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Toward Common Cause: Art and Social Change

by Margaret Hawkins


Nicole Eisenman, “The Triumph of Poverty,” 2009, oil on canvas, 65 x 82”. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles

“Toward Common Cause: Art and Social Change” is not like any show previously mounted in Chicago. By the numbers, here it is: Seventeen sites. Twenty-nine artists. Hundreds of works. Four years in the making, Six months on view. As many causes as there are artists. And, oh yes, one mission — global change. 


Organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, in collaboration with partners across the city, the show celebrates the 40-year anniversary of the Chicago-based MacArthur “genius” Foundation awards, featuring work by MacArthur Fellowship-winning artists. The Smart Museum is the hub of the show, with nearly half of the participating artists on exhibit there, along with the sixteen other sites.


Fazal Sheikh, “In Place (Four Corners region, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado),” 2017–2021, 66 archival pigment prints, an offering (basket with landscape fragments) from Jonah Yellowman, and seismological sound recordings of natural landforms made by Jeff Moore. Courtesy of the Artist, Jonah Yellowman (offering), and Jeff Moore (sound).

“Toward Common Cause” attempts to answer key questions of the moment at a time of turmoil and dysfunctionality, when it seems like this city and this planet can’t agree on much except that things must change. The issues are the big ones, and they overlap: Authoritarianism, systemic racism, poverty, climate change, lead poisoning, to name a few. 


The show does a lot of things at once. It shines light on how messed up our world is. It demonstrates that artists are not going to shut up about it. It shows that we can work together. And it proposes specific changes. Sometimes, most radically, it acts, and invites the public to join in. These works of social practice may be the most engaging.  


Fittingly, to enter the portion of “Toward Common Cause” ensconced at the Smart Museum, viewers must pass “Triumph of Poverty,” Nicole Eisenman’s allegorical update of Hans Holbein’s 17th century etching of the same title. It’s an apt and humbling introduction to the ills of modern life. The painting shows a ragtag troupe of unfortunates packed in a broken car, dominated by a man in a top hat who is leading ass-backwards, literally. It’s an apt introduction, bitter but mostly just sad, a reminder of the grotesque inequities in income and standards of living, even in our own country, that forces a shift in consciousness and prepares us for the rest of the show.

Around the corner, the focus zooms out from personal misfortune to vulnerable and vast uninhabited land. Fazal Sheikh’s 66 photographic views of Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, fill a darkened room. We see canyons, riverbeds, mountains, desert, scrubland, whole millenia etched in the sides of cliffs. There is almost no human presence here, not even pictographs, except for a few handprints left on a cliff face. This is nature at its most sublime. Here is what we were given, Sheikh seems to say. Here is what we are squandering. A speaker emits seismological sound recordings of the natural landforms at the location. The sounds: a low rumbling. The earth speaks. How oddly comforting to see and hear what is here without us. As a reminder of who might be welcome, there is a woven basket in the center of the room. A sign advises viewers to keep their distance – the basket is sacred. We understand: so is the space depicted in the photos. 


Rick Lowe, “Black Wall Street Journey,” 2021, installation view, Smart Museum of Art.

Eisenman’s painting and Sheikh’s gallery of photos are made to be looked at. Rick Lowe‘s “Wall Street Journey” instructs, and demands action. Lowe calls it a “social sculpture,” referring to the multi-city, multi-site project’s educational mission as much as or perhaps more than its aesthetic one. He takes it city-to-city to teach about and promote Black wealth. In this iteration, we read it, and handle it, in the form of posters that state uncomfortable truths.

The polite museumgoer stands back and looks, or at most leans discreetly forward to read wall text. When you do that in the presence of “Wall Street Journey,” museum workers approach and tell you to take one each of the 11” x 17” posters home. This violation of the standard no-touch policy has the effect of making the statements printed on the posters personal. “White self-made billionaires are a myth,” we read. “Black families in Chicago lost between $3 billion and $4 billion in wealth because of predatory housing contract-buying during the 1950s and 1960s.” “When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the Black community owned less than 1% of the United States’ total wealth. More than 150 years later, that number has barely budged.” And my favorite: “What if Black people owned beauty supply stores?” 


