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Daniel Joseph Martinez

By Thessaly La Force, Zoë Lescaze, Nancy Hass, and M.H. Miller for The New York Times

On a recent afternoon, the artists Dread Scott, Catherine Opie and Shirin Neshat, as well as T contributor Nikil Saval and Whitney Museum of American Art assistant curator Rujeko Hockley, joined me on Zoom for a conversation about protest art. I had asked each to nominate five to seven works of what they considered the most powerful or influential American protest art (that is, by an American artist or by an artist who has lived or exhibited their work in America) made anytime after World War II. We focused specifically on visual art — not songs or books — and the hope was that together, we would assemble a list of the top 25. But the question of what, precisely, constitutes protest art is a thorny one — and we kept tripping over it. Is it a slogan? A poster? Does it matter if it was in a museum, in a newspaper or out on the street? Does impact matter? Did it change what you think or believe? Must it endure? What does that mean? And what is the difference, anyway, between protest art and art that is merely political?

It should go without saying that our answers to these questions, as well as the list we produced (which is ordered by the flow of our conversation), are not definitive. A different group on a different day would have come up with a different list, but disagreement and debate were always at the heart of this project. The panelists spoke candidly about the protest art that changed them or their ideas of the world in profound ways. We discussed the silent work that art does — when it makes us brave and when it makes us believe in our collective capacity to create change. There is simply no denying that it is a dark time in the world right now. There are many reasons to feel hopeless and afraid — we are experiencing, as Neshat pointed out, crises in every aspect of our 244-year-old democracy: about feminism, about human rights, about immigration, about poverty, about housing, about our health care system, about combating systemic racism, about the environment, about our very belief in what is good and right. Still, we managed to end the conversation that day on a note of resilience and joy — a lesson for all of us in the long days ahead. — Thessaly La Force

5. Daniel Joseph Martinez, “Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) or Overture con Claque — Overture with Hired Audience Members,” 1993

The famously polarizing 1993 edition of the Whitney Biennial was packed with political art and provocations, but in the critical firestorm that erupted after the opening, one piece emerged as perhaps the single most incendiary source of debate: “Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture)” by Daniel Joseph Martinez. The Los Angeles artist had created a series of entry buttons for visitors to wear inside the museum, modeled on the usual colorful metal tags viewers received as proof of admission. The new badges read, partly or in full, I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white. “People went hyperbolic on it,” David Ross, the director of the Whitney at the time, later said. “I remember even former Mayor Koch, who had a radio show, accused the museum of fascism because he said we forced people to wear badges that declared that being white was no good. People just had completely bizarre readings of that piece. That piece became a real lightning rod.” Looking back, Martinez’s work seems to presage the present moment, when the traditionally overwhelming whiteness of art museums — in terms of the artists exhibited, curatorial staff, trustees, and attendance — has become the subject of heightened scrutiny. — Z.L.