Our November 2016 issue includes a portfolio of political cartoons by seven artists: Ida Applebroog, Rashid Johnson, Peter Saul, Jim Shaw, Nayland Blake, and Antoni Muntadas and Marshall Reese. In his satiric introduction, offered below, Walter Robinson takes on the tired division of art and politics. —Eds.
“Narcissistic self-aggrandizement” was the polysyllabic put-down that firebrand linguist Noam Chomsky aimed at “protest” voters in swing states in this presidential election—but he could as well have been listing a job requirement for the twenty-first-century profession of “avant-garde artist.” Bohemians are certainly ready to tell everyone else what to do, if only because rejection of the status quo is central to their self-definition. Punditry is most at home during presidential elections, and the vast success of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster, which quickly went viral in 2008, clearly reminds us that artists, with their mastery of image and message, can play a part in partisan politics. But should they? The largely Marxist theoretical debate over whether a thing can function as both art and politics continues apace. Is art an autonomous symptom of historical forces that can magically reveal unseen aspects of the status quo. Or should it strive to be an activist act that can calculate its own meaning and effect? The head-spinning debate hardly seems to gain any practical purchase in today’s pluralistic art scene, where anything goes (and complaints are free). On the one side, for instance, we have the flourishing Chelsea commercial art district, while on the other we have artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument in the Bronx, or the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Or, in a comparison more to my personal taste, for every Christmas tree shaped like a butt plug by artist Paul McCarthy, we have a 3D-printed plug fashioned as a portrait of Donald Trump, courtesy of political-sculptor.com and available on Etsy.
Propaganda is the lowest form of political art, for it swaps the ideal of untrammeled creativity in favor of pure instrumentality, i.e., pablum appealing to the lowest demographic. We’re talking here about the viral ad campaign as art—but why not? The form is debased, trivial, gimmicky, and hardly museum-ready. Sounds perfect.
Additionally, today we operate under an unspoken emergency decree, a kind of panic-stricken Front populaire to oppose the bizarre presidential campaign of the pod person passing as Donald Trump. Under these circumstances, a dandy’s distaste for crass politics—”The form of government that is most suitable to the artist,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “is no government at all”—can be set aside.
I hope that I’ve established that partisan political art is both outré and compelling in a most postmodernist way, such that artists might step outside their usual “studio practice” to conjure up expressions of political outrage and conviction, much as Richard Serra did with his Abu Ghraib poster of a tortured detainee.
I have several suggestions, even though my own art activism is limited to donating artworks to Hillary benefits, and maybe painting a still life of a taco bowl. Hopeless as it is, I can’t help but imagine that some Republicans might be lured into the light if Clinton could be portrayed as possessed of classically Republican attributes. Not racism and sexism, of course, but what about rendering the Democratic nominee as a figure of nationalistic power and strength, Uncle Sam-style, a militant protecting the rights of Americans everywhere, fighting tyranny abroad and sedition at home? In wartime, jingoism is a virtue.
And I’d like to see the art world adopt my favorite political meme, that of Cheeto Trump—a Cheeto with an uncanny resemblance to the three-times-married, four-times-bankrupt beauty-pageant maestro—and run with it. Like so many religious miracles in which the Virgin appears in a window screen or on a piece of toast, the apparition of Cheeto Trump should be able to overpower all kinds of skepticism. Surely, even the most rabid Fox News devotee couldn’t vote for a candidate whose earthly manifestation comes in the form of an orange snack food. C’mon, let’s blanket the red states with neon orange! It’s a sure winner.