Citizenship is generally understood as a political status: a set of rights possessed by privileged individuals and administered by a government. But the creation and consumption of visual images has been crucial in expanding citizenship into a more inclusive cultural category of belonging. Technologically (re)produced images—prints and photographs—can be disseminated with ease, enabling remote spectators to form communities that go beyond political definitions. The exhibition takes its title from scholar Ariella Azoulay, who defines “visual citizenship” as a multivalent practice in which reading images becomes an active civic skill rather than a passive aesthetic experience. When we engage with images, we can recognize the subjects of those images as fellow citizens. And in doing so, we move closer to realizing a collective humanity that defies nationalistic modes of citizenship.
Visual Citizenship gathers prints and photographs that depict political events and social movements in which human rights are variously enacted or violated. The works prompt us to reconsider citizenship within and beyond our relationship to the state. Who defines what it means to be a citizen, and who is excluded from that discussion? What role does the circulation of images play in the creation of community and the performance of civic belonging?
THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF THE IMAGE
Before technologies emerged for the mass reproduction of words and images, access to information and detailed visual representation was a largely class-bound luxury. The advent of printmaking (and later photography, then film) radically democratized the relationship of the viewer to the aesthetic object. By facilitating the production of multiple copies, printmaking allowed images to be widely circulated and their content to be made readily accessible. This stands in contrast to paintings or drawings which can only be manually reproduced, if at all. Printmaking is, in this sense, the aesthetic corollary to the political and social ideals of the early modern era. For example, the French Revolution—the backdrop of prints by Félix Bracquemond and Käthe Kollwitz—sought to dismantle hierarchies (for instance between monarch and subject) and imagined new modes of citizenship and civic belonging.
Käthe Kollwitz, Die Carmagnole (The Carmagnole), 1901, etching, drypoint, and aquatint. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, anonymous gift in memory of Martin Soria.
This print illustrates a scene from Charles Dickens’s French Revolution–era novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) in which the heroine encounters a group of Parisians wildly dancing to the popular revolutionary song “La Carmagnole.” The figures cavort in ecstatic frenzy around a guillotine, as blood streams down the cobbled street. Käthe Kollwitz, a socialist, transposed this scene onto her present era, depicting early twentieth-century clothing and architecture, perhaps in anticipation of another social and political revolution
Félix Bracquemond after Eugène Delacroix, Boissy d’Anglas présidant la Convention le 1er Prairial, An III (Boissy d’Anglas Presiding over the Convention in the First Day of Prairial of Year III), before 1880, etching. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase.
In 1795, French revolutionaries stormed Tuileries Palace in Paris, where the republican government (known as the Convention) resided. They demanded the release of imprisoned fellow revolutionaries, the implementation of a new constitution to replace the existing constitutional monarchy, and new controls to ensure adequate food supplies. This print depicts the revolutionaries presenting the decapitated head of Jean-Bertrand Féraud to the presiding Convention representative Boissy d’Anglas. Féraud, a deputy of the Convention, had attempted to deny the rebels entrance into the palace.
IMAGING A COLLECTIVE HUMANITY
The work of Francisco de Goya represented a significant shift in aesthetic representations of human suffering. Goya’s print series Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) and Los Disparates (The Follies) were created during, and in the aftermath of, the Peninsular War, a bloody seven-year-long conflict sparked by Napoleon’s 1807 invasion of the artist’s home country of Spain. The overarching theme—the miseries people inflict upon each other—was not new, but the expressive manner in which the artist depicted gruesome acts of violence was radical for its time. Unlike his contemporaries, Goya was uninterested in illustrating the nobility of war. In Los Desastres de la Guerra he documents wartime atrocities committed by French and Spanish alike, thereby suggesting that some kinds of human suffering are simply unjustifiable. Our intimate proximity to the scene forces us, as viewers, to bear witness to the violence.
Francisco de Goya, ¡Duro es el paso! (The way is hard!), from Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), 1810–14, etching and aquatint. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase, funded by the MSU Development Fund.
In Los Desastres de la Guerra, Francisco de Goya, a celebrated Spanish court painter at the time, took on the role of what we would today call a war correspondent. This series consists of eighty-two small prints, each one a “snapshot” of the violence that surrounded the artist during the Peninsular War. ¡Duro es el paso! depicts three executioners leading a man to the gallows, where two lifeless bodies are already hanging.
Francisco de Goya, Disparate Desordenado (Disorderly Folly), from Los Disparates (The Follies), originally published as Los Proverbios (The Proverbs), 1813–20, etching and aquatint. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase, funded by the MSU Development Fund.
The enigmatic, dreamlike scenes in Francisco de Goya’s Los Disparates illustrate traditional proverbs and offer searing political commentary on the follies of “civilized” society. Created in the years following the Peninsular War (a conflict for control over the Spanish peninsula lasting from 1808 to 1814), this series was the artist’s final body of work. Disparate Desordenado depicts supplicants venerating a gruesome double-bodied monster.
THE SUBJECT OF SPECTATORSHIP
Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynchings directly implicate the spectator as participant. The artist gathers nineteenth- and twentieth-century postcards depicting lynchings of Latin Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others, scans them, and then digitally removes the victim and the rope from each image. In doing this he directs our attention to the spectators, who are often pointing or jeering at the (now absented) victim or staring resolutely at the camera. The erasure of the lynched victim paradoxically makes more visible these violent, racist acts, as well as the dynamics of whiteness that systematically erase such historical narratives. The project demands that we examine our own role in such histories. As spectators of these widely and callously circulated images, are we too perpetrating racist violence?
THE PERFORMANCE OF CIVIC BELONGING
Documentary photography is well suited to capture people engaged in various modes of civic action, such as marching in protest. Documentary photographs have brought awareness to civic struggles and achievements and continue to serve as indelible remembrances of these histories. However, skeptics have long criticized photography’s ability to sustain an ethical relationship between the viewer and the photographed subject. How can we encounter a barrage of violent images on a daily basis and not become anesthetized to that violence? “Visual citizenship” calls on us, as spectators, to take a more active role in our consumption of images—to engage with images as tools of civic participation and political action—and to resist the impulse to sink into either apathy or voyeurism.
Leonard Freed, Washington, DC, USA (March on Washington, 8-28-1963), 1963, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Special Collections, MSU Libraries, Michigan State University.
Leonard Freed, Washington, DC, USA (20 Years Later March, 8-27-1983), 1983, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Special Collections, MSU Libraries, Michigan State University.
Leonard Freed photographed numerous US civil rights demonstrations. To the left, he documents the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which more than 250,000 people gathered at the National Mall in Washington, DC, to mount a peaceful protest demanding equal rights and economic equality for African Americans. This historic demonstration ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and became an iconic expression of social protest and democratic action. Above, he documents the revival of that monumental demonstration 20 years later.
Visual Citizenship is on view Feb. 22, 2020 – Jan. 10, 2021. This exhibition is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and curated by Georgia Erger, Assistant Curator. Support for this exhibition is provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad endowed exhibitions fund.
Visual Citizenship installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.