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Making Art “Bad” Again: Shock, Protest, and Visual Art in the Age of Trump – lareviewofbooks

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“I THINK IT’S going to make art great again,” a street artist told The Guardian, in an article published several days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, articulating a sentiment that had been spreading through the art world for months. Even before the 2016 presidential election, the art website Hyperallergic had published a piece — “Can Anti-Trump Artists Make Protest Art Great Again?” — which concluded that the Trump era was still “waiting for its ‘Guernica.’” Ten days after he was elected, though, Time magazine proclaimed that Trump’s election was already reshaping artists’ work. Around the same time, Katherine Brooks, an editor at the Huffington Post, penned a letter telling artists of all kinds to get to work: “To artists: Write plays. Paint, sculpt, perform. Write some more. Because we need you more than ever.”

These sentiments — both that art was essential and that it would flourish in this time of crisis — were not new, and in fact have been expressed periodically, including in the wake of George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. But in 2016, the idea of art-as-protest took a particular hold on the art world because Trump’s election was so shocking to its mostly liberal members, and because protest itself was rejuvenated. Politically complacent women were suddenly knitting pussy hats and driving to Washington, DC, to march in the streets. Artists began organizing events and exhibitions that took Trump as a theme.

Four years on, it’s worth surveying the impact the Trump presidency has actually had on art. Has his presidency led to the predicted flourishing? Of course, that question is far too broad to be useful, so I will limit my inquiry to visual art that deals directly with Trump, art that seeks to critique and perhaps to protest the man himself. Despite the high hopes, I think a lot of this art has been quite bad. I use the loaded word “bad” intentionally, not as a moral judgment but in contrast to ideas about “greatness” that are endemic both to Trump’s image and to grandiose notions of art.

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In 2016, Judith Bernstein, a feminist artist who was involved with the Guerrilla Girls in the 1980s, began painting fluorescent penises surrounded by American iconography: flags, eagles, dollar bills, the US Capitol building. She often gave her phallic symbols Trump’s trademark orange hair and included insults like “schlong face” in the background. Swastikas featured prominently, too. Bernstein’s work borrows directly from Trump’s language and symbols. The resulting works are bright, emphatic, explosive.

“I am showing Trump for what he is: a fool, a monster, a jester, a racist, a sexist. Donald Trump is a con artist, using the White House as his personal cash machine,” Bernstein said of her work. Yet “exposing” Trump in this way would seem to be something of a fool’s errand, since he shows himself quite nakedly to be what he is. In June, he retweeted a video of his supporters shouting, “White power!” and refused to apologize while liberal commentators expressed outrage and shock. But who was really surprised? Who can claim not to have known by this point that, to borrow Bernstein’s words, Trump is “a jester, a racist, a sexist”? Moreover, in borrowing his words and imagery, Bernstein engages in a form of exaggerated mimicry, which may be a common practice of political satire but which falls flat in the case of Trump, since he has already presented himself as an exaggerated version of our worst fears. The very register of Bernstein’s work — phrases like “schlong face,” alongside dicks and swatiskas — is clearly meant to evoke shock as the primary mode of response. But Trump himself has already mastered the art of shock-production as political theater, and thus the high drama of Bernstein’s imagery feels limited as art.

Elsewhere, another white woman activist-artist was taking a very different approach. Andrea Bowers began collecting and documenting protest signs she found at marches in the wake of Trump’s election, including the Women’s March. She turned their slogans into sculptures made of light fixtures, which hang in museums, galleries, and public spaces. “Don’t touch me,” reads one such sign in pink and blue. “Empowered WOMEN,” says another, in periwinkle. One reads, “STILL NASTY,” a reference to Trump’s comment that Hillary Clinton was a “nasty woman.” Bowers has also made use of historical protest imagery, including from the women’s suffrage movement.

“I love the poetics of activist slogans,” Bowers told The New York Times. Yet in decontextualizing these poetics, she functionally removes the protest from the signs and turns them into “Art.” In converting these slogans into artistic commodities, Bowers has evacuated any form of meaningful protest from the art: the signs are simply advertising slogans, invested with a new kind of commercial value. Notably, too, none of the slogans she has chosen call for any immediate or specific political action. When I saw a neon sign mounted on San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that read, “Climate Change is Real,” my first thought was, And?

The line that runs through these two artists’ very different Trump-related works is a certain obviousness. I would define aesthetic obviousness as the experience of seeing or perceiving something expected, emotionally, narratively, or visually. The obvious is everywhere in popular culture: in detective novels, romantic comedies, jokes. It is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, we often gravitate toward particular genres because we know what to expect: a happy ending, a punch line, a solution to the mystery. But in art that seeks explicitly to critique or provoke — to protest — such obviousness is a problem. So why do I feel like I am encountering it more often these days?

