Reflecting on "An Incomplete History of Protest" at The Whitney

Reflecting on "An Incomplete History of Protest" at The Whitney

Reflecting on "An Incomplete History of Protest" at The Whitney

Covering from the Vietnam War to today's police brutality, the exhibition emphasizes the role artists can have in shaping our future.

Covering from the Vietnam War to today's police brutality, the exhibition emphasizes the role artists can have in shaping our future.

Photography: Justin Ragolia

Text: Justin Ragolia

During a time in history when protest events have increasingly been fraught with violence, The Whitney Museum of American Art posits that a thorough look through the varied ways artists have used nonviolent expression to combat, comment on, or bring light to the social and political issues of their day can help us wade through our current political swamp. An Incomplete History of Protest aims to do just that, as it details how artists have challenged established cultures, systems, and ways of thinking throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Entrenched in the core philosophy of the exhibition is the notion that politically-charged art is integral to shaping our future.

The collection highlights social and political themes such as resistance to the Vietnam War, opioid addiction, the AIDS crisis, objectification and destruction of the female body, abuse of power, and much, much more, the amount of which lies outside the scope of any single article. The segments of the exhibition included here are works which stood out as particularly striking parts of the collection.


The exhibition opens along the theme "Resistance and Refusal," beginning with the Toyo Mitatake image that headlined the exhibition. Most notable in this section were photographs by Gordon Parks, the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine, which was the most prominent photojournalistic publication during his career. His portrait of Muhammad Ali, titled Bandaged Hands stands out in its historical relevance, as Ali was cloaked in the controversy surrounding his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War during the time the image was taken.


Another set of standout photographs appeared in the same room, this time courtesy of photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark, who's most known for directing the hard-hitting 1995 indie film Kids. These images are semi-autobiographical in nature, as they detail the amphetamine addiction prevalent in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma during his adolescence, and mirror the artist's own experiences.


The largest set of works in the exhibition fell under the title "STOP THE WAR," and included an enormous wall of anti-war posters, some hopeful or levelheaded in tone, and some featuring crass, gallows humor and satire, which the museum curator has compared to the political memes of today. Featured in the Daniel Wolf Collection of Protest Posters was the iconic "WAR IS OVER, IF YOU WANT IT" poster made by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969. Also present in the room is Edward Keinholz's The Non War Memorial, a macabre set of sculptures made of clay-stuffed military uniforms made to simulate the carnage seen in Vietnamese battlegrounds throughout the war.


Emphasized in one section of the exhibition was the fine art world's remaining bias against women and minorities even at the end of the 20th century, including the Whitney itself. Showcased in this exhibit was a series of protest artworks made by feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls in direct response to the 1987 Whitney Biennial, in which only 24% of the works on view were created by women artists. This review, titled Guerilla Girls Review The Whitney, exposed the pre-1990's Whitney as the boy's club it continued to be despite the amount of women artists creating new work at the time.


Another particularly jarring set of works fell under the title "MOURNING AND MILITANCY," which memorialized, lamented, and documented the AIDS crisis of the 1980's and 90's, to which half a million people lost their lives, a disproportionate number of them gay men and people of color. These posters and photographs flung scathing criticism at the political institutions and administrations to blame for the negligent, racist mishandling of the epidemic, especially on part of the Reagan administration. Present in the exhibition was Keith Haring's "Silence=Death" which ever-stylistically encouraged activists to continue to fight prejudice against AIDS victims and bolster resources for the afflicted community.


While this brief overview serves as a taste of the works featured in the exhibition, a full visit is necessary to completely wrap your head around the themes covered. Buy tickets to see the exhibition for yourself here.


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