Then and Now: The Aesthetics of Protest
On the homepage for The Guardian’s investigation The Counted, users are greeted by bright and bolded numbers, racing like slot machines against a collage of black and white portraits that tally the sum of people killed by police in the US. The interface has a number of engaging features: users can search and filter records by demographic information, view visual and interactive data charts, and find links to articles and videos covering current events related to police brutality. In line with its participatory format, the site solicits new informational contributions from the public to keep the record relevant and accurate. This project is much more than a collection of law enforcement statistics. It is a graphic digital display both symbolic of the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement, and the new aesthetics of difference and activism in the 21st century.
The US criminal justice system is the embodiment of institutional racism as it functions today. While the Civil War and Jim Crow Eras have been tucked away in the past and written away in history textbooks as reprehensible times of past discrimination, incontrovertible evidence exists in opposition to the notion that this history is concluded. The government and media portray America as an egalitarian and democratic nation, when in fact the social and political constraints of oppressive white hegemonic power structures are alive and well. The policing of African American men and women today epitomizes society’s long withstanding acceptance of black bodies as disposable under white subjugation. Coding discussions of difference as discussions of security, authorities continue to reinforce such natal alienation of black Americans.
Founded in 2013 in response to widespread instances of state-sanctioned violence targeting African Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement has recast the concerns of the Civil Rights Era to confront prejudiced power structures and modern manifestations of racism. Black Lives Matter has used the power of media to bridge gaps between the past and the present, simultaneously underscoring the living history of white-on-black structural violence while also provoking unprecedented discourse about color-consciousness in the current moment.
Harking back to the Jim Crow protests of the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has revived strategies from crusades of the past. The juxtaposition of Civil Rights Era and contemporary protest images reveals how earlier models of activism have influenced the organization and aesthetics of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Photos from the 2015 Black Lives Matter rally in response to the death of Walter Scott ––killed by a police officer in a shooting in North Charleston, South Carolina–– show participants holding hand-painted signs with the message “I AM A MAN”. Their posters mirror those carried by picketers photographed during the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, Tennessee; “I am a man” posters were literally carried throughout history. An utterance of a simple truth ––that regardless of race, we are all people–– these words underscore the dehumanization of blackness in the US across time.
It is no coincidence that the motives and messages of the Civil Rights movement are being echoed today. Black history in America is one of suffering and sacrifice, and although it is evident that the fight for racial equality is not over, nostalgia as a form of activism has been an effective strategy for Black Lives Matter. While meant to protect and serve everyone, the police have consistently exercised prejudice through racial profiling and excessive policing of black bodies. Side by side, the 1968 and 2015 protest photographs construct a narrative of difference. By putting current events in dialogue with the legacy of injustice in America, the movement illustrates an astounding lack of progress against the context of racial violence today.
The modern replica of the sign takes on new meaning in its engagement with the controversies surrounding police brutality in the present.
Overtime, the significance of the phrase “I am a man” has evolved and grown to encompass new ideas of blackness. In 1968, “I am a man” was radical in its declaration of homogeneity across racial lines. The sanitation workers used simplistic and neutral signage to gain justice under the law by conveying the ways in which blacks and whites were the same. During the Civil Rights movement, the Black Diaspora aspired to establish African Americans as full citizens with equal status ––a function of hope for integration and acceptance in the face of explicit segregation. In The New Cultural Politics of Difference, Cornel West describes historical black advocacy as a mode of resistance characterized by an “assimilationist manner” and “homogeneous impulse” . While he applauds the pioneering efforts of activists in the 60s, West is critical of attaining equality by means of denying all forms of social, cultural and ethnic distinction. Confronting the persistence of state-sanctioned violence today, West sees such methodology as ineffective in its ultimately impossible goal of obliterating inherent differences between races . Rather, West argues in favor of more complex and multivalent expressions of difference that account for the often ineffable layers of identity as applicable to all individuals. Here, the value of difference trumps that of sameness.