Xu Bing, “Forest Project: The Blue and Green Wonderland,” 2014, Nepalese paper, 98 x 744 cm

Urging viewers to accept these posters into their grasp, physically handle them and carry them awkwardly out of the museum, has a delayed but powerful effect. They’re too big to tuck into a notebook. Too stiff to easily fold and stash. Their slight unwieldiness is a perfect metaphor for the awkwardness of their pronouncements. I took my rolled stack of posters home and unfurled them and now they sit on my desk, a nagging reminder. They’re large and eye-catching, demand to be looked at, dealt with. They don’t fit neatly on a stack any more than the ideas they represent fit neatly in our lives. I don’t feel I can put them out of sight until I do something constructive in response and that’s the genius of this work. 


[Lowe’s “Black Wall Street Journal,” a streaming video, is on view at other “Toward Common Cause” venues. —Ed.]  


Like Lowe, Xu Bing focuses on the importance of money in the cycle of art production and consumption. His ongoing “Forest Project” is the result of his work in partnership with UNESCO, teaching art to children in Kenya. He has them draw trees, then sells the work online to art collectors. That money is donated to reforestation projects. The work on view is a small sampling of what the children came up with. I don’t know how he got them to make these amazing drawings. The project is about collaboration and hope and tapping into an existing market to benefit developing economies, but not only. It’s also about beauty. The drawings are wildly inventive and, yes, beautiful. 


(l.) Mel Chin, “Fundred Project,” 2008-ongoing. Students draw Fundreds on the handcrafted cherry tables.

(r.) Mel Chin, “Fundred: invest in a quest for a future free of lead poisoning.”

A few blocks from the Smart Museum, at the Hyde Park Art Center, is another “Toward Common Cause” exhibition. Here, as part of his ongoing “Fundreds” project, artist and activist Mel Chin has installed a long desk with nine chairs and cups of drawing materials. He’s provided printed fundred dollar blanks that children, or adults, can use to make fundred dollar bills to “pay” for removal of lead from water supplies in the United States.  Chin collects and carts these hand-made bills to Washington in a protest of sorts, to call attention to the ongoing problem of lead poisoning of children, since the government is not doing anything about it, he points out. This is his invented currency, a currency of action, of caring. 


Kara Walker, the artist responsible for one of the multi-site exhibition’s most affecting works may have summed up best why artists make socially conscious work, and predicting, 14 years in advance, the purpose of this show. In a 2007 interview with Frieze, she was asked what art was for. Her reply: “Figuring it out.” 

What Velázquez' Portrait of King Philip IV of Spain Tells Us About Voting Rights Today

Margaret Hawkins

Context is everything. Diego Velázquez’s 1630 portrait of King Philip IV of Spain once graced the monarch’s palace in Madrid, a solipsistic reminder to the resident of his God-given right to rule nations, and a statement to everyone else of his absolute power. Now, thanks to American circus money, the painting hangs in the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. It attracts scholars — is it really by Velázquez? — and art students. (The painting’s a beauty.) Tourists sandwich viewings between visits to the beach and orders of fish tacos, while briefly considering their relief not to be subjects under Philip’s reign. The painting no longer reminds anyone of their place in the Spanish empire. It’s a gorgeous relic, a document of a way of life few want to return to. 

This tradition, of creating portraits of leaders to reinforce and broadcast their powers, is nearly as old as art itself, and the more authoritarian the leader the more propagandist and idealized the image. Consider the Egyptians and their Pharaohs, the Romans and their Emperors, Communist China and its Chairman Mao, of course the German Third Reich and its dictator. Today there’s the hermit kingdom of North Korea and the towering ubiquity of the many-times-larger-than-life photograph of Kim Jong Un’s face framed in a golden wreath, as much an invention as any painting ever was.  

Diego Velázquez, "Portrait Philip IV, King of Spain," c. 1628-29, oil on canvas, 82 3/8 x 47 5/8". 

Courtesy of the Ringling Museum of Art, bequest of John Ringling, 1936.

What struck me about the 400-year-old portrait of Philip though is how modern he looks. Partly that’s thanks to Velázquez’s extraordinary ability to capture subtle human psychology through his mastery of oil paint, but it’s also because the man was modern, in a way. The impulse to hoard power exists outside of time; it is both modern and ancient. The painting simply exposes that trait. It is an announcement, the literal picture of entitlement. That’s why this painting looks so oddly familiar. And scary. Showing as it does government as a safe house for the entitled, this image reminds me that while we Americans don’t inherit our leaders, we are in danger of having them handed to us by people every bit as ruthless as Philip appears here. 


