Art, Democracy, and Justice: Holland Cotter @ The Frist Art Museum

On November 14th, 2018 the Frist Art Museum hosted the inaugural Art, Democracy, and Justice lecture series organized by artist and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair and Professor of Art María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Featuring The New York Times Co-Chief Art Critic Holland Cotter, artist and author Olu Oguibe, and curator and artistic director Adam Szymczyk, the three-part lecture addressed contemporary and resurgent political digressions from democracy and art’s collective responsivity to such realities. Largely centered around Olu Oguibe’s permanent public sculpture in Kassel, Germany, Monument for Strangers and Refugees (2017)—created for Documenta 14, and which was subsequently removed due to right-wing German political indignation—the conversation that emerged across the three lectures posed a consideration of how power, division, politics, and recursive oppression are reflected in the landscape.   

Below is the full transcription of Holland Cotter’s lecture for Art, Democracy, and Justice at the Frist Art Museum. All words are his own, save for inline clarifications.  


Holland Cotter: Good evening everybody. I’m very glad to be here. First of all, I want to thank Magda for inviting me to Nashville. And let me just say that this city and Vanderbilt university and its students—who are always the most important people in the room—are all hugely fortunate to have her as an artist and as a person; an artist and a person of her brilliance and energy and just plain through and through goodness, which counts more than anything. You are very lucky to have her in residence.  

As you heard, Magda and Olu Oguibe both participated in Documenta 14 which was conceived and directed by Adam Szymczyk and took place last year in two locations, Athens, Greece and Kassel, Germany. I reported on the Kassel presentation for The New York Times and I reviewed it very positively—it was a wonderful show. A few months later I made a mention of it again in an end of year list of outstanding art season events, by which time the exhibition had encountered political blowback.

I wrote in that capsule review: “Ambitiously diffuse, the exhibition took off in more directions than any single event even twice its size could handle. Anti-fascist and pro-immigrant, it attracted fury from Germany’s right-wing press as being too “political”, and it was hit with accusations of over spending. Had the show been lighter, brighter, less political, and a big tourist draw, not to mention a box-office hit, would its budgetary overdraw have been grounds for disgrace? My guess is, no.” 

Among the exhibition’s high points, along with a fantastic performance by Magda that explored the effluent sources of Cuban culture, was Olu Oguibe’s sculpture, Monument for Strangers and Refugees (2017) which was installed on the Königsplatz [King’s Square] at the very center of the city near the main Documenta campus. It was a fifty-four-foot-tall concrete obelisk inscribed on four sides with the phrase taken from the Mathew gospel of the New Testament [25:35], “I was a stranger, and you took me in”. The words were written with gold letter in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish.  

Olu Oguibe,  Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument  ( Monument for Strangers and Refugees ), (2017). Photo by Michael Nast.

Olu Oguibe, Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for Strangers and Refugees), (2017). Photo by Michael Nast.

When I first saw this piece, I was overcome with emotion. I was moved both by the work itself and by the context it appeared in. Adam and his team of curators had designed an exhibition that, unusually for Documenta in my experience, encompassed the whole city of Kassel—reaching into sections of the city that were largely home to non-German immigrants.  

Monument for Strangers and Refugees became the geographic and conceptual lynchpin of the entire exhibition; a great radiant beacon that symbolically brought urban populations together and encapsulated the exhibitions spirit of generosity. I was also moved because this work of art stood in such contrast to the cultural climate that I knew as a young person in the United States.  

I was born in the years just after World War II. I grew up in the late 1940’s and 1950’s in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up in the Cold War era of “the red scare”, when a republican senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy, who served in Congress from 1947-1957, claimed that the United States was infested with malevolent aliens, including Communist spies, and he conducted a public campaign to root them out. He circulated his accusations—which were often based on fabricated evidence—through what was then the most up to date of social media, television. His attacks were anti-foreigner, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay. And I should mention that at this time, every state in the union had sodomy laws on the books, which would effectively charge a consensual sex between gay men and could result in up to thirty years in prison, depending on the state.  

During these years, much of the American public seemed to buy McCarthy’s message. Many elected politicians either cheered him on or were silent. Art too, was for the most part silent, or spoke only in highly coded terms. It was, I think, no coincidence that abstraction was the painting and sculptural mode favored by the market at that time.  