Black identity in America is subjected to the constraints of history, politics and imagination. All controlled by white hegemony, this triad has created a crisis in the representation of blackness. This ongoing, in-group struggle to convey an image of complexity and humanity both to themselves and others is seen in political as well as aesthetic forms of racial expression . The ways in which Black Lives Matter rallies have invoked past declarations of race and identity are also dealt with in African American art. Artist Glenn Ligon was using the aesthetics of Civil Rights posters in his paintings even before Black Lives Matter was established as an organization. In his painting Untitled (I Am a Man), Ligon uses the very same historical activist rhetoric as Black Lives Matter. In his own way, he appropriates and reclaims historical signage to reassess the potential layers of meaning these words have taken on overtime. The work has been described as, “an icon of Civil Rights struggle repositioned within a formalist painting that modifies our perception of both” . Ligon updates, undermines and expands the symbolism of race rhetoric on canvas. His composition pushes the boundaries of identity politics; he asks both himself and viewers how legitimate the statement “I am a man” is posthumously.
As a gay black artist Ligon’s work was dually scrutinized. He worked under the racial limitations in both society and the artistic community during the postmodern Era. The medium of oil paint as viewed in the art world parallels that of blackness as viewed by the public; both were stereotyped and confined to singular interpretations cast by institutional powers. Painting has frequently been described in art history as apolitical. Ligon however challenged the notion of his work as abstract and meaningless by inserting charged language into his piece. Pulling from posters actively carried in Civil Rights protests, Ligon subverts the aestheticization of his own work by association with the polemical. In doing so, the artists disrupts conservative and reductive ideas about his painting, his race and his politics.
Ad Reinhardt of the school of abstract expressionism understands authorial autonomy in art as “connected with the privilege to suppress and protect the body and the reference to social constraints … all the more voluminous for black artists” . This theme of the body and its subjugation is directly relevant to Black Lives Matter. In turn, Untitled (I Am a Man) initiates a dialogue about how cultural and political forms of oppression are invariably intertwined. The various manifestations of “I am a man” iconography ––in Civil Rights photography, postmodern painting and present-day protest–– serve as a testament to continuity between the past and present. The temporal and spatial contexts of the different visualizations represent dynamic modes of resistance and the fluidity of black identity politics across generations.
Recording Racial Politics in the New Media Society
In the age of digital activism, documentation of the ongoing Civil Rights movement is not only expanding, but it is also evolving. New technologies have altered the conditions of visibility and subjectivity and cultivated a deeper understanding of the politics of representation and portrayals of difference in contemporary American society. Reactions to racial oppression have been revised to more adequately address incidents of police brutality as they function in the current milieu. The introduction of the smartphone, social media platforms, and other communication technologies has radically transformed activism. Online media platforms and mobile apps provide new means of access to information. To live in America in 2017 is to live in an image-saturated and fast-paced world, characterized by digital connectivity. Through these systems, technology has created a watershed moment for the contemporary Civil Rights movement.
In fact, the mobilization of Black Lives Matter can be directly attributed to the circulation of imagery via new media. “Documentation of violence against black people is nothing new. But the fact that recent events were streamed instantaneously and made available for mass distribution on our handheld devices has galvanized a mass response” . Records of police violence today are being disseminated in an unprecedented manner. Footage of Eric Garner gasping for air and repeating “I can’t breathe” while he died in a police chokehold, of Philando Castile being shot in his car, or that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice attacked by police while playing in a park and countless other graphic clips all spread virally. Livestreamed on apps like Periscope, Facebook and Twitter and exponentially shared online, these videos catalyzed a call to action against state-sanctioned violence. While empirical data had previously existed substantiating that, “overall at any age, black individuals stopped by police are more likely to experience force,” digital footage functioned to visualize and thus concretize this regrettable truth in the public eye . The rate and scope of content production and distribution is a crucial distinction between images from Civil Rights Era photography and mass media today. Images have greater power now than ever as the internet has allowed for increased accessibility and facilitated a more far-reaching influence.
It is important to note that today’s media content is not only publicly available, but also publicly sourced. While videos of white-on-black violence have been momentous in the activist community, Black Lives Matter is not behind all the recordings. In addition to police dash and body cams, a significant amount of visual content has come from individual witnesses who have documented incidents of police brutality. The everyman as a photographer phenomenon has undoubtedly played a significant role in the formation of current cultural politics. Given the tools to create and communicate, activists and common citizens alike have been empowered by technology. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) designed a Mobile Justice app to enable anyone, anywhere to broadcast eyewitness encounters with police using excessive force or administrating unwarranted arrest. The primary functions of the app are: record, witness and report. Users can send live videos automatically to the ACLU, fill out additional incident reports and activate location services to get alerts about the whereabouts of others when they are live streaming.
