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The permanence of artful protest

The act of protesting defies epoch, race, or gender – it's the tool which enables humanity to propel itself forward, identifying the parts of our existence that prevent progression and endeavouring to admonish and oblitherate those parts. It's also an emotional contradiction, in that it empowers individuals and groups to act with tenacious conviction whilst at the same time unveiling their most naked vulnerabilities. So when art is created as protest it has the ability to capture that exact moment in time where this juxtaposition occurs – serving as a timely souvenir of humanity both at its strongest and weakest.

An Incomplete History of Protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York looks at how artists from the 1940s to the present have confronted the political and social issues of their day. But more than just offering up a retrospective of what they have poignantly turned out over the past eight or so decades, it zooms in on the materiality of their work – the media, the language, the colour, the texture, the format. It exalts the novelty with which the authors chose to pursue their cause, and in turn, the ingenuity that was caught within the fruits of their efforts.

Cover: Hate is a Sin Flag, Faith Ringgold, 2007, acrylic, graphite, ink on paper.

Untitled (Think Flag), 1967, William N Copley, screen print.

When describing the show, curator David Breslin discusses the nature of the expansive and ever-evolving treatment of protest art. "We brought different ideas of what protest means to the table," he says, explaining how some of the works included might seem more overtly defiant, whereas others are more subtle. The exhibition divides the works into clearly delineated themes –the AIDS crisis, objection to the Vietnam War, opioid addiction, objectification and exclusion of females in society and the art world, abuse of power, racism, and more – but within each bracket is an intentional oscillation between provocatively stark works and quieter, more contemplative pieces.

This rhythmic assembly is perhaps most gripping in the section of the show titled "Mourning and Militancy", in which a series of works showcase historic outcry in the wake of the AIDS endemic. The room's two largest pieces are hung opposite each other – the first is AA Bronson’s Felix Partz, June 5, 1994, depicting its protagonist's corpse a few hours after his death from AIDS-related illness; the second is General Idea's, AIDS, the 1988 appropriation of Robert Indiana's iconic "LOVE". They each shock the viewer, the first for its unapologetic morbidity, the second for its purposeful manipulation of the ubiquitous. But between these two shouters are equally impactful breaths of the same raging cry – photographs, posters, clever quips about the ignorance and negligence of government officials, and of course Keith Haring's joyful activist-iconography. They each tell the same story, lament the same losses – but it's their diversity that most heightens the viewers' emotional experience.

Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death, 1989, Keith Haring, offset lithograph.

That very diversity brings the viewer back into his or her own moment. It reminds them of their personal protests – what they've been put upon to fight for. Because if ever there was a time in which the art of protest could manifest itself in the most plentiful of expressions, it's right now – a time classified by a new age of violent rallies, digital demonstration, and moral polarisation.

The heart of this exhibition is the role of the artist in creating artful social and political objections that transform their time and shape the future. Yet what is even more striking is the notion that each object made in protest was done so out of absolute necessity. Protest art happens because it has to happen – it's not there to woo, impress or even stand the test of time. It carries on being and manifesting itself because there is always something to fight for, and there are always new weapons with which to fight with. For that reason, it is indeed an incomplete history.

Abstract painting, 1960-69, Ab Reinhardt, oil on linen.


An Incomplete History of Protest Art: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940‒2017 is on now at the Whitney Museum of American Art at 99 Gansevoort Street, New York.

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