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The 25 Most Influential Works of American Protest Art Since World War II

DS: Questions of the art world and money are not that interesting. There’s a lot of money in art. There are a lot of people who use their money to try and shape the world in a particular way. And it takes money to make art. Some people are more willing to make work that doesn’t challenge anything because, as Cathy was saying earlier, they’re worried about getting a teaching job. Fortunately, Cathy chose to make the work she needs to make.

I think the question of how change happens and what change you’re trying to have happen, is important. The Forensic Architecture piece was great. I’m glad that it contributed to Kanders’s going, that’s fantastic. But if our litmus test is we did A and B happened — I mean, can you say that the Freedom Riders directly led to the breaking down of Jim Crow? No you can’t, but you can say that was pivotal for the civil rights movement going where it went. Likewise, you can’t say that Emory Douglas’s work directly translated to Black Lives Matter, but you can say that without that work and iconography, the generation that came up afterward and thought about systemic change wouldn’t have had the same foundation to stand on.

When Shirin said America is becoming more like Iran: I do genuinely respect the perspective of somebody who’s lived in a country where it’s assumed that if you say certain things, the government can disappear you or kill you. That’s different than the modern U.S. But let’s be real, in the United States, ownership of human beings and having individuals do whatever they wanted to do with those human beings was perfectly normal for the first 80 years. It was perfectly normal for lynch mobs to kill people and then go to trial and even admit what they did but then say, “Look, we’re white people, this is what we do, we’re cool, right?” That’s what America is. The art I’m most interested in challenges our foundational assumptions — whether that’s the AIDS crisis or the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement. Art that changes people’s ideas, that helps them see more presciently the world we live in and how it could actually change. Whether that work exists in a revolutionary newspaper or on the streets, whether it exists in providing water for the people of Flint or in a museum space — like the Jacob Lawrence work I nominated, which challenged how people saw enslaved people. The ideas matter tremendously on where your feet are planted. Are you reinforcing the status quo or are you challenging some fundamental supposition of how we see ourselves?

CO: One of things that Dread said that’s really important is that even if we’re all here in our little window boxes on Zoom during a friggin’ pandemic, is — what is collectivity? That it’s not necessarily about a singular voice or that kind of singularity, so to speak, but it’s about that collectivity. It’s about us as artists and curators and thinkers and writers as we begin to form an opinion of the times that we’re living in. I teach and I’ve been teaching for 30 years now. I constantly hear the concerns of young people, because I’m with 18- to 26-year-olds on a regular basis. They really, really feel that it doesn’t matter anymore to be an artist. It upsets me that so many of their opinions are like, “Oh my god, this is all just too much, you know?” Between climate change, global warming and racism, you know, they just feel like, “What can I add to it?” I constantly say to them that it’s about a collectivity in relation to you individually answering the questions that are important to you and then trying to create representation within that. That’s what we have to remember, which is a small bit of optimism within an incredible sea of calamity, so to speak.

RH: That is really heart-rending. Dread, when you brought up the Freedom Riders, I was thinking about how, as they prepared to do the sit-ins, they were performing mock scenarios for themselves. They and other civil rights activists rehearsed things like having someone blow smoke in their face or smash a plate onto the ground. And I think about the choreography it required to prepare to do those actions. Cathy, I’m so curious about how we talk about creativity and how we talk about art in the world because those young people were thinking creatively in ways that are perhaps different from artists but still analogous. We’re in this moment now where we’re seeing people of all ages asking what they can do differently. But also — what does a world without artists look like? Nobody wants to live in that world, even if we watch Netflix all day. Everything we do to keep ourselves sane, especially in this pandemic, comes back to being an artist.

SN: That makes me think about Iran after the revolution where, you know, we were immediately at war with Iraq, we had this horrific government, we were isolated from the world, the economy was a nightmare, there was oppression, there was no freedom of expression. And oddly enough, the cultural community was completely activated. It was really incredible. It created this thriving culture. A crisis — and we’re facing every kind of crisis right now, social, political, environmental — is actually very conducive to creating great art. This is a moment for transition in American society. For those young students who are disillusioned, considering everything that we are going through — and you know, even I, during these last six months, was questioning the value of being an artist anymore. It’s no wonder they’re asking those questions. But I’m very optimistic that this environment is going to be conducive to more radical work and rethinking what art is outside of just galleries and museums. To find ways in which artists will be more engaged in this society, in their communities, and be far more effective than we used to be.

TLF: Nikil, you’re an editor and a writer, but you recently won a Democratic primary for a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate, which would be your first political office. Can you tell us a little about your perspective?