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After years of constant exposure to digital media, we have been saturated with shock. Shocking imagery and language have formed the background of our lives for more than two decades, which means that shock as a tool in political art has diminished in power. Susan Buck-Morss observed this in 1997 when she wrote, “The politics of perceiving stunning beauty — not as false harmony on the surface, but as a moment that shines through the disharmony of the world — may be more shocking to today’s viewer than the violent images that flood the media to excess.” But shock, which has remained a central feature of protest art across media, runs into the problem of obviousness when there seems, in our political culture, to be nothing but shock.

This issue is particularly relevant to Bernstein’s work, which assumes we will be stunned by the image of a penis superimposed over the Capitol Building and a waving American flag. Shock-mongering is perhaps the dominant mode of Trump-related art, ranging from an image of Trump’s face drawn in menstrual blood to many of the pieces in a recent online exhibition entitled “Fuck Trump.” In my view, this mode does little more than provoke an aesthetic experience of obviousness.

Partly, too, and especially in relation to Bowers’s work, the obvious is produced by the complicated relationship between protest art and commerce. Historically, protest artists — such as Emory Douglas, who served as the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party — have argued that art should use the tools of commerce for political ends. He wrote:

I would say that art is for the masses of Black people; we must bombard the masses with art. We cannot do this in an art gallery, because our people do not go to art galleries; we can’t afford to go to art galleries. […] We have to put our art all over the United States, wherever Black people are. If we’re talking about an art that serves our people, if we’re truly talking about an art that is in the interests of Black people, then we have to use, again, the structure of commercial art.

Douglas believed that billboards, posters, and magazines were all effective means for political art, and he employed them in some of his work — including an illustration in The Black Panther newspaper that featured an image of Gerald Ford, dangling like a puppet from strings controlled by major corporations. The Guerrilla Girls also relied on commercial structures, both for a means of dissemination and as a visual language, distributing their disruptive work via posters and fliers, and even, briefly, on the side of New York City buses. Provocative in the 1970s and ’80s, and effective in setting political agendas, these were some of the most successful works of activist art in recent American history.

But something like the inverse has been happening for decades: commercial structures are co-opting the language and imagery of protest. Institutions have embraced activist art — a development that artist Martha Rosler has described as “[t]he art world […] swell[ing] to encompass the avant-gardes, and their techniques of shock and transgression were absorbed as the production of the new. Anti-art became Art.” And corporations have caught on, too, absorbing the slogans and visual language of activism into advertising and branding. As a result, Bowers’s slogans read less like protest signs and more like Instagram ads. The total collapse of these categories has a flattening effect on protest art.

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The best explicitly political art that has emerged during the Trump presidency has not been about Trump at all; rather, it has been about the impacts of his policies, the vast and wide-ranging devastation his administration has wrought. Still, I think it’s worth taking seriously the works that take on the direct, and difficult, project of critiquing the man himself. As Douglas’s image of Gerald Ford attests, there has been a long history of complicated, complicating art about presidents. Such art can unsettle, probe, and destabilize our conceptions of these powerful men.

Most art about Trump fails to do this, however. Perhaps this is because of our conception of him as a kind of aberration, a shock, a crisis, a rupture with what was normal before. Artists like Bernstein and Bowers have conceptualized Trump’s election as a “crisis,” one embodied in a particular man and to some degree finite in its boundaries. They are hardly alone in this assumption and are perhaps indicative of the broader liberal American electorate, for whom the crisis of Trump is often embodied in the man himself. By understanding his election in this way, they have painted him, sometimes literally, as a symbolic bogeyman. I do not see this as an effective way to conceive the political crisis in which we now find ourselves, which is in fact a number of interrelated and ongoing crises that predated Trump and will continue long after him — crises involving immigration, voter suppression, law enforcement violence, the restriction of reproductive rights, ecological collapse.

So, perhaps part of the problem was the clarion call to artists at the beginning of the Trump presidency, the idea that art was needed “now more than ever,” at a time starting on November 8, 2016, and ending whenever he left office. Yet, while the terminus of Trump’s presidency is now approaching, the end of the crises it emblematized are not.

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Sophie Haigney is a writer and critic who lives in London. Her writing on art, technology, and books has appeared in The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe NationThe Baffler, and other publications.

