Art Won't Trump Disgust and Fear
It's too early to find comfort in protest art.
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A few years ago, the artist Eric Cox shared with me a painting he’d made. You may have seen “Welcome to Arizona!” a large oil portrait of recently dethroned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, dressed in a Mexican zarape and sombrero. The painting, which received a great deal of attention and was eventually reproduced as a limited-edition print series, became the centerpiece of a 2012 gallery exhibition I curated called “The Joe and Jan Show.” That show featured commissioned work by a dozen artists depicting Arpaio and then-Governor Jan Brewer. At the time, the community was writhing over Senate Bill 1070, the notorious state legislative act that encourages and condones racial profiling. As happens, artists were responding with angry art filled with pain and invective.
In response to this week’s election of a hatemonger to highest office, I’m hearing in conversation and seeing on social media a familiar promise from creatives. We will, they are saying, at least get some good art out of this. As a gallerist and proponent of all forms of artistic expression, I’m always happy to hear that creative people are turning their joy and their turmoil into beautiful objects.
Arts community leaders have weighed in this week with calming words. In a heartfelt Facebook post, monOrchid gallery owner Wayne Rainey wrote, “If there is any silver lining, I guess it would be that in times of great tumult and peril, we seem to produce the greatest art. I know, it’s not a fair trade.” Grand Avenue arts maven Beatrice Moore wrote, “Fascism always provokes good art; artists created some of the best art of the 20th century as a result of Hitler…”
I understand that we’re comforting one another, and ourselves, with a kindhearted reminder that good things can come from the worst tragedy. Maybe it’s too soon after the horrifying news of Donald Trump’s victory for anything to offer real comfort, but “at least we’ll get some good art out of it” doesn’t seem like enough. The pledge to make straw into gold can’t, this early on, make up for the horror of what’s happened to us this week. No painting or performance piece, no matter how expertly created, can compensate for this irrefutable reminder that we live in a world that not only sanctions hatred and greed, but will rush to elevate it. Trump’s pending presidency is a reminder to those of us who believe in a diverse America that we are (popular vote notwithstanding) in the minority.
Just now, “Think of all the healing art we’ll get out of this!” feels premature and frankly reductive. Cloaking our angst and fear in promises of creativity reminds me of that old dodge offered to kids who are about to have their tonsils yanked: “You’ll get to eat ice cream every day!”
Which isn’t to say I don’t look forward to gorgeous expressions of anger and pain from local artists. I know there’ll be a series of First Lady portraits, perhaps by painter Maggie Keane: Nancy Reagan in a flaming power suit; Barbara Bush in pearls; Michelle Obama in an evening gown; Melania Trump naked, grabbing her own genitals. Maybe Jeff Falk will do a performance piece in which he mocks people with tiny hands while Ann Morton sits nearby, quilting a giant wall. John Sankovich might perform a dramatic reading of that letter from the 122 former Pentagon and State Department employees, denouncing Mr. Trump.
By the time these apocryphal artworks would be realized, many of us will likely be ready to begin healing from the world-changing sucker punch of Tuesday night. In the meantime, though, please: Can we curtail the promises of all the ice cream we can eat?
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