Because I was very young during this time, I wasn’t fully aware what was happening. I only picked up on the mood of paranoia that poisoned the air. What I was more aware of—though I would not have been able to put a name to it—was that the America that I pledged allegiance to in my class rooms was an apartheid state. When I was very young racial segregation in public schools was still legal and was enforced. Technically, this changed with the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, but in the schools I went to, de facto segregation continued unchanged.  

I could have read racial politics just by looking around me. As it was, I absorbed it through the main stream news media. The same media that had given McCarthy his platform was also broadcasting or printing images of civil rights demonstrators being attacked by police, of African-American churches being wrecked by white terrorists and bombs, and what had every appearance of being a race war in progress across the country. Again, I saw no reflection of this in art. Most of the new art I encountered in magazines that my parents had around the house was abstract—I wasn’t aware of the work and figurative work that was being done by politically minded artists or of Andy Warhol, whose torn from the tabloid silk screens were being shown in New York but had not reached Boston. What I was getting though, was interesting political instruction in traditional art museums which I had started to frequent very early.  

Andy Warhol,  Black and White Disaster , (1962) Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art Collection

Andy Warhol, Black and White Disaster, (1962) Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art Collection

I grew up in a museum going family. Our main museum was the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—the MFA. Art museums in the 1950’s, which was when I started going, were not like museums today. This was before blockbusters and before museums became primary social spaces. Back then, they were almost always empty and as quiet as libraries. On Saturdays in winter, beginning when I was about ten years old, my parents would drop me off at the MFA and leave me there and go about their city business. I was in the protective custody of the guards who all knew me, and because I was a shy but together kid, they let me go where wherever I wanted to go—and I went everywhere in the museum. I got to know pretty much the whole collection, very early, and very well. Egyptian mummies, John Singleton Copley portraits, Netherlandish altar pieces, and Monet landscapes, along with a handful of life size Japanese carved wood buddhas, and bronze figures of Hindu deities in the South Asian collection. 

I see in retrospect how valuable those self-guided tours of the museum were—no one was saying to me “Look at this because it’s great, but never mind that”. I looked at everything. Right from the start, I got a sense of a side-by-side existence of all kinds of art from different era’s and cultures. And most important, I got a sense of the equal value of those cultures. I think because of that immersion no art has ever felt foreign to me in the sense of being alien and unapproachable. At the same time, there was also a lot I was not seeing.  

The MFA was what we now call an encyclopedic museum—in those days we called it a universal museum—but it was an encyclopedia missing major volumes. There was no art from Africa apart from Egypt which, at that time, wasn’t really considered to be Africa; there was no art from Columbian and Central South America, or the Caribbean, or Australia; there was no native North-American art. For all that, and most art by people of color, you had to go to ethnological museums or natural history museums where that art wasn’t art—it was science, some kind of other lesser thing—and it was segregated from “real art”, “high art”, in a way that exactly replicated American racial politics at that time.  

Of course, I couldn’t have articulated any of this, positive or negative, then. But gradually, and almost by accident, I was forming a social consciousness through the politics of personal experience.  

In the summer of 1964, when I was in high school, I went AWOL from home. A friend had been sent to a reform school in Texas for committing petty crimes and I thought I would go and visit to give him some moral support. He was breaking into homes in our hometown, including my parent’s home, and it was kind of performance art—he would break in, he didn’t take anything—the whole point was to get in and get out without being caught. He succeeded for a very long time before he was nabbed. So, I went and visited him that summer. I scraped together some money— borrowed from friends actually—I bought a one hundred dollar good-for-a-year go-anywhere Greyhound bus ticket, got on a bus, and headed south. I had some clothes in a backpack and books in a shopping bag. I had Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentals to Walden, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days—which was his account of his experiences as the equivalent of a psychiatric nurse during the Civil War in Washington D.C.—I had Emily Dickinson’s collected poems in one volume—the 1951 Jonathan edition—and I had Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  

Robert Frank,  Main Street–Savannah, Georgia , from  The Americans  (1955). © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Main Street–Savannah, Georgia, from The Americans (1955). © Robert Frank

Buses were at that time, a relatively cheap mode of interstate travel; most of my fellow travelers were working class, many were African-American. When I crashed for a few nights with my cousin John Elliot, who was then a young English professor at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I learned that that summer was “Mississippi Freedom Summer”, when northern college students were coming to Mississippi to register people to vote. Three civil rights workers had disappeared and were feared murdered by the Ku Klux Klan or other white nationalists. John warned me to be careful and to keep my eyes open, and I did.  

