Over the last sixty years, art has excitedly been moving from the strictly static canvas towards more interactive media which at the present time allow more involvement from spectators in their world of observations. There are many factors that contribute to this change in art that include consumerism, technology, perhaps boredom or frustration, changes in identity and awareness of identity issues.
The changes that continue to occur allowed artists the opportunity to place their art in the context of cultural developments that have taken place over the past six decades. Many artists have adopted approaches that directly probe the issues and dilemmas they, or people in relation to them, have faced and vicariously portray the playing out of history and current events. The bond between art and mass culture has become more closely knit than ever, perhaps keeping art more relevant in this evolving world of technology and visual populism.
Western societies saw dramatic, though far from complete, alterations in cultural constructs that affected politics, views on women and racial discrimination.  The transition from the modern era of art to the post-modern era gave birth to a new movement which has often reshaped the two-dimensional viewpoint of painting and increased thirst for installations, public art, mixed media and art activism.
Such art forms have ways of intruding upon and enveloping viewers, and such striking new relationships between the public and art pieces garnered artists a new function in society: visual entertainment that conditions the mind and sensibilities of the cultural consumer.
Many artists, such as Theaster Gates, Charles Bibbs, and Llyod Yearwood have embraced African American culture and history as their niche of choice when creating work that reflects the shifting sands of realities.

Theaster Gates


Theaster Gates (born in Chicago, 1973) uses his background and cultural identity as a starting point for his artwork. His projects evolve without constraints of history, finances or space, seemingly just with some objects at hand or left right around the corner. The use of ready-mades is clear in his practice. In one of his latest exhibitions, Gates employed many such objects including books, magazines, fire trucks, and a mop. The exhibition also included various other sculptural and two-dimensional works that explore Gates’ interest in the poetics of repurposed and salvaged materials.
His use of everyday items is another example of the evolution of art into the contemporary period of we’re faced with today. Thanks largely to Duchamp, the object used by an artist can be taken out of context and placed into another equipped with a message that reaches far beyond aesthetics. Gates has produced many pieces in this context, for example Raising Goliath, and despite what is seen, the message of triumph behind the art piece is just as stimulating as what the viewer can see.

Theaster Gates, Raising Goliath, 2012, White Cube Gallery, photographed by Ben Westoby


There have been many artists who have discussed racial discrimination and identity. Each has had their own experiences with the issues entailed or a clear understanding of the relationships between people, their chosen and assumed identities and their social standings. Gates takes particular care to underscore what he calls sacred — the community — and the struggle for its control by the government through interventions like eminent domain which can strip away resources and destroy the networks in peoples’ lives. It’s also often viewed as representing the negative effects of industry on culture, when financial bodies or other interest groups take action against select others for profit.
In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of America, which explored the cultural history of the predominantly Black community of Harlem, New York.  The industry against culture, the rainbow elephant in the show, which perhaps remains one of the most controversial exhibitions in U.S. history, were the Met’s decisions to exclude Harlem residents from participating in the exhibition planning and to forgo hanging artwork by Harlem’s thriving artist community in its galleries.

Exhibition view, Harlem on My Mind, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969


It was thought more seemly to display African American people through oversized photo-murals. Consequently institutional taste of the time dismissed the input and creativity of those fit enough to be subject matter as unworthy of participating in museum life, and made Harlem on My Mind a site for racial politics and debates about artistic quality versus cultural pyramids in the United States.

Theaster Gates, Martyr Construction, 2015, Installation view at the 56th Venice Biennale, 2015


Art has developed and arrived in a place where any question of a political, racial or cultural nature can be poised by an artist from anywhere in the context of a gallery space, sometimes via very brusque or controversial means. Art is better able to reach others, not only visually but conceptually, and working, people-centric artists like Theaster Gates have proved how art has adapted to the times and is simultaneously capable of evoking any time other period and its mores. With enough effort, searching, creativity and heart, contemporary art will continuously be looked to as a reference on how to see, but also on understanding the evolution of mindsets and relations across the world.
Sean Steadman
Sources: Exhibition text, My Labor Is My Protest, White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey, 2012
Betty Nobue Kano, “Cultural Collisions for a New Public Space – Theaster Gates”, International Review Of African American Art” 23, no. 2: 14-17, 2010
Bridget R. Cooks, “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind (1969)” American Studies 48:1, 2008

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