I Wish White Artists Would Stop Claiming Art Isn’t Political.
In 2017, an artist local to South Alabama painted a portrait of Donald Trump draped in an American flag. While the painting received glowing praise from Trump fans and Donald Trump himself, painter Austin Boyd maintained that his decision to paint the president was apolitical.
Last month, another artist got some attention for his painting of Trump that currently hangs in the White House. The painting, painted by Andy Thomas, features President Trump sitting in the center of other Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, and Gerald Ford. While Thomas recognizes why Trump likes his painting, he asserts that he “isn’t political.”
And just last week the Trump-riding-a-tank meme created by another “apolitical” artist was plastered on our terrorist of the week’s white van. The meme was created as a satire, but artist Jason Heuser claims to not be interested in politics.
I have one question here: who are these white artists kidding?
The Trump bar painting is actually a part of a set. There is a Democrat version, where Obama is seated at the table instead of Trump. But if you are a Democrat and/or a person of color, you may take issue with Obama having a beer with Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson, just as you did when you saw progressive Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln seated near Trump.
So what is the political statement that Thomas is trying to make? He will assert, like many white artists, that he had none, despite choosing to paint populist presidents. That’s what all these presidents have in common regardless of the political party: their populist nature.
Even if he were hedging his bets here, which appears to be the case, he comes off as “the white moderate”: the white middle-class joes who only talk about politics when it’s convenient. That is also a political statement.
Choosing to disengage from the political process is a political statement within itself. What these white artists are struggling with is a positive definition of politics. For many whites, politics is a four-letter word. This may come from a discomfort in moderate whites confronting their relatives and friends who have problematic views. So they opt for “I’m not political” instead. The white moderate artist asserts that “I’m just doing art. Politics just doesn’t interest me. There’s no meaning in my art.” A beautiful lie.
Yes, if a five-year-old makes a crayon drawing of his mother riding the back of a unicorn that is a political statement. The statement is “my mother is important to me. I think unicorns are cool.” It’s a simple statement, but it represents a pro- position on unicorns and mom.
I’m not going to go into the deep semantics of what art is because this is the Internet, not a college textbook. But the definition of art is definitely political because it’s whatever the artist deems important enough to warrant attention. It also makes a statement of what the artist leaves off the work. And the political stance also extends beyond what the artist intends to what the audience perceives. The point of art is to be seen by an audience (regardless of what some hobbyist says when she’s “just making art for myself”). That audience response can be manipulated by the artist, but for the most part is beyond the artist’s control.
Take the Democratic version of painting for example. As I’ve already stated, I find it problematic that Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson would be hanging out with Obama. That is because of the historical knowledge of both of those presidents would warrant my response to that. However, the artist’s intention was to paint popular Republicans and popular Democrats and he framed them in a certain way to gain mass appeal. Then he painted a woman in both paintings just out of reach to represent a future female president. If that’s not a political statement, then what is?
Even if Thomas’s intention was to be as noncontroversial as possible, his audience includes President Trump and the MAGA gang. They obviously feel some political meaning behind the paintings. After all, he’s hanging out with Ronald Reagan, another divisive president with a SAG card. Also, notice that the “Goodtime Charlie” Republican presidents of the 1920s occupy the background, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Any meaning behind that? Then there are the Republicans who aren’t present, such as William McKinley, Chester A. Arthur, and Rutherford B. Hayes. Weirdly, William Taft is all the way in the back, behind the nameless “future” female Republican.
If you want to argue that some kid’s drawing isn’t political, then be prepared for folks to argue that kid drawings aren’t art. Whatever. We can go around in circles about that. But an adult choosing to paint cults of personality is always a political statement, down to the Diet Coke Trump is holding.
So why am I calling out white artists in particular? Because minority artists don’t have a choice in ignoring the politics of our art. We don’t make art for art’s sake. Our existence is a political statement. Our demands for inclusion are political statements. Even if we were to make an art piece for ourselves (street art, for example), its presence is an affront to whiteness. Street art was a crime until whites decided it wasn’t with white artists like Banksy.
Art divorced from political meaning is white privilege commodified.
Minority art is constantly threatened with erasure, either by cultural appropriation, criminalization, or systematic dismissal of its significance to the art world. Take the Gee’s Bend, Alabama community, for example. The community is known for its abstract and colorful quilts. Quilting is such a significant Southern Black American cultural phenomenon, I received a quilt as a wedding gift from my great-aunt per the tradition.
However, Gee’s Bend is an endangered art community. As the women age and die, there is concern that this artform will soon be lost. Gee’s Bend is located in Wilcox County, which is one of the poorest counties in America. Half of Wilcox County’s black population lives below the poverty line. A UN official declared poverty in Alabama’s Black Belt to be among the worst in the developed world. Hookworm has returned to the region. In order to keep the tradition alive, the women have to be political. They have no choice.
Another artistic example from my Southern black heritage is food. Despite nearly every academic historian giving credit to African Americans for most Southern US cuisine, there are several Southern whites that will assert that grits and collard greens are Scottish in origin (these same whites may also state they don’t see a racial bias in taking photos in a cotton field). Even if a Southern white person grew up eating grits — because we all grew up eating grits — the vast majority of cooks in the South were and still are black people. The need for whites to whitewash their favorite Southern foods hides the uncomfortable truth about slavery and Jim Crow, topics which white people have declared “political.”
What about work that is unapologetically political, such as Kara Walker or Barbara Kruger? Why do so many folks have a visceral reaction to it? Well, they are supposed to. That’s the point. The reaction is what makes art art. While some folks may viscerally react to “identity politics,” Walker and Kruger fully embrace their identities in their art. And because there is a bias in the fine art world toward a type of art with overt political and academic messages, the everyday joes of the world feel intimated by this high-brow art and would prefer the “nonpolitical” message of the standard Instagram artist. Artworks featuring pretty and non-controversial subjects. Prager U made an entire video arguing that modern art is no longer art because it doesn’t appeal to the non-intellectual.
In the era of constant audience-building, “apolitical” artists play into this anti-intellectualism in order to appeal to the widest audience possible. In doing so, they are choosing a side, which is politics, but it’s the politics they prefer, not the kind that moves others into community outreach and voting. It’s so safe of a political stance, that it appears there is none. It’s the PR-stance. It’s an attempt to be Bob Ross, painting happy little trees while displaying your work on a platform funded by American taxpayers.
Artists should be proud to state that yes, all art is political and yes, that is a good thing. Art reflects our society. And there is enough of it to satisfy every preconceived bias.
Also, if you haven’t already, please vote. Art is disappearing in the United States. Art is more political than ever, whether you like it or not.