Additionally, the aforementioned Guardian project The Counted, embodies the importance of public consciousness and participation in the current moment. The Counted is significant in two ways. First, that the British newspaper would invest in compiling such a record of crime and punishment in America speaks to the urgency of race relations in the US and the effectiveness of Black Lives Matter in calling attention to state-sanctioned violence. Second, that The Counted presents a recapitulation of the activities of Black Lives Matter online speaks to the advancement of activist campaigns since the Civil Rights Era. Surveillance and communication technologies have fostered the growth of digital activism, and the internet has come to play an important role in the galvanization, organization and mobilization of Black Lives Matter.
Activism as Art
In recent years, Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country have not only attracted extensive new media coverage, but have also begun to infiltrate the art world. While a relationship between art and advocacy is no new revelation, the nature of this relationship has been reconsidered with the development of the second diffusion of the Civil Rights movement. Artists have often used activist themes in their work, and the art world is very much associated with liberal campaigns. Now, however, the notion of activism as a form of art in and of itself is becoming popularized. The artist as activist archetype is being supplanted by the activist as artist phenomena as illustrated by Black Lives Matter. Activism is invading the museum space, in turn deconstructing its institutional framework and challenging the limitations of historical art practices.
Art has long functioned as an outlet of expression in response to black suffering and marginalization. With respect to issues of representation, the early wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), can still be read as relevant today. In his Criteria for Negro Art, W.E.B. Du Bois stressed the importance of visual culture as central to the emancipation of black identity from the grip of white narratives and overall validation of the black experience in America and. Du Bois saw the production of art as crucial to the Civil Rights movement; he encouraged creativity as a means of agency. His belief was that the unique black history of subordination, sacrifice and censorship needed to be possessed and communicated through the lens of blackness. Only through ownership and self-expression could the black experience be appropriately and honestly conveyed. In his eyes, the revelation of historical accuracy and truth through imagery would improve society and empower the African American community . Thus, Du Bois promoted art as a tool through which the black community could understand identity, counter social stereotypes and reclaim history.
Consistent with the way that modern protest signs have referenced Civil Rights icons of the past, Du Bois and the NAACP have been invoked on social media posts by Black Lives Matter. Images of the NAACP flag have also been shared on Instagram in response to police killings, an allusion to the 1930s tradition of raising the flag at the organization’s New York headquarters to publicly announce a lynching . Like the “I am a man” posters from the Walter Scott protest, social media images like these work as another means of connecting past and present racial tensions ––in this case, through the direct comparison of lynching with police gun violence and excessive force. That Black Lives Matter has incorporated Civil Rights history so vividly into the visual culture of the movement is a nod to Du Bois’s notion of art and image as didacticism. The NAACP disseminated lynching photographs in a manner reminiscent to Black Lives Matter sharing videos of police violence. While Black Lives Matter has clearly borrowed from activist intervention programs of the past, the viral nature of reproduction in the 21st century has far eclipsed the Civil Rights campaign reach. Throughout, the circulation of activist imagery has accumulated cultural capital.
Technology has played a central role in the expanded presence of activism in the artistic context. Communication technology has literally endowed digital media with the properties of an artistic medium, providing the materials necessary for anyone to create and diffuse visual content. Much like the DIY movement in art history, technology has facilitated a hands-on ––or in technological terms a thumbs-on–– approach. New possibilities for individual contribution and mass involvement have generated a sense of inclusivity and formed profound connections between ideas and people. These connections have been of particular importance to Black Lives Matter in uniting the movement and propelling it forward by using images to express ideas to wide audiences. Photos and videos from demonstrations capture the various cultural elements of the movement from poster designs to graphic shirts, memorabilia and most importantly, the participants themselves.
The spirit of the Black Lives Matters movement revolves around concepts of political visibility and the embrace of social subjectivity. These goals lend themselves well to artistic spheres. Art is often seen as the visualization of messages, both abstract and literal, and is thus complimentary to activism. The images produced by activist circles today have had a direct influence on the American cultural climate. The idea that individual documentation ––of a protest, event or any other symbolic subject–– is now granted artistic value has empowered people who would not traditionally be seen as artists, let alone be involved with the art world. As a result, art institutions are becoming more socially engaged, exiting the ivory tower and interacting with the public in new ways.
