Now more than ever, art seems inherently political in an America that is hurtling towards the midterm elections. Across all corners of the American landscape, a series of curious billboards have been erected. In every state, these ambiguous yet politically charged adverts are turning heads in communities as diverse as Native American reservations, gun-ridden neighbourhoods of Chicago and towns along the contentious Mexican border. People are certainly talking, and it’s all just in time for the upcoming midterm elections.
These evocative messages are all part of The 50 State Initiative, arguably the country’s biggest public art project, a crowdfunded campaign with the aim of triggering political conversation by putting up challenging artist-designed billboards in every US state. Rather than spoon-feeding voters propaganda, the featured artwork is deliberately equivocal in order to encourage viewers to think laterally about issues raised. Although the venture is supposedly non-partisan, with billboards emblazoned with images of firearms, isolated migrant children and police brutality, it seems as though the artists have tapped into the zeitgeist of current public anxieties. It raises the question: what is the role of art in such a divided political climate that often reaches levels of melodrama that seem stranger than fiction?
Evidently, it would be near impossible to answer this without mention of President Trump because as well as providing artists ample ammunition and inspiration for their work during his madcap spell in office thus far, he has also indulged in a little political artwork himself. Last week the POTUS was ridiculed, for a change, when a bizarrely kitsch painting of him hobnobbing in a bar with previous Republican presidents (drawing many comparisons to Cooleridge’s Dogs Playing Poker) was found to be hanging in the White House. Despite looking like a still from an awful Cheers spin-off, the placement of the work demonstrates the extremity of the President’s egotism and perfectly encapsulates an epoch of American politics that constantly verges on parody.
On the flipside, things have never been better for the realms of actual parody as political satire is seeing an unprecedented renaissance. This year, a huge collation of the most politically charged cartoons and illustrations was exhibited in Art as Witness: Political Graphics 2016-18 at New York’s School of Visual Arts which proved how satire has been propelled to the centre stage during the Trump phenomenon. Although many are rejoicing at the boom of the political cartoon, some are critical of its drawbacks. “Perversely, [satirical art] has given Trump more attention, which is what he most craves,” said Francis Di Tommaso, the galleries director at SVA. “As long as you talk about him, he wins. I guess there is no way around it.”
Perhaps artists who focus their work on Trump are unwittingly playing into his tiny hands? Would it be more beneficial for the President’s detractors to avoid art that features him so explicitly as a focal point?
Among the sketches of tangerine babies, chinchilla-like hairpieces and saggy scowls in the exhibition are works by Rob Rogers, the artist from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sacked for his anti-Trump views, several of which have never been published, bringing to attention the way in which art is still not free from the stifling grip of censorship even in a land with an almost cultist obsession with the freedom of speech. Clearly, even if this sudden influx of art panders to the President’s ego, there are those on the right who feel threatened by such bold and unapologetic expression which can only be advantageous for the progress of political discourse.
The power of art as a dissenting force is especially palpable in San Francisco’s Mission district where a spate of vandalism has seen political murals in Clarion Alley defaced with MAGA hats, anti-Muslim rhetoric and the infamous slogan ‘#FakeNews’. The murals in the alley themselves have long reflected the culture and values of the neighbourhood and their damage is demonstrative of a fractured America where those who question the status quo will find themselves trying to be silenced. Art is waking people up in a way that means they can no longer turn a blind eye to the issues at hand; artists are becoming the agents of change that the nation longs for.
Maybe the billboards of The 50 State Initiative appear tame compared to the outspoken and forthright ideas in Rogers’ cartoons or Clarion Alley’s murals, or possibly they seem uninsightful in comparison to Trump’s bar scene painting. However, it is undeniable that the art has reclaimed a space that would have otherwise been dominated by banal political posters to prompt debate from viewers in the most unexpected of places. After all, art could be the driving force we need to inject nuance into national conversation during such politically splintered times.
Header Image: Make America Great Again with Spider Martin, Pearl, MS, 2016. Courtesy of WyattGallery/For Freedoms