Blog: MCA DNA

Ferguson, Art, and Tragedy

By Abraham Ritchie

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David Hammons, In the Hood. 1993 Photo embedded from Art F City’s article “1993 at the New Museum: Slideshow and Commentary,” Feb 14, 2013

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For the past week, much of our collective attention at the museum has been focused on Ferguson, Missouri. From my desk at work, I’ve followed the events as they unfolded live and considered the way that the story and opinions have played out online—especially on Twitter. Since so many people have begun to use Twitter as a newsfeed, I believe it’s utterly inappropriate for a chatty tweet from the museum to appear when highly charged events are happening in real time, and my role as the social media manager is to moderate our messaging appropriately or cut it off entirely when events escalate. Sadly, this responsibility has become a more frequent activity lately, with national tragedies happening in Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Sanford. As I write this, “Black Rage” is a top trending topic on Twitter, a song Lauryn Hill has dedicated to Ferguson with the message “peace in MO.”

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As we all struggle for answers that are not there to these tragedies, I find that artworks become objects of emotion, contemplation, and reflection, seen in the songs, poems, and images people are posting to the Web. Some works seem to presage events; others are poignant reminders of how much work we have left to do as citizens and human beings.

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John Ahearn, Raymond and Toby, 1989. Oil on fiberglass; 47 x 43 x 39 in. (119.4 x 109.2 x 99.1 cm). The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

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I won’t forget curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm pausing next to John Ahearn’s sculpture Raymond and Toby (1989) during a tour of the MCA’s 2012 exhibition, This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s. Commissioned for a South Bronx police station and depicting an African American man wearing a black hoodie and kneeling with his pitbull, the sculpture, according to Widholm, had been perceived as a negative depiction by members of the community, even though the artist had intended the work as a straightforward portrait. The viewers imbued the work with their own insecurities and negative emotions. The circumstances around Trayvon Martin’s shooting, Widholm noted, show that people still project their fears onto others—sometimes with tragic consequences.

Another work that I’ve seen regularly posted to Twitter or used as an avatar, is David Hammons’s In the Hood (1993). Over the past two years the artwork has proved both tremendously prescient and poignantly sad, an icon of projected fear and lasting prejudice. Many people on Twitter began spontaneously posting the work along with their thoughts in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and trial.

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These artworks do not have the answers to the massive societal problems we face; instead they challenge us to face them, to discuss them, and to work to solve them.