I got a view of America that did not seem at all transcendental. As I traveled, I saw “White’s Only” signs at public water coolers, and “Blacks Served Here” signs at the side windows of restaurants. The message of exclusion was one I was familiar with in Boston, but here it was spelled out in signs. Then, in an indoor concert at a park in Washington, D.C.I encountered something glorious—a performance by the singer Miriam Makeba, who was in political exile from South Africa. At that concert, with the first racially integrated audience I had ever been part of, I learned what the word “apartheid” meant, and I had what I consider my first experience of activist art, and it was an art of both protest and embrace.  

It took more experiences like that one, and reading James Baldwin, and coming out as a gay, and meeting my first partner, who was my college roommate and a student of African history, and moving to New York City during the class wars of the 1970’s, when hip hop and graffiti were blooming in the Bronx, and traveling to North Africa, and spending time in India, and constantly looking at art, old and new, and finally seeing the art that had been invisible to me when I was young. Through all these experiences my eyes gradually opened to the political necessity of art and political utility of beauty in all its many forms.  

I joined the New York Times in 1991 when the intensely political art associated with multiculturalism was cresting. Multiculturalism was proved to be a problematic concept, but for me, back then and now still, it meant one main thing; everybody coming to the table, with all their colors, languages, genders, attitudes, and desires. At that table, we wouldn’t just break bread, we cooked up whole new cuisines, new kinds of nourishment, and everyone would get to tell their story, write their own histories.  

You probably needed to have been there to understand the sense of optimism then, but the social and political climate were not on art’s side. This was a time of terrible danger and alas, with the spread of AIDS, friends and lovers, artists among them, with whom we expected to share the rest of our lives, were suddenly going and gone. Extraordinary art emerged in response to the reality at that time, but so did the repressive culture wars that began in reaction to that art.  

I sense that those culture wars are with us again now. I would say to anyone who imagines that America has achieved a state of post-feminist, post-racial, post-class, post-colonial, post-fear grace, that you are wrong. Just listen to the international news, fundamental work of adversity and resistance in every area remains to be done. Can art do that work? I go back and forth in my thoughts about this.  

The market has become so adept at neutralizing everything it touches, and we live in a culture of infinite distraction. But I think of the work that Act Up AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power did in the 1990’s, using images and public performances to succeed in getting drug companies to release medications that saved lives—that was huge. I think of Olu Oguibe’s Monument for Strangers and Refugees, which brought the realities of otherness and exclusion out into the open and went further to pose an alternative to them—a prescription for civic health—and did so in a language that was both straightforward and compassionate.  

Olu Oguibe, detail of  Monument for Stranger and Refugees  (2017)   Photo by Ferenc Eln

Olu Oguibe, detail of Monument for Stranger and Refugees (2017) Photo by Ferenc Eln

Gran Fury,  Art is Not Enough , (1988) International Center for Photography archive

Gran Fury, Art is Not Enough, (1988) International Center for Photography archive

I hold on to the idea of art as a kind of moral empowerment zone; a set aside place where new, different, improved, corrected versions of reality can be proposed and even maybe sometimes realized. I like to think that just by occupying that zone, artists form a crucial force of resistance. As the filmmaker Luis Buñuel once said that artists “keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts.”  

What the politically powerful can do, or try to do, is suppress art that they find threatening. This has been true in the case of Monument for Strangers and Refugees, a sculpture that, as a gesture of cultural embrace, was created to permanently occupy its central site in Kassel, under far-right pressure in Germany has been dismantled and removed from that site with the assurance that it will be reinstated elsewhere. When it will be returned to visibility however, is uncertain. Not at all uncertain however, is the reality that the reactionary, bullying, other-fearing, political forces of my youth are back. A significant difference is that artists and curators like Olu, Adam, and Magda, are consistently, variously, and collectively, speaking out.