Black Life on Display
The collision of art and politicized ideas has redirected the attention of museums to non-artistic spheres. The contemporary cultures of activism and technology and the significance of social movements in America have changed the nature of institutional display. Biographical, documentarian, journalistic, sociological, and collective materials are increasingly being incorporated into museum collections. This development, in conjunction with the elevation of mass media content to the realm of high culture, has initiated a paradigm shift in the art world. Today, museums are partnering with activist organizations and exhibitions are exploring social issues. These changes in traditional practice are playing a valuable role in enhancing the image record of the Civil Rights movement. While such newfound inclusivity is laudable, in the spirit of Black Lives Matter, it is important to reflect on the past and be constantly critical of what has been formally absent in cultural institutions.
Historical portrayal of blackness in the art world has been dictated by white power structures and pigeon-holed by colonialist narratives. “Abstraction of the black experience” through white perspectives in the arts is symptomatic of broader institutionalized racism in America . In the past, both curatorial methodology and art critique have sentimentalized and aestheticized black history in manners consistent with hierarchical race and class systems in society. Huey Copeland refers to the history of the museum as a history of exclusion, structured by “economies of vision” . He discusses the concept of “social death” as the process through which black Americans have been forced to live in a society in which they have no agency  He parallels this symbolic death of African American cultural history to the actual deaths of black people at the hands of white political powers in order to highlight the multiplex ways in which black bodies have been dehumanized and mistreated across society.
Although the cultural politics of representation are now undergoing progressive changes, the work of artist Fred Wilson serves as a pointed commentary on how and why the exhibition of black life and culture in museum spaces has been historically inaccessible and inaccurate. Wilson’s body of work consistently calls out the “radically de-individuating protocols of the museum,” through which differences among black identities were erased . The African American community was generalized and reduced to a single conception of the “other,” a product of elite imperialistic gazes in the art world.
Wilson’s piece The Last Murdered Black Youth, from The Other Museum show he designed in 1990 is an earlier example of the pairing of art and activism. The work displays a disembodied wax head in a glass box as a reference to white-on-black violence. The face is modeled after one of the Scottsboro boys, unjustly convicted for a crime in 1931 . The title, on the other hand, is a more contemporary reference to the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins which occurred just before Wilson’s New York exhibition of The Other Museum. These dual sources of inspiration for his work share the common theme of racial profiling and violence, and symbolize the vulnerability of the black body. Wilson, like the Black Lives Matter movement, points out the persistence of racism in the present era by drawing connections between historical and modern instances of overt racism in America.
The historicization of themes of mass violence and the “other” in museum displays is problematic in that it trivializes contemporary issues surrounding difference. In his art, Wilson criticizes exoticization and sentimentality in exhibition practices by demonstrating the ways in which institutional imposition on black culture has misrepresented black history. Working within the very structure he criticizes, Wilson puts museum-goers in dialogue with the social issues he engages from the level at which they actually operate. His work questions the complex relationships between elite structures, the public and subjugated peoples.
Before blindly praising today’s museums for their newfound accessibility and involvement with Black Lives Matter and other activist movements, it is important to understand the history of racial dynamics in the art world. Such institutional critique is important in confronting the intellectual challenge of detecting the “discrepancy between sterling rhetoric and lived reality; glowing principles and actual practices” . Cornel West warns of the “co-opted progressive” type who claims to advocate for marginalized communities, but, due to their inability to self-reflect, remains at a safe distance from real social issues . West sees progression from such a neutral position as only possible through the intervention of a compelling crisis that sparks a realization of urgency through social pressure. He notes that such a crisis is “usually generated by organizations that convince ordinary people to put their bodies and lives on the line” .
This theoretical model as laid out by West is in dialogue with the current overheated sociopolitical and cultural environment. The hypothetical organization he speaks of is embodied by Black Lives Matter. With the help of modern technologies, they have raised awareness about the serious crisis of black representation under America’s ongoing oppressive programs of institutionalized racism and structural violence. New media has allowed for the proliferation of visual evidence illustrating the atrocities committed by police against our own people. Videos and images of white-on-black violence have aided the long overdue revival of Civil Rights activism, serving as the galvanizing force for Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter’s aesthetics of resistance and protest strategies are simultaneously a nostalgic reflection upon historical racial tensions in America, and a distinct reaction to the novel circumstances and conditions of racism in the present day. Meanings of past imagery have been pluralized, and new images from rallies across the nation have been recorded. Modern responses to polarizing ideas about difference thus involve both reassessing historic conflicts as well as grappling with the specific controversies surrounding race in the present.