A modern viewer regarding this portrait, looking at the clothes and the date, infers vanity, colonialism, blood lust, greed, possible cruelty. The man looks imperious. We view him from below, as if kneeling in his presence, which we most certainly would have been expected to do. He appears foppish and arrogant, his body swathed in layers of rich fabrics. We are reminded that wealth confers power and vice versa. Philip wears leather leggings, boots with spurs, puffy lace-trimmed above-the-knee pantaloons, a suede vest to encase his plush belly, a satin cape, lace collar. One gloved hand clutches what appears to be a rolled-up chart, possibly to indicate the lands he rules over. When this painting was made, Philip was king not only of Spain but of Portugal and most of South and Central America. 


It’s hard for Americans to fathom the kind of worldly power such an image once conveyed. We’ve never had a king. We elect our leaders every four years, and we control them through term limits and checks and balances. The system is faulty but the idea, at least, is that our leaders work for us, and fair elections is how we hire them, or are supposed to. We boast about one person, one vote.  Never mind that gerrymandering and the electoral college makes that claim not quite true. We’re still a democracy, and we feel so secure in that fact that most of us take voting for granted. 


Looking at a painting like this, it’s easy to be complacent, to think that kings and palaces are ancient history, to assume we’re kinder and more sophisticated now. But the impulses from which monarchy and authoritarianism arise, the need for order and the temptation for those in power to exploit that need and run over those without power, is not a thing of the past. Greed and pride are not a thing of the past. They are part of human nature and must always be defended against. Voting is our foundational tool for that and when voting rights are eroded so is our protection from those who would wrest power for their own purposes.


Totalitarianism is hardly dead.  It reasserts itself whenever it can, digs in and lasts as long as it is allowed, and never without the spilling of a good deal of blood. Royalty still rules parts of the world. A friend reports of her time living in Saudi Arabia, having her American magazines redacted, whole pages torn out, parts of the junior high school newspaper her students produced, censored. Disallowing free thought and free speech has always been a way to stay in power. Keeping people deemed political enemies from exercising their right to vote is another.


I visited Velazquez’s portrait of King Philip IV one month before Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama went on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, the very museum that was the site of the Obamas’ first date. I returned to this city amidst the museum’s Chicago-centric pre-opening hype.


The rhapsodic press releases were a little silly, but the excitement is genuine. (Most) Chicagoans are proud of the Obamas, and the pair of official portraits speaks volumes about us as a nation, at least who we were in 2008 when we voted Obama in, and not only because the subjects and the artists are Black. Barack in his field of flowers (chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago), with his big searching hands, leans democratically towards us. He’s arrogant, too, of course, leaders tend to be, but he appears willing to listen, the exact opposite of Philip who seems to recoil from us commoners, barring engagement with a wary stare and a defensive knee. Barack’s expression is not that of a ruler but of a peeved philosopher with a problem to solve, the problem being us. Some details stand out. That dented forehead suggests cogitation, worry, too many late nights working. He works for a living. His necktie, that great signifier of class, has been abandoned. We chose this man twice. That’s what voting rights achieved. One worries now, if Democrats don’t find their way to pass new federal legislation safeguarding access to the ballot, if we could do it again. 


Art provides felt visual evidence that, spanning centuries: we were there, now we’re here. We’ve come so far. We’re not a perfect union but we are better than we were — certainly better than before the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, and far better than nations past and present without fair elections or freedom of speech or laws that protect difference. But progress is inherently fragile and reversible. In some states now the voting rights of people who look like the Obamas, and other people of color, are in danger. The recent Supreme Court decision, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, upholding voter restrictions in Arizona and weakening Section 2 of the 1965 law, may well pave the way for widespread exclusion of voters of color in that and other states — in all cases so-called red states. To disenfranchise these citizens is to hoard power for an electoral minority, to deliberately hold it away from people whose interests differ from those currently in office so as not to be answerable to those citizens. 


Should you ever feel complacent about justice in America, look to the faces in past portraits of rulers of the world and see how familiar they seem. Greed and pride. Forms of government change but these traits don’t. Philip’s costume is out of the past but his face is not. Put him in a big baggy suit and see how modern he looks. 

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