Art and politics have always been uneasy bedfellows. Art as propaganda is a regular feature of the world, but, with rare exceptions, it is mediocre and less of artistic than historical value. Shephard Fairey is a fair-to-middling artist, but his sense of graphic design helped give a visual identity to the 2008 Presidential election. Other artists have dabbled in specific politics – Alexander Calder’s posters for George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, for example, or Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” print, from 2004. But most political art is about issues, or more general and less specific. Philip Guston painted many pieces about Richard Nixon, the Klan, and the politics of his day; Glenn Ligon, David Hammons, Kara Walker, and many others have examined African-American experience.
I always get worried when people start saying what artists should be or what they should do. If the artist is a rebel, and all artists are rebels, then isn’t it rebellious to work within the system? Definitions can become walls, so I will try not to make too many pronouncements. Let me just say that this is a point in history when artists, should they feel the urge, would do well to let their voices be heard, if not through their art, then through more conventional channels.
I am one of many who are appalled by the potential for damage from President-Elect Trump and his associates. From where I stand, they offer nothing good, and I’m a straight white male with blonde hair, a Germanic last name and a limited bank account. It is early days after the election, but I already see signs of a concerted and organized resistance forming, one dedicated not to violence, but to support for those whose rights and protections are in danger of being stripped away. If we – for I already count myself among the opposition – need a symbol, let it be the outstretched hand: the hand that unites, the hand that comforts, the hand that rescues, the hand that protects. The recent trend of wearing a safety pin to show you are safe is a good one, but its staying power is uncertain. We have our hands with us always and, active or passive, they can serve as reminders of who we are and our strength as a group.
EXTRA (December 27, 2016): I add this poem by John Keats: