernible “meaning” in a larger context outside the confines of the white cube, especially because art as protest is meant to provoke and interact with the public.

  2. The relationship between art and politics is always interesting. Art could be a profound way to suggest political issues. When an exhibition takes protest as its theme, it could have more historical value than artistic value. Artists express their demands through their works and document the raw facts. Sometimes the evidence of the raw facts is already very strong, like the trophies in Carl Pope's work. A lot of works in the exhibition record that how much effort the artists have made in the past decades. I think maybe curator intend to use Ad Reinhardt's work to expand the concept of "protesting" which is not only protesting for some specific events but also take it as an attitude or a way to live.