Author: Jingwen Xu

Program of Study: PhD in Molecular Engineering, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME)


Description: How can the DNA of a city shape the development of contemporary art? How can modern art record and lead the way of those prominent social revolutions in the city and even the nation? In this podcast, we’ll try to find answers from the bold history of MCA Chicago.

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Transcript (provided by author):

Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2020. I’m your host, Jingwen Xu, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Today we will be exploring the topic of MCA: A lighthouse on the surging sea of social change.

When I was exploring Chicago neighborhood virtually, various arts museums, institutes and galleries impressed me a lot. A list of well-known names including The Art institute of Chicago, The National museum of Mexican Art, The DePaul Art Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art indicates the city’s prominence in different categories of arts. With great interest to visit them all after arriving in Chicago, I explored them through their websites. Among them, Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has aroused my attention not only because my interest in American modern art, but also because its close relation to many significant moments in Chicago and even America modern history.

Besides giving rising new artists their first major exhibitions before they earned fame, MCA Chicago is rather famous for some of the revolutionary exhibitions in its history, such as Violence! In Recent American Art(1968) and Telephone (1969).

Then some further questions about the relationship between arts and culture came over to my mind: How can the DNA of a city shape the development of contemporary art? How can modern art display and promote those prominent social revolutions that greatly influenced the city and even the nation? In this podcast, we’ll dig into the relationship between contemporary art and social changes.

Mentioning the city’s devotion to art, there is no doubt that the unique social landscape of a city contributes a lot to the boom of contemporary art. Contemporary art, which originated in the 1940s right after World War II, was considered as a popularized art that highlighted its relationship with modern society. That is largely due to the complexity and problems in the post-war world. And the more complex the composition of the city was, the more exaggerated those problems were, and the more abundant modern artwork would be. Let’s take a look back to the situation in Chicago to illustrate that. In the middle of the last century, Chicago not only ranked among the few metropolises in the United States, but also remained the center of the storm. Complicated immigration issues, sharp ethnic conflicts, and diverse cultural collisions all made this city a hotbed of modern art. If you look at other cities well-known for contemporary art like New York and San Francisco, you’ll find the situations quite similar to what Chicago had, or even more intense.

When it comes to defining the devotion of contemporary art to the revolution of the city and nation, museums are certainly not limited to merely narrating incidents with artistic methods. What’s more, they provide a new perspective for you to view the incidents that make up the history and society, which is sometimes challenging to the public. The new perspective is based on two fundamental points of the contemporary art: the choice of the most fashionable topics and the artists’ attitudes hidden behind the artwork. The fashionable topics are based on the contemporary incidents and play a leading role in discussing them. The artists’ attitudes indicate why they want to fabricate the work and what they think the society should change into.

Let’s take three impressive exhibitions across 50 years in the history of MCA to demonstrate this. In 1968, Violence! In Recent American Art, which presented artwork that themed on drastic sociopolitical conflicts of its time, was exhibited and caused a sensation. The exhibition reproduced the consistent disturbance within those years under the shadow of Vietnam War, Martin Luther King’s murder, riot in Chicago’s Democratic National Convention and so on. It satirized the proliferation of political power and revealed the various causes of social unrest in the United States, which indicated the anxiety of people living at that time. Besides functioning as a conclusion and a display, it also led the way of reflecting on the harm that the violent atmosphere had caused. Another example is the ‘Alien V.S Citizen’ exhibition to guide public to reflect on immigration policies and to think about people’s true value without biases. In 2020, ‘The long dream’ exhibition that demonstrated the state of life in COVID age among diverse groups of people aroused national attention. It was a written proposal to advocate people into mourning the loss and cherishing their lives. What was more, it pointed to the future by generating the consideration on how we could live in a post-pandemic era.

Those works of contemporary art are prompt feedback and instructive prediction of social changes. With contemporary art, views are reformed.

Modern Art after World War II functions as the lighthouse on the surging sea of social changes. Instability of the sea contributes to the popularization of lighthouses and the lighthouse guides us to see above the sea. On one hand, social changes have promoted the vigorous development of modern art. On the other hand, modern art has led people’s perspectives and changes in society.

After arriving in Chicago on Sep 15, I’ll pay a visit to MCA Chicago. The location is 220 E Chicago Ave in Streeterville Neighborhood. If you spend a few hours exploring MCA Chicago, you’ll certainly gain some new views on what has happened and is happening in our society!



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