The meaning of “activism” has shifted in the age of social media. What originally stood for dedicated organizing work has become an aesthetic reference point for online debates. Corporations, small businesses, and celebrity influencers now adopt activist personae to position themselves as thought leaders in their industries, effectively limiting its meaning to where and how you spend your money. Art spaces are caught up in this as well, reflecting a growing public desire for political education outside of mainstream media.

Since the birth of the printing press, protest art has materialized in utilitarian forms, with activist artists creating incisive works using cheap materials that — depending on their message — become commodified and marketed to the bourgeoisie. This has left galleries with the responsibility to enunciate the politics at play across the industry, all while being careful not to upset the elite class of collectors lending their art. With this in mind, a new exhibition at the 8th Floor Gallery is attempting to define the meaning of socially engaged art in the 21st century.

Articulating Activism is a mixed-media survey drawn from the private collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin, co-founders of the Rubin Museum in Manhattan. From the get-go, the contradictions between private and public ownership are explicit — we are outsiders looking in at the possessions of ubiquitous American collectors. I am often skeptical of protest art behind glass, yet I still cannot deny the pleasure of experiencing politically charged artworks in a venue making the effort. For that reason, the exhibition is a commendable display of prints, sketches, sculptures, and photographs by contemporary artists such as Dread Scott, Guerrilla Girls, Ana Mendieta, and Edgar Heap of Birds.

Firelei Báez, “Zafa Fukú (April 30th, 2012)” (2015), acrylic and ink on paper, 74 3/4 x 60 inches (courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery)
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, “Freedom Trap” (2013), chromogenic color print, framed: 29 x 23 x 1 1/8 inches (courtesy the artist)

At the gallery entrance, Michael Rakowitz’s “May the Obdurate Foe Not Stay in Good Health” (2016) provides an immediate criticism of American imperialism, recreating Assyrian antiquities looted from the National Museum in Baghdad during the 2003 US invasion. Composed of recycled materials, the tiny sculptures wryly take on both colonialism and climate change, hinting at the oil companies hellbent on virtue-signaling through every major crisis they cause. Nearby, a series of prints by Black and Latinx artists accomplishes a similar critique of beauty brand activism. Firelei Báez’s “Zafa Fukú” (2015) addresses repressive laws against Black women’s hairstyles in colonial Louisiana, while Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons forms a cage of dreadlocks around her face, pointing to the Afro-Caribbean women who will not be liberated by corporate diversity measures. 

Anti-Black violence factors into several pieces throughout the gallery. One of the more striking works here is Carlos Martiel’s photo series Expulsion (2015), documenting a performance in which the artist had 12 yellow stars of the European Union stitched onto his bare torso. The symbolism of Euro-nationalist identity on Black skin hints at the lingering scars of immigration and otherness, bringing to mind the recent refugee crisis in Ukraine. At the other end of the gallery, Frank Martínez’s untitled charcoal sketch of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination juxtaposes a billboard of a shooting cowboy above a realist portrayal of the crime scene, speaking to the FBI’s public relations cover-up. Nearby, Shaun Leonardo’s sketches of Eric Garner’s killing evoke the controversy around his images of Tamir Rice, but no context is offered here. 

Frank Martínez, “Sin títolo (Untitled)” (2012), charcoal on paper, 35 3/4 x 51 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist)

While civil rights, free speech, and feminist liberation are prominent themes, a latent sense of anticommunism pervades the show. Works by Cuban and Tibetan artists like José Ángel Toirac and Gonkar Gyatso subtly critique the legacies of Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong, both of whom are long deceased. At the same time, the catalogue frequently quotes Marxist art critic John Berger, who rarely spoke out against any world leader opposed to capitalist imperialism. Because we are in a Rubin production, these curatorial choices feel ideological. 

This contradiction points to a larger issue in activist art today, as well as any monolithic definition of “activism” in the imperial core. Without a coherent political lens to interpret social justice, the show’s broad anti-state messaging would lead us to believe that all leftist governments are equally as bad as the Bush administration. This framing often comes at the expense of the burgeoning labor movement, which isn’t addressed at all. Identity building is very much our state’s political project to bolster capitalism, and dissident artists from around the world, no matter the validity of their politics, can still end up indirectly serving this agenda. 

Ultimately, the preservation of protest art is a challenging task, and widespread institutional corruption has contaminated many gallery spaces by association. As such, Articulating Activism feels international but not global — it is selective in its liberal critique. I am left wondering, therefore, how such an ambiguous definition of “activism” can materialize into a real political strategy against the dominant world order. But perhaps that’s not the point.

Installation view of Articulating Activism: Works from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection at the 8th Floor Gallery (courtesy the 8th Floor Gallery)

Articulating Activism: Works from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection continues at the 8th Floor Gallery (17 West 17th Street, Gramercy, Manhattan) through June 18, 2022. The exhibition was curated by George Bolster and Anjuli Nanda Diamond.

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.