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Art and Politics
by Jane Harris
 
If the Whitney’s blockbuster exhibition, “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era,” offers the kind of family friendly edu-tainment most critics love to loathe (and it was panned almost universally by the New York art press as being too one-dimensional), the show’s fun-house high finds a sobering counterpart in the museum’s corollary exhibition of art and politics, “Resistance Is. . . .”

A small show of photos and photo-based works by three generations of artists ranging from Gordon Parks and Andy Warhol to Sam Durant and Adam Pendleton, “Resistance Is. . .” documents historical moments of social unrest, post-1960. While not likely to incite any new riots -- the works are drawn from the museum collection, after all, and in fact seem to reflect a conscious effort to avoid incendiary or violent imagery -- the works here could conceivably inspire younger viewers to take an active role in their political future.

For many of us older folk, Richard Avedon’s 1969 portrait of The Chicago Seven, for example, is a cultural touchstone. The life-sized images of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger and the other “co-conspirators” -- they were on trial, charged with coming to Chicago to cause riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention -- marks a now-rare intersection of youth culture and political theater. Almost 40 years later, Avedon's police line-up style portrait reads more like a Gap ad for hipsters than a testament to the unwavering convictions of true radicals -- a measure of capital’s instant ability to co-opt all forms of resistance, a dynamic that was clear even then.

Considering its social focus, the exhibition could have benefited from additional historical information identifying all these people, demos and marches. The absence of specific information remains a mystery, and a frustrating one at that, given the show’s clear intention to prove that the revolutionary politics of the 1960s had serious consequences (despite all the hippy-dippy “Summer of Love” stuff going on downstairs).

Additionally, the fact that “Resistance Is. . .” was mounted a month after “Summer of Love,” in the wake of the latter’s negative press, gives it something of the sense of an afterthought. It’s a shame, since without this sort of information, much of what distinguishes one artist’s approach to their subject from the next is lost.

Take Gary Winogrand’s wonderful black-and-white photo from 1970, Peace Demonstration, which shows thousands of just-released balloons floating over a sea of Vietnam War protesters in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. Its optimism is completely at odds with the more contemporary cynicism of the German-born New York artist Josephine Meckseper, whose large-scale photos of political dissidence are also in the show.

As someone who watched the Berlin Wall crumble at age 16, Meckseper is understandably ambivalent toward the rise of what she deems “protest chic” among her peers in the troubled aftermath of Germany’s unification. Her c-print series, Untitled Berlin Demonstrations 1 (2002), displays a subtle yet wry indifference, as Berlin police brigades in riot gear drift idly into formation while acts of apparent vandalism are watched over by bored adolescents from the safety of their sports bikes. In the generalizing context of the show, however, such critical dispassion is easily missed.

In the end, “Resistance Is. . .” may fail to make itself relevant to a political present (one greatly in need of counterculture role models), but it does succeed in reminding us that whatever the issue -- police brutality, war, nuclear weapons -- ordinary citizens can come together and make a difference.

JANE HARRIS is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to the Village Voice, Time Out NY, Artforum and Art in America, among other publications.



 



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