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Featured image: “Donald Trump – Caricature” by DonkeyHotey is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

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Former Vancouver Canucks goalie’s art featured in Kelowna Art Gallery exhibition

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Richard Brodeur used to make his living holding a goalie stick, but these days, the man formerly known as “King Richard” by Vancouver Canucks fans, is more likely to be found with a paintbrush in his hand.

“It’s always a challenge like [when] you play professional hockey, you have a challenge every day, every game and then I feel the same every time with a painting. It’s a challenge every time you face the canvas,” said Brodeur.

The new Okanagan resident is one of three artists featured at the Kelowna Art Gallery in an exhibit that reveals the story behind the artwork.

“I’ve been dealing with depression for over 30 years and I have had about 13 concussions when I played so that didn’t help,” said Brodeur. “You gotta find something that will get you out of it or help you anyway and that’s what my painting did.”

The Art Council of the Central Okanagan is striving to bring art to the community safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With what’s going on in the world there is really nothing we can do to control it but we can control our own environment,” said Kirsteen McCullouch, Arts Council of the Central Okanagan executive director.

“I think it’s really critical to bring joy and peace and harmony in a time of darkness and through art, we do that.”

Storytellers also feature Summerland artist Danielle Krysa and Vernon’s Jude Clarke. Clarke’s story is inspired by her environment.

“The lake made a huge impact on me, water is really a beautiful environment for me I was in the water, I was on the water, I was around the water and hiking in the hills all the time,” said Clarke.

As for Brodeur, his work is telling the story of his childhood, playing pick up hockey on outdoor rinks growing up in Quebec.

The exhibit will be open to the public until Jan. 31 at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

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Vernon Community Art Centre holding annual Christmas art sale – Vernon News – Castanet.net

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You will not find any of these gift ideas in a big box store.

The Vernon Community Art Centre is hosting its 15th annual Artsolutely artisan sale full of Christmas gifts.

Sheri Kunzli, with the Arts Council of the North Okanagan, said all of the works are made by local artists and are a one-of-a-kind creation.

The art centre sells art year round, but in December they shut down their programs and dedicate the entire Polson Park building to the art sale that is open seven days a week through Dec. 24.

Works from more than 35 artists are on sale.

Every piece is carefully handcrafted and locally made, and each artisan is selected through a jurying process to ensure the highest quality throughout.

“Everything is hand made, unique quality and all of the artists go through a jurying process to participate which keeps the quality up,” said Kunzli.

“The Arts Centre is one of Vernon’s gems. It’s more than a place to shop, and it is more than an arts education facility. It’s a community space that offers a place for people of all ages and abilities to create, play, laugh, gain skills, release stress, heal and develop friendships. Having to shut down the Arts Centre in the Spring was devastating on many levels.

“As a non-profit, the closure set us back significantly, but it also impacted the hundreds of people that utilize the Centre. We are working hard to keep the doors open because our community needs us. This place tells the stories of why the arts matter to individuals and our community at large. It’s a place that has been a haven for creatives and allowed people to thrive.”

For more information on Artsolutely, click here.

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North Vancouver's Anonymous Art Show identifies safe way to hold exhibition this year – Vancouver Is Awesome

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A well-known annual event where anonymous local artists are encouraged to sell their original works will now feature a buying public who will remain largely unseen as well.

North Van Arts’ 16th annual Anonymous Art Show has moved online this year in order to follow new provincial health orders.

Following a week-long preview, the sales begin tonight (Nov. 26) at 7 p.m. and will continue until Dec. 19 at 5 p.m.

Unlike live performance venues, arts retail spaces and galleries – such as CityScape Community ArtSpace where the show is usually held – are technically allowed to remain open under new COVID-19 restrictions put in place on Nov. 19, as long as no formal community events are held.

While the exhibition is being installed and will remain at CityScape, North Van Arts has opted to essentially suspend its in-person exhibition this year and is instead encouraging the public to check out and purchase the pieces online, according to Nancy Cottingham Powell, executive director at North Van Arts.

“Normally on opening night we would have 300 people going through this gallery. Obviously that’s not going to happen right now,” said Powell. “Viewing it online is really the way to go.”

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Original artwork from 250 emerging and established artists from North and West Vancouver will be up for grabs for $100 apiece. Proceeds from the art show are split between the local artists and North Van Arts, who will use the funds to supports ongoing programming.

The artist behind each painting will remain anonymous until their work is sold and their name is revealed, according to Powell.

“It’s a great test-place for people,” said Powell. “I think it’s an important show because we’ve got the whole community at the table.”

More than 125 would-be art buyers have already registered for the opening night of sales, added Powell.

Click here for more information about this year’s Anonymous Art Show.

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