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Special Issue: Searching for America

Time to Use Our Outside Voices

On protest and art

Nicole Eisenman, Procession (2018)

BY Aruna D'Souza
writer

Published
In Other Insights

It’s hard to imagine a work of art that more effectively captures the current mood than Nicole Eisenman’s Procession (2019), a sculptural grouping installed on the sixth-floor terrace of the Whitney Museum as part of this year’s biennial exhibition (until 22 September). The six individual components are made variously of bronze, plaster and wood—some of the most traditional “high art” materials—and a myriad of other stuff, high and low: gold and silver leaf, wool, wax, thumbtacks, silicone, sand, ball bearings, coffee, sneakers, plastic cups, sweatpants, a steel broomstick, tuna-can labels, coconut, corn, poppies, a fly swatter, and so on.

Rendered in various degrees of abstraction and finish, in different stages of disintegration— some on carts pulled by others, some plodding forth on their last legs—the characters in this parade are ridiculous and tragic at once. One of them, a man posed on all fours, head bowed in submission or supplication on a cart being dragged by an overburdened bronze giant, actually farts at regular intervals—a cloud of white smoke bursts from his backside at unexpected intervals. His Rodin-esque pathos is further rendered ludicrous by the furry carbuncle plopped on his back and the oversized socks he sports in support of the New York Giants football team.

 The perfect image of America gone to seed

Installation view of Nicole Eisenman’s Procession (2019) at the Whitney Biennial. Courtesy of the artist, Vielmetter Los Angeles, and Anton Kern Gallery, New York. Photograph by Object Studies

Elsewhere, a bloated and lazy bald eagle lolls in a box filled with straw, the perfect image of America gone to seed. A man sits cross-legged, riding another humanoid, with two garbage can lids poised mid-clash in his frozen hands while a Picasso-esque, clownish bronze bust seems to be letting out an impotent yawp—but instead of protest cries or noisemakers we hear nothing. This is the lamest protest ever: a succession of broken, exhausted, farcical buffoons who seem to be caught in some strange Beckettian situation: we can’t go on, we must go on.

The piece hit me as a punch in the gut through the combination of its irreverent, affectionate nod at art history, its subversive embrace of decrepitude and, still, its serious and sincere purpose. The work seems to hold up a mirror to my own fatigue, my own sense of ineffectiveness, my own almost irrational compulsion to keep going to whatever demonstration is on the calendar. Procession captures, that is, something very of the moment: the fact that protest has become a way of life for even the least activist among my circle after the 2016 election.

For a while, it seemed as though protesting was our primary occupation; my daughter has been to almost as many rallies aged 15 as I have aged 50. We did not throw away our protest signs or unpack our clear plastic backpacks filled with emergency supplies. (The latter were rarely used, thankfully, for those of us participating in the strangely orderly, fully permitted and utterly cop-friendly demonstrations such as the Women’s March or March for our Lives instead of facing down militarized police at places like Ferguson and Standing Rock.)

If once we believed that participating in democracy meant simply showing up at the ballot box, it has become increasingly apparent that voting is no longer a sufficient exercise of one’s rights and obligations of citizenship. Our votes count for less than they used to in national elections, especially for Democrats, thanks to gerrymandered elections, voter ID laws, the effects of the Electoral College as well as attempts at voter suppression both covert and less obvious. This is not to mention the bipartisan problem of elected representatives being more beholden to their donors than to those who elected them. These days, it seems, even the most complacent among us have had to accept that the only possibility of change might come from direct action. To be American right now means to protest.

