Glenn Ligon

The Usable Past

The Usable Past: “The concept that a self-conscious examination of historical figures, moments, and symbols can shape current and future political formation.”[1]

This is how the Whitney defines the title of one of five galleries in their ongoing permanent collection exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest. The works in the gallery present memory and nostalgia as both powerful and yet often insufficient vehicles to re-experience the past. Sharing tropes of obfuscation and anonymity, the works materialize the incomplete nature of memory and documentation.

Annette Lemieux
Black Mass, 1991, Annette Lemieux (1957-). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Promised gift of Emily Fisher Landau © Annette Lemieux

Annette Lemieux’s painting Black Mass (1991), in which she replaces the protest signs in a civil rights march with black, empty squares, hangs across the room from Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (Speech/Crowd) #2, a photograph of the Million Man March which Ligon has blurred and layered with coal dust. These works recall acts of censorship and evoke the fading hope of social change in a world where battles for civil rights must be repeatedly fought. However, the works in the exhibition that truly express the concept of “the usable past” are those which feature the museum as their main subject.

Lining the walls of the museum’s new Meatpacking building, a multiplicity of letters of protest written to the Whitney by artists and organizations related to the institution emerge from the Whitney’s archives. In a letter from 1971 addressed to former director John I.H. Baur, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition announced their opposition to the 1971 exhibition Black Artists in America and declared their plans to demonstrate on the museum’s premises. Their initial discontent stemmed from the Whitney’s seemingly empty promise to hire and consult with black art leaders for the curating of the show. The BECC’s correspondence with the Whitney attests to the fact that the institution has dealt with issues surrounding the cultural agency of marginalized groups in an art context. Alongside this letter, dozens of other requests from artists implore the museum to remove their work as acts of protest or solidarity during moments of political unrest, and urge the museum to take a stance on current socio-political debates.

The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Black Artist’s Correspondence, 1969-1971. Eight sheets. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Frances Mulhall Achilles Library and Archives

Last March, those very walls were the background for similar sentiments when Dana Schutz’s controversial painting Open Casket (2016), exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, sparked protest and demonstrations. The current protest exhibition marks a turn in curatorial direction in the wake of the Biennial. By establishing incompleteness as inevitable in the re-telling of histories and narratives of marginalized groups, the curators engage constructively with the timely and overdue debate initiated in the art world by Schutz’s work. It prompted inquiry into what it actually means for individuals, communities, and countries to have an incomplete history.

Protesting Dana Schutz at the Whitney. Image via @hei_scott Twitter

This same question seems to have triggered The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum derived by a collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative. As a part of EJI’s effort to document and confront the enormous number of lynchings in America between 1882 and 1962, the exhibition contextualized artworks by contemporary artist-activists like Kara Walker and Rashid Johnson with informative and wholly heartbreaking videos about racial terror victims in the United States. Since its founding, EJI has recorded 800 more accounts of lynchings in America than officially documented.[2] The initiative has sought to exonerate black prisoners wrongfully convicted because of systematized racial bias. By retroactively confronting racial injustices through legal action and documentation, EJI aims to alter current manifestations of such historical injustice, such as mass incarceration and presumption of guilt, phenomena that stem from a narrative of racial hierarchy that precipitated enslavement. The Brooklyn Museum exhibition demonstrates how, to move forward as a country, we must publicly address and commemorate silenced atrocities.

As I knelt to view Kara Walker’s haunting Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching steel cut-out, a large class of middle schoolers huddled into the galleries. I paused for a moment in this position and pretended to be twelve years old and perhaps unaware that the United States not only accommodates, but facilitates, large gaps in our history. Peering through the fairytale-like silhouettes in Walker’s intensely dark “play set,” I pondered what I might feel, having grown up Jewish, in a country that denies the existence of the Holocaust. These children, who meandered through rooms displaying artistic renditions and documentations of violence perpetrated against black bodies, were now moving through and beyond those very gaps in which they had been raised – cavities of “alternative truths” and exclusionary textbooks.I stood up and considered: who, if anyone, might fill these gaps?

Kara Walker (American, born 1969). Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching, 2006. Painted laser-cut steel, 24 x 38 1/4 x 90 in. (61 x 97.2 x 228.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased with funds given by John and Barbara Vogelstein and Stephanie and Tim Ingrassia, 2008.53.1a-v. © artist or artist’s estate (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2008)

When the world shook last November on Election Day and politically-focused exhibitions proliferated, I took to galleries and museums with a deep sense of speculation. As a country, we began to come to terms with the possibility that our current predicament is largely an effect of a long neglected national division, in which experiences are rarely shared and biases rapidly multiply through our resistance to confront uncomfortable realities and histories. While art has the capacity to share experiences and narratives, I struggled with how museum exhibitions priced so highly and accessible only to elite populations could inform or influence such polarizing discussions in a far-reaching manner. For the first time, I began to doubt the ability of art to effect tangible change.

My experience of An Incomplete History of Protest suggests that museums can provide a ground to transform our relationship to our incomplete history. Debates regarding the Whitney Biennial contributed to position art as a weapon, and engaged in a tug of war between authorship and experiential appropriation. However one may feel about Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till, the protest that ensued from its display encapsulates the need to recognize this incompleteness. It appears that the Whitney eventually got the message and opted to confront it with their current exhibition.

When voices of protest are lost and censored, it is hard not to pause at the sight of children at the Brooklyn Museum and wonder if it is not largely because we, as a nation, remain incomplete and divided just like our history. I am still unsure whether the Dana Schutz debate will ever be solved, but I am sure that the thousands who engaged in that conversation are now filling in those gaps piece by piece.

[1] Wall text, An Incomplete History of Protest, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.

[2] Equal Justice Initiative. “Lynching in America.” (October 18, 2017).

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