Battlegrounds for Equality: Representing History at Yale’s Art Galleries
On February 16, 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration ended the draft deferment for students bound for graduate school.
“The ‘What are you going to do?’ question at graduation became a front-and-center issue for everybody,” recalled Jim Latimer ‘68.
“The prior expectation was that you would go on to graduate school and the world would keep going along. The actual face-to-face aspects of a military role were not something you contemplated very much.”
But “’68 was the turning point,” said history professor Matthew Jacobson.
The disruption of expectations for the Class of 1968 is just one page in the story of broad upheaval during the era. Even in the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, 1968 stands out as a watershed moment: the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, protests of the Democratic National Convention and Miss America Pageant, and minority empowerment demonstrations. Through it all, marginalized and young artists fought to shape public perception. They struggled against conservative art museums and hostile audiences. Fifty years later, several programs at Yale are reflecting on the role that protest art and physical material played in advancing and recording the social movements of the day.
The Yale University Art Gallery has organized a program series that considers how the events of 1968 played out in the art world. Much of the exhibitions focuses on the marginalization of artists of color and female artists.
“It’s hard to understand exactly what you’re seeing in 1968 without going… into these much deeper stories about Vietnam, post-war idealism, and the way that hopes had been dashed for the younger generation,” Jacobson told The Politic.
“In 1968—and before then—artists were recognizing that their work wasn’t being shown, and the institutions were not serving them,” Brian Orozco ‘18, the intern who organized the exhibit for the gallery, told The Politic.
Marginalized artists rallied against museums that refused to display their art.
“They were saying, ‘We want representation within the institution. Not just on the walls, but in the offices. We want black curators,’” said Orozco.
The YUAG highlights one particular episode in 1972 when Asco, a Chicano art collective, spray-painted members’ names on the front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The movement was responding to a LACMA curator who said that Chicano artists created only graffiti and not art. In a 2008 essay, UCLA professor Chon Noriega described Spray Paint LACMA as a symbolic defiance of the curator’s bigotry.
“In signing the museum, Asco collapsed the space between graffiti and conceptual art, at once fulfilling the biased thinking that justified their exclusion and refiguring the entire museum as an art object itself,” Noriega wrote.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan was also a battleground for equality. In 1970, a coalition named the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee used picketing, occupation, and other tactics to push Whitney officials to adopt a 50% female artist quota in an annual exhibition. Their efforts were largely successful; the proportion of female artists in the show quadrupled from just 5% in 1969 to 22% in 1970.
The YUAG also featured contemporary reflections on 1968. At a February event, Kamau Walker ‘20 recited poems that evoked the energy of the revolutionary moment for marginalized artists. One of his original works began, “I woke up bigger than my name today,” suggesting the outsized impact on the art world of the artists of color. He also recited Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, whose eponymous refrain is an urgent call to action for those who wanted to fight against regressive norms.
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised
Will not be televised, will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live
Visitors had the opportunity to practice their own creativity and honor the 1960s at the February program. “We had a station where you could make buttons and put whatever you wanted on them,” Orozco told The Politic. “We had tables with large pieces of paper that you could write on.”
“And all these activities—no matter how fun and engaging they were—all had historical significance.”
Just up the street from the gallery, the class “1968 @ 50: Art, Architecture, and Cultures of Protest” meets every week in the basement of the Beinecke Library to examine different sources and artifacts that illuminated the year. Students work in pairs to curate and present objects from the Beinecke collections. These objects reveal how artists were able to impact the broader social movements of the time beyond of the art world. One pair of students shared posters made during the Parisian protests in May 1968. The leftist, anti-capitalist demonstrations in Paris became so intense that President Charles de Gaulle briefly fled the city.
“A lot of those posters were produced by a group called the Atelier Populaire, a group of students who occupied the Academy of Fine Arts and took over the studios to turn them into a factory to produce these posters,” said Dr. Kevin Repp, the Beinecke curator who co-teaches the class.
The Beinecke’s resources play a key role in the class: about 350 of the roughly 400 posters that the Atelier Populaire created are in Yale’s collections. The wide range of the library’s postwar culture collection allows students to have access to drafts and finished products from the period. This gives the students—whose backgrounds range from sculpture to history of medicine—the opportunity to better understand the work process of the activists. After all, the organizers of the different campus events seem to agree that the real story of 1968 is how small, committed groups of intellectuals and artists were able to shape popular opinion.
“[The year] didn’t just happen on its own,” Repp told The Politic. “It’s something that people did.”
Students in Repp’s class will soon have the opportunity to try their hand at subversive political art. On May 4, the 68@50 program will host its grand finale, an unveiling of the winning entry to the “Lipstick, Revisited” contest. The contest invites students to capture the same rebellious spirit that motivated Claes Oldenburg’s Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, which now resides in the Morse College courtyard. Lipstick, composed of a large tube of lipstick sitting on top of tank treads, was originally used as a platform for anti-Vietnam War speakers. The work engages with the themes of gender inequality, the masculinity of war, and capitalist culture. Lipstick, Revisited encourages participants to offer their own critiques of modern day America through sculpture.
1968’s Lessons for Today
“One of the things that often happens is that history is used only to dredge up the dark side of humanity,” Repp told The Politic. “But I hope the students see something redemptive.”
The exhibitions’ focus on the workmanship of the revolution of ’68 raises questions about how young people can become effective activists in 2018. While today’s political issues are meaningfully distinct from those of the 1960’s, the continued decentralization of political leadership and rapid growth of social media means that today’s young people have an even greater opportunity to beat back what they perceive as obstacles to liberal progress. For example, millions have seen viral images of creative protest signs from the 2017 Women’s March. While the artistic gains of 1968 were still relatively confined to the coterie of self-identified artists, technology has given leverage to ad-hoc activists, too. For the most part, the racial biases of museum curators matter less today than the number of retweets you can get.
Latimer also recognizes the fervent energy in the anti-President Trump protests compared to those of 1968.
“The reaction to Trump was the first thing I’ve seen where it had galvanized so many people with such intense feelings since the protest times,” said Latimer. “The intensity of the younger generation, the intensity of feeling, the scale of it—the willingness to ride a bus all night to a protest and ride it back may have been there [in 1968], but it didn’t manifest itself with the same sense of intensity. ”
Current polling data confirms Latimer’s perceptions. An April 6 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey reveals that 20% of Americans have participated in a rally or protest since 2016. This surge of political activity is happening on a backdrop of responses to crises like gun violence and police brutality, alongside backlash to increasingly visible populist sentiments. And Americans seem to be optimistic about the ability to effect change through these rallies: the same poll reported that 57% of the country believes these protests are more effective or just as effective as those of the late 1960s.
As modern activists advance their causes, they will want to keep in mind the lessons of ‘68: in a disillusioned, anxious world, well-organized networks of believers were able to leverage creative expression to build empathy and support in the public. While they were not always successful, their creations left a comprehensive record for future generations. Over the next several decades, Americans will have to reckon with labor displacement due to automation, demographic shifts, resource scarcity, and political dysfunction. These impending shifts will be fertile ground for activism. The next revolution will not be televised. But it may be live-tweeted.