The viral spread of Black Lives Matter rhetoric and visual materials has improved the previously problematic relationship between civil rights activism and the arts. Widespread recognition of the movement has in turn brought a new wave of political morality into cultural institutions. As the art world is evolving and responding to crisis during the age of digital activism, the museum is becoming an important site for bridging the gaps between power structures and oppressed peoples in society. This new, anti-elitist museum model is exemplified at The Smithsonian Museum of African American History. Curators have begun to compile an archive of Black Lives Matter material culture. Collecting assorted ephemera, artifacts, texts, posters, images and new media, they have brought the ideals of W.E.B. Du Bois to life. The Smithsonian is honoring Du Bois’s campaign for honest images as a form of empowerment and equal rights activism. Their documentation of Black Lives Matter as part of a continuous Civil Rights movement is grounded in an understanding of the historical and cultural significance of this moment in American history .
The Smithsonian collection is donation-based and publicly solicited. It contains pieces designed and handmade by participants in Black Lives Matter events such as the Millions March in New York. The nature of this curatorial process cultivates a dialogue between the institution and the public, promoting accessibility, inclusivity and visibility. The structure of the collection is open and fluid such that rather than imposing their own narratives, the museum has allowed those involved with the life history of the movement to speak from themselves. A t-shirt, symbolic of Eric Garner’s death and of black censorship, is one of the items in the growing archive. Another poster from the same march references the horrific story of the young Emmett Till who was brutally murdered and lynched in the 1950s. It uses a play on words; placing the letter S before his last name, the sign implies that the violence directed at Till and deemed abhorrent in history textbooks is still happening today. On its flip side, the #BlackLivesMatter tag serves as a testament to the importance of digital activism and new media as tools for spreading word of the campaign. The movement’s record is preserved online as well as by special collections like that of the Smithsonian.
By incorporating the perspectives of many individuals, The Smithsonian opposes the hyper-surveillance of difference as employed by institutions of law (the police) and culture (the arts). In such self-reflexivity, the Smithsonian acknowledges role that museums have previously played in perpetuating institutional oppression. This exercise in confronting issues of misrepresentation and yielding the ownership of history to those directly involved works from within the museum structure in a similar mode of interior subversion to that practiced by Fred Wilson. Both examples of institutional critique are aware of the social repercussions of generalized and stereotyped categorizations of difference and treat art and art spaces as vehicles for communication, not as alienated and detached from public community issues.
Interrogating systems of jurisdiction both on the ground and in cultural spheres, Black Lives Matter has initiated conversation between activist and artistic communities to address issues of discrimination and representation. Through the combined forces of nuanced protest reenactment and the employment of digital media, Black Lives Matter has called attention to the history of African American citizenship and, most importantly, questioned what it means to be a citizen in 2017. In using technological tools, the movement has been able to paint a portrait of racial violence that is a true account of multivalent black narratives of difference from the Civil Rights Era to the present. Building a progressive platform upon the foundation of a historical movement, Black Lives Matter has created a new visual vocabulary for the discussion of difference that highlights the importance of both political and creative freedoms, and reveals the ways in which the two are entwined. An emphasis on alterity, reification and phenomenology has been central to both the social and political upheavals of the movement. Identity politics must be understood beyond racial constituency and socially constructed categorization, and Black Lives Matter has helped to bring together various perspectives and experiences. The movement is as much about the social significance of individual advocacy, visibility and voice as it is about combating racial violence.
Emelia Ho is a senior at USC, class of 2019. She is majoring in Art History with a minor at the Annenberg School for Communication in Justice, Voice and Advocacy. She has participated in service learning programs through the University, and is passionate about community narratives. In her free time, she loves to travel and be outside.
 West, Cornel. “The New Cultural Politics of Difference.” October 53 (1990), 103.
 English, Darby. How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 208.
 Lax, Thomas J. “How Do Black Lives Matter in MoMA’s Collection?” MoMA, (September 19, 2016).
 Kramer, Rory, Brianna Remster, and Camille Z Charles. “Black Lives and Police Tactics Matter.” Contexts 16, no. 3 (2017), 23.
 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art.” Crisis 32 (1926): 290.
 Lax, “How do Black Lives Matter in MoMA’s Collection?”
 English, Darby. 1971 A Year in the Life of Color. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 123.
 Copeland, Huey. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 34.
 Copeland, Bound to Appear, 32.
 West “New Cultural Politics,” 95.
 Ibid., 94.
 Nodjimbadem, Katie. “How the African American History Museum is Curating Black Lives Matter.” Smithsonian, (December 14, 2015).