Last night, as primary polls in New Jersey were getting ready to close, a woman at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York decided she was going to taste something called White Tears, a product bottled by the People’s Kitchen Collective, which had organized a politicized tasting session. “This is directly out of the bottle,” a representative from the collective told the woman. “These are organic, local, free-range, and harvested.”
“Harvested from what?” the woman asked.
“Um, New York,” the People’s Kitchen Collective representative said.
“Is it real?” she asked.
“No, it’s not,” the representative said. “It’s actually just… Knock your head back, and I’ll drop it in your mouth. For the adventurous!”
This wasn’t an unusual scene at the opening for “For Freedoms,” a group show put together by Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas’s artist-run super PAC. At last night’s opening reception for the show, there was an interesting mix of politically fused discussion and genuine entertainment.
While people tried Black Power Shortbread at the People’s Kitchen Collective installation, some visitors could be seen admiring Cassils’s self-portrait, which shows the transgender artist wearing only a jockstrap, and which was recently censored in Berlin. New works by crowd-pleasers such as Marilyn Minter and Mickalene Thomas hung not too far from a station where gallery visitors could register to vote.
Nearby, I caught up with Thomas, who told me that the idea for an artist-run super PAC came about six years ago. “Super PACs were invented as a result of this Supreme Court case which allowed people to raise unlimited money for political speech. I think that’s such an absurd notion,” he said. “I work in a world where there’s absurdity related to value and money all the time.”
Super PACs have been important to this election—they’ve been a major talking point for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has alleged that Hillary Clinton’s super PAC money has stomped out his grassroots efforts. And yet, as Thomas said, “So little of it has gone against Bernie.” He told me that it was going to be an interesting election. “We chose this day because of the primaries, but I didn’t realize it is so close,” he said. “I forgot New Jersey; all the focus is on California. It’s far from over.” (This was a few hours before Clinton clinched the nomination.)
“It’s like, well, we just want artists to mess things up a little bit, in terms of politics,” Gottesman said. “Once word got out, a lot of people contacted us, said, ‘We really want to be a part of this thing.’ I think a lot of artists right now are just hungering for a way to talk about what’s going on in the world, in terms of issues.”
(“For Freedoms” even brought out some people who weren’t officially involved in the project. Outside the gallery, a man from the Revolutionary Communist Party was handing out flyers that said “Time to Get Organized for an ACTUAL REVOLUTION.” He declined to comment for this article.)
The hope for the exhibition, Gottesman said, was that some of the artwork would ultimately appear on advertisements. For Freedoms plans to post the ads around election time, in November, in cities such as Boston and San Francisco. “These kinds of artworks are conversation starters, really,” he said.
He brought over Maria Gaspar, an artist whose work addresses mass incarceration. “Sometime the word ‘reform’ isn’t enough,” she said, referring to her choice not to call her subject “prison reform,” an issue that she has said has been important for both Republican and Democratic candidates this primary season. “We really get to think about the root of the systemic issues, and it starts to bring light to education and things like that. I’m happy to see that there’s more discussion around it, but who is it for?”
Sharon Hoffman, a collector and co-chair of For Freedoms’ advisory board, said art has the power to influence these issues. “I had been really involved on the Obama campaign, so I’ve seen what grassroots can do,” she said. “I can see what a difference art makes, with Shepard Fairey and the image of Obama. And so, I knew that by having these artists that Hank and Eric put together, having them do images that they thought were really important and making artwork could really have an effect on the election.”
Was there an important issue Hoffman was hoping was addressed during this election? “There are so many issues that are so important right now. Freedom, in general, is crucial.”