New Exhibit Captures Nearly Eight Decades of Protest Art

The show incorporates the various ways artists have responded to the politics and social problems of their times since the 1940s

"Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death" by Keith Haring, 1989 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of David W. Kiehl in honor of Patrick Moore

In a year in which protest has seemed to define the American news cycle, a new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York is exploring nearly eight decades of American history to see how artists have been incorporating protest into their works since the 1940s.

The new exhibit, "An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017," opened over the weekend, and is divided into eight sections, each organized by chronology and theme, offering a fascinating look back at different moments and manners in which artists have felt compelled to speak out through their work, reports Austen Tosone for Nylon.

The exhibit includes the sobering photographs by Tōyō Miyatake​ taken from within the Japanese internment camps of World War II America and images by Gordon Parks, the celebrated African-American photographer who documented the strength of men, women and children in the face of America's widespread inequality during his lifetime. Other selections look at artistic responses to the Vietnam War, the government silence on the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic beginning in the 1980s and the feminist movement through the lens of labor.

“The exhibition offers a sequence of case studies focused on how key concepts emerge at particular historical moments. Acknowledging that no exhibition can approximate the activism now happening in the streets and online, we wanted to reveal how artists approach protest with methodological, stylistic, and political complexity,” says curator David Breslin, in a statement about the exhibit.

The Whitney has a long history of collecting and featuring protest art—and being the subject of protest itself. Earlier this year, for example, the legendary Whitney Biennial show included an abstract painting of the body of Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was violently beaten to death for supposedly threatening a white woman in the horrifically racist Mississippi of 1955. The decision by Till's mother to show her son's disfigured body was a powerful moment in the early Civil Right Movement, and its depiction by white New York artist Dana Schutz drew its own share of protests and condemnation.

Explaining to Tosone how the curators approached the definition of protest in relation to the exhibit, Breslin says they strived to stretch the definition to include less traditional forms of protest, such as Martha Rosler's 1975 feminist critique of the role of the woman in society, "Semiotics of the Kitchen." "We really pushed each other to think, and we needed to be more expansive in some ways," Breslin tells Tosone.

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