NS: The staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art just organized into a public sector union. And the faculty, which includes adjunct faculty from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, are also organizing and forming a union. That comes partly out of a disenchantment, I think. It speaks to what you were saying, Cathy, that these art world institutions, fundamentally, are real estate — that they can feel anti-democratic in really material ways, not just cultural ways. So if you feel like there’s no point to any of this, maybe the point is actually more horizontal. It’s not I need to make it, I need to win as an artist. Because you start to see that winning has costs, and only a few people win and there’s a mass of people who are scraping by. Once you start to understand that, once you see that your fate lies with the other people around you, I think you understand some of the radicalism that Shirin was speaking to. I can only speak as a writer and editor — and I’m not immune to the same forces that are affecting the art world — but I think you start to feel like there’s a certain meritocratic lie at work here. People start to understand that it’s not just talent that helps you succeed, that you’re completely fractured by your race and class and status. So we need to start taking over institutions and dismantling them so that we can change things.

CO: I think that that’s really important to say. One of the reasons people should go into politics and especially why people should vote, is that if we don’t use the existing democracy that we have, including the democracy of our voices as artists, then where are we gonna end up? I’ve been on the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s board on and off — I left in protest a long time ago but went back on — and even though my fellow artists have criticized me, I do think that if all of us stay away from these boards, then what is left? Is it better to be active within it, and creating those discourses, than just throwing our hands up and saying, “I can’t create change.” I’m constantly saying to my students, “Go ahead, get in there.” Look at something from all different sides because there’s not any one answer. And change takes an enormously long time, unfortunately.

Dread Scott’s “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” (1988).Credit…© Dread Scott, courtesy of the artist

TLF: I’m wondering: could we define protest art by its response? A lot of the work listed here has prompted censure or outcry. Dread, George H.W. Bush said your first flag work [“What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” (1988)] was —

DS: Disgraceful. Which I thought was a tremendous compliment.

TLF: Can we take the response to some of these works and use that as a prism to look at how effective they are?

DS: In some cases, I think so. Having the president of the United States single out the artwork of an undergraduate student from a Midwestern art school as being disgraceful, was, for me, it was like, “Well, if the president doesn’t like what I’m doing and he knows I exist, I wanna do this for the rest of my life.” But I think that work presaged a lot of what we are still talking about now. Look at someone like Colin Kaepernick, whose protest is a redux of that, in a certain sense.

The reaction to a work can’t be the sole litmus test. I don’t think Act Up would have existed the way it did and had the effect it did without “Silence = Death.” It shaped how the movement got out in the world, which is really important. So “response” isn’t just the reaction to suppress, it’s also how it’s embraced by community. For example, some of Ai Weiwei’s most interesting work is what the Chinese government hates the most. He’s celebrated in Western art circles as being a Chinese dissonant, and there are ways to commodify that, but I think his most interesting work is when he engaged with the community to list the names of everyone who was killed from the government negligence surrounding the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His work wasn’t just critiqued by the president, it was literally outlawed. That’s significant, but I also think there’s really great work that doesn’t get that response but is still really important. Especially work that, at various moments in history, concentrates people’s ideas or understanding of something that hadn’t really been articulated. Think of the song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright,” which people were singing during the George Floyd protest. There’s a lot of work that has resonance in ways that don’t necessarily connect with the movement but then becomes important.

SN: I haven’t been back to Iran since 1996 because the government finds my work problematic. I have family there and I always think about how the Iranian government will perceive my work. My critics are the Islamic Republic of Iran, but then I also have art critics in the Western world. So that’s been an interesting challenge over the years and I’ve learned how to deal with it. Sometimes, I avoid talking to the media because I’m worried about my mother and my family in Iran. I’ve had to self-censor, even though I’m living outside of Iran, because I’m afraid of the government and how it will retaliate.

TLF: I want to throw out one last question — perhaps it’s a little naïve — but is there a work of art that brings you some sense of optimism for this moment? A lot of the work we nominated has a lot of anger, but there is also a lot of joy. What brings you joy?

CO: I’ll go first. I’m not going to pinpoint a work, actually. I’m thinking, again, of our collective voice, that collectivity of opinion, and how we reflect upon it, through all different media — whether it’s a newspaper article or a novel or artwork. I’m optimistic about the continuation of voices to fight for humanity and justice for all. But I can’t pinpoint a piece, because I’m hoping for all of it to wash over us in some way.

SN: I’m not a painter and I’m not an expert on painting, but Marlene Dumas is an artist whose work stirs so much emotion in me. As Cathy said, there are works of art that transcend political, social issues and become more primal in addressing our humanity — the pain, the mystery and our collective suffering — as well as capturing beauty. Her work moves me and it’s inexplicable, really. I don’t know who she is, I’ve never met her, but her work just goes right to my stomach. I think the emotions of her art are very powerful, especially in these times.

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