Is Political Art the Only Art That Matters Now?
The art world is going to war with Trump. If it doesn’t shoot itself in the foot first.
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The protests started almost immediately after the presidential election. An artist named Annette Lemieux emailed the Whitney Museum and asked that her installation Left Right Left Right — a series of life-size photographs of raised fists turned into protest signs — be turned upside down. The artist Jonathan Horowitz and some friends started an Instagram feed called @dear_ivanka, attempting to directly appeal to the soon-to-be First Daughter and shame her into pushing her father away from the Bannonite brink. The artist Richard Prince refunded her money for a piece that she bought, then put out a statement that was intended to de-authenticate it.
Sam Durant’s light-box sculpture, which read END WHITE SUPREMACY, was hoisted onto the façade of Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea (where it first appeared in the remarkably different context of Obama’s election in 2008), and another edition of it was set up by the gallery Blum & Poe to greet visitors at the Miami Beach Convention Center for Art Basel the first weekend of December, where the usual luxury-brand-fueled jet-set bacchanal seemed a bit muted and anxious and Nadya Tolokonnikova, founder of Pussy Riot, delivered a lecture by the pool at the Nautilus hotel on the dangers of authoritarianism.
As the inauguration approached, the art world’s desire to make a statement increased. Many museums across the country went free on January 20, which was seen as a more productive response than shutting down, as a movement called J20 Art Strike called for, and the Whitney did a day of programs in partnership with the group Occupy Museums. The Guggenheim planted a Yoko Ono Wish Tree on the sidewalk out front, letting passersby record their hopes — perhaps that peace and tolerance might prevail. A collective of artists started a platform called 2 Hours a Week, which connects people with political actions they can take while still holding down their jobs. Gallerist Carol Greene teamed up with artist Rachel Harrison to rent buses to bring a group to the Women’s March, armed with social-media-friendly signage.
And it hasn’t let up. Each Trump proclamation has seemed to inspire a new round of agitation and action. When the president announced the first iteration of his ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Davis Museum at Wellesley College covered or removed about 120 works that had been either made or donated by an immigrant. The Museum of Modern Art hung work from its collection by artists who come from three of the excluded nations.
Establishment Chelsea gallerist Andrea Rosen decided to shut down her gallery, in part to focus on political activities. The anti-Establishment (or, anyway, far less established) Christopher Stout Gallery in Bushwick, which specialized in “feminist, queer, anti-Establishment, hyperaggressive, mystic and/or joyously sexual” art, rebranded itself the ADO (Art During the Occupation) Project. Awol Erizku, the photographer best known for having taken Beyoncé’s maternity portrait, just announced his “anti-Trump” art show “Make America Great Again,” at which he will sell baseball caps featuring that slogan superimposed on the image of a black panther (“to have something affordable in the show”). And the Public Art Fund in New York commissioned Ai Weiwei for a citywide proposition titled, with pointed irony, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”
For the first 100 days of the administration, MoMA PS1 has given over a gallery to “For Freedoms,” a collaboration by the artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman for which they set up a super-PAC. The name was inspired by Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech in 1941 and sought to co-opt the image of a simpler age, as Trump had. Last year, the super-PAC put up a billboard in Pearl, Mississippi, with the words MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN superimposed on the famous 1965 photo of civil-rights protesters on the bridge in Selma, Alabama, moments before state troopers unleashed tear gas and beat them with billy clubs.
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