President Donald Trump and his administration may want to watch out. After moving to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS, the art world is rallying. Of course, there’s nothing like a little suppression, “alternative facts,” 1984 Orwellian mixed signals, and threats from the government to get the creative juices flowing.
This week, New York’s Museum of Modern Art replaced seven works by artists like Picasso, Matisse and Picabia with works by artists from nations included in Trump’s immigration ban. Alongside each piece, a sign reads, “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on Jan. 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.”
In Portland, advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy opened a protest art gallery called “We The People.” The exhibition space is filled with collected protest material from recent social justice demonstrations across the globe and in particular, art work spurred by the immigration ban. It will be on display in Portland until March and then travel to Wieden+Kennedy offices around the world, including Sao Paulo, Amsterdam and Tokyo. As the work travels from country to country, curators are inviting the public to add to the collection, whether it is in the form of traditional artwork, signs or even costumes. The company will then donate $10 to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU for every contribution.
In January, President Barack Obama’s said in his farewell address, “Change happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it”. Those words are of course on my mind as I watch people around the world protest everything from Trump himself to the travel ban to the confirmation of Trump’s Cabinet. When it comes to art protests like those popping up in New York and Portland, the cause is just and the artwork is necessary—and that is all fantastic, but who’s listening and more importantly, is this making an actual difference?
As artist Tom Sachs explains of protest art, “Art with political ideas must be ambivalent so as to express the essential conflict of the politician.” Many artists are exploring those exact methodologies. For more than 20 years, artist Christo has worked in Colorado on public artwork. Last week, he announced he is abandoning his current project, a silvery canopy temporarily suspended above 42 miles of the Arkansas River, because President Trump now federally controls that land. In January, selfie-artist extraordinaire Richard Prince attempted to return his $36,000 payment from Ivanka Trump for a portrait she commissioned from him (above). “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This [is] fake art,” Prince said, deeming that Ivanka no longer qualified as a worthy subject for his art. Artist Anish Kapoor has also jumped into the fray, recreating the poster for artist Joseph Beuys’s performance work “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974). Kapoor’s recreation features a photograph of him with the title “I Like America and America Doesn’t Like Me” written in a pseudo Antiqua–Fraktur font commonly associated with Nazi German media.
Meanwhile, Madonna, an artist like no other, spoke at a panel at the Brooklyn Museum on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration along with artist Marilyn Minter. “We don’t really have a choice but to stand up and take action. We hit the wall,” Madonna said. She’s absolutely right. Regardless of your political side or even desire, whether you’re inspired or not by protest art, if you don’t get involved now…well then you’re to blame for everything that’s going on. It’s that simple. Politics have ceased to be about choosing a donkey or an elephant. Today, it’s about rejecting being made into Animal Farm sheep, who one day won’t be allowed to buy paint brushes.
“There is a long tradition of artists making powerful protests through their work,” says Rebecca Wilson, chief curator of Saatchi Art in Santa Monica, California. “Picasso’s Guernica helped raise awareness across the world about the Spanish Civil War. Ai Weiwei’s work is continued activism against the Chinese government,” she says. “This is not a time to stand on the sidelines and keep quiet. Whatever artists can do to draw attention to what Trump is doing is a good thing.”