Museums have always been flashpoints 

Make no mistake, the art world is not immune to such shifts in the national ethos since the relations of power embodied in our art institutions are hardly innocent of larger trends in the political landscape. This is one reason why cultural organizations—especially museums—have always been flashpoints during fraught political moments: think of the attacks on the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs by Republican politicians and conservative groups in 1989, leading to the cancellation of the exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery and to criminal charges being laid on the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center for showing the work, or then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s threats to defund the Brooklyn Museum for showing Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) in 1999, or the protests by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition—whose ideas were informed by black nationalist economic and cultural analysis—against the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, demanding they open their doors to black artists and audiences in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), which was the subject of a censorship debate in 1999. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

The Trump era is, in a sense, no different. Over the past two and a half years we have seen protesters challenge museums for showing work they perceive to be racist, misogynist, cruel to animals or culturally appropriative; for taking money from donors and trustees who have reaped profits in especially unsavory ways; for museums’ roles in urban gentrification and the displacement that accompanies such changes; or for institutions’ enduring failures in addressing the exclusions (often structural rather than intentional) of artists from their exhibition programs or audiences from their galleries for reasons tied to class, race and gender.

In some cases (rarer, but more admirable for it), the protest comes from within the institution itself. One recent example is when employees at the American Museum of Natural History joined public outrage at the administration’s decision to host Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in April. Another is the protest that has been roiling around the Whitney Museum since December: the institution is under fire for the business dealings of one of its major patrons and the vice-chair of its board of trustees, Warren Kanders, whose company Safariland produces tear gas that has been used in repressive state police actions, including at Standing Rock, Ferguson and the US-Mexico border.

Engagement in spades

Artists, curators, museums—they all say they want engaged audiences. In the current era of protest, they now have them in spades. But, like a dog who finally catches the car it has been chasing, the question of how to productively channel this engagement is one that most cultural institutions seem at a loss to address. For all that museums, faced with protesters, want to be open to the “difficult conversations” that can accompany challenging works of art, what can they do to allow people to speak their minds and be heard?

Ceding to the protesters’ demands is rarely done—and is a risky approach (consider the former director of the Walker Art Center, Olga Viso, who stepped down after a controversy over Scaffold (2017), a work by artist Sam Durant that was dismantled and ceremonially buried by Dakota elders who had protested the sculpture). Should the museum hold a panel or other public event to demonstrate that the institution is listening (even if those events take place after an institution has explained it will absolutely not remove a work from exhibition, as happened in response to the outcry over Dana Schutz’s contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Open Casket (2016), a painting of Emmett Till, the 14-year old African American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 by two white men.) 

A protest at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2017, where four days of dismantling of the controversial sculpture Scaffold was to begin. AP Photo/Jim Mone

The visitor’s response cards that are standard fare at most museums are less powerful than a voter’s ballot, and we know how ineffectual the latter seems nowadays.

Do we believe in change?

To make work about protest in a museum that is being protested is a loaded gesture, and in this context, there is a particularly telling detail in Eisenman’s installation: a bumper sticker attached to one of the carts that reads: “How’s My Sculpture? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT”.

Crude and defiant and potty-humored, yes, but also something more. Has anyone ever once called one of those “How’s my driving?” numbers on the back of a truck being driven recklessly? Do we believe there would be anyone listening on the other line—that a call might change anything at all—or is the number merely an empty gesture?

The design for stickers made by the artist Nicole Eisenman in collaboration with “Wacky Packs” art director Mark Newgarden

Similarly, if listening to protesters is purely performative, what choice is there but to continue to take part in the messy and exhausting process of protest—louder and more relentlessly? Eisenman seems to take this lesson to heart, not allowing her biennial participation to absolve her from responsibility to challenge the museum in which she is exhibiting in more pointed ways. On the Friday of the opening week of the biennial, and at least one other night since, she could be found outside the museum handing out stickers to visitors that she made in collaboration with “Wacky Packs” art director Mark Newgarden. Shaped like tear-gas canisters, the stickers read: “Support the Arts with RIP Military-Scent maximum choke”, and “More tears than an ex-vice chair!” The artist’s guerrilla action on the steps of the museum questions the limits of works like Procession itself, and underlines the equivocal—and contradictory—position of both resisting the institution and existing within its terms.

Aruna D’Souza was formerly a consultant for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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