Concerning the Political in Art

Two weeks ago, I spearheaded a tiny protest against the cancellation of some art in DFW’s Bishop Arts District.

Until last Monday, I’d gloried in 4 pictures that were posted in my apartment’s foyer.

We have forward-looking management in my place. They’re young, hip, and healthily focused on customer service; I’ve been here five months and they’ve made all the right moves for the cultural creatives who fill my building.

Though . . . not this time.

The four foyer paintings were by the Israeli artist, Amit Shimoni (b. 1987). After communicating with us about every tiny detail of daily operations (elevator out for a few hours! smells in the hallway! A flailing parking lot gate!) the management communicated nothing about taking these artworks down.

It seemed strange.

I gloried in them, because they were real art. They had something to say — not like the sleep-inducing stuff you see in hospitals, other apartment buildings, or corporate offices.

You might actually know the artist who painted these pics, even if you don’t know his name: he presents historical figures — as hipsters.

It’s gorgeous work. Colorful busts of varied personalities are set against rich, monotone backgrounds, and most of these famed figures are depicted as sunny and approachable. (Not surprisingly, Trump, in an almost-hip floral shirt, looks pissed.)

The figures are attired in tank-tops, “Obey” shirts, nose-rings, and dank hairstyles. Their skin bears tattoos providing biographical data — Obama’s got fave read, Moby Dick on his right shoulder; Frida Kahlo’s got her lover, Diego Rivera, on her left; and Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s half-seen neck tatt declares, “I DISSENT.”

Shimoni published a little book, Hipstory, in 2017. It’s got 20 postcards of famous folk with fantasy hipster bios. (British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher “recently changed her name to ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ and pedals furiously across East London on her fixed-gear gleefully ploughing into pedestrians she suspects may harbor socialist tendencies.”)

Most of Shimoni’s figures are political and they come from every ethnicity and nation.

Obama gets marquee placement on the bookcover (with top-piled dreads), and Che Guevara gets pride of place on the first page (wearing a beat-up Addidas beanie). Later pages have Gandhi (forever a new-wave fave), Mao, Nelson Mandela, JFK, MLK, and the Dali Lama.

It’s a virtual greatest hit list of the most-loved from alternative circles.

The remaining dozen faces feature some folk who’ll never win hepcat fandom: Besides Thatcher you get Charles de Gaulle and Ronald Reagan — who, in Shimoni’s depiction, looks hella fun to hang out with.

Since starting in 2014, the artist’s executed over 50 likenesses, and he’s proud to say teachers use them in classrooms to get kids hooked on history.

So . . . what’s not to like?

I walked past their former hanging place just as our building’s jack-of-all-trades, who I’ll call Mr.A, had finished removing the 12’ x 12’ images.

“What happened?” I said, indicating the empty space.

He shook his head disgustedly, saying he took them down. I asked why. He complained about Obama’s pic (hung in a sister building a block away) saying, “If I want to see Obama, he should be in a chair with a suit. Not like that.” Contempt oozed from his pores.

In response, I staged a micro-protest, putting up the words, “Bring” “Back” “The” “Art” on four 8.5 x 11’s in different typestyles on the wall where the images had hung. When the management instantly removed them, I put up a second batch, this time with pics of the original Einstein, Lady Di, Rosa Parks, and Honest Abe underneath.

By the next morning, they were gone, too.

So much for free speech.

I was disappointed.

If you can’t have a playful public back-and-forth about something so benign as art — with a group of people who seemed socially well-adjusted and friendly — who can you have a healthy public debate with these days?

I went farther.

I circled my four-floor apartment building and got 27 signatures on a petition and lots of verbal support. Notably, nine Black residents were enthusiastic about this message to management, one guy even shared how much he liked the Obama pic when he saw it during a Miami gallery visit.

As I reflected on the maintenance man’s displeasure, I thought about what he failed to see.

Anyone familiar with art knows its strategy of juxtaposing the usual with the unusual, and this includes placing famous people in unlikely histories or cultures.

Every planetary crossroads gives the saints this treatment — you can find Buddha as a Greek, Krishna as a Thai, and Jesus as a Japanese — among hundreds of other regional variations.

The Renaissance was a golden age for such mash-ups.

The Bible’s King David (a swarthy Semite in 1000 BCE) can be seen as Michelangelo’s mannish Greek (1504), Donatello’s homoerotic boy-toy (1440), and Verrocchio’s doughy-eyed teen warrior (1475). (Verrocchio’s statue was meant to symbolize the martial might of his home turf (Florence) and is said to be modeled on his student, Leonardo Da Vinci.)

The building’s handyman is Black, and Obama’s persona probably holds special resonance for him.

The way he complained, it seemed clear that Mr. A was shaken by the artist’s reframing a leader he gave sacred status to — not unlike the reverence the Biblical King David has commanded from Jews and Christians throughout history.

But if he knew that Obama’s official portrait (the definitive “chair with a suit” pic) was painted by a Black artist, Kehinde Wiley, (b. 1977) who built his reputation on code-shifts just like those of Shimoni (in Wiley’s case, remaking European kings as Blacks), would he have seen the “Obama-with-dreadlocks” differently?

If he knew that this specific strategy is constantly employed by minority artists to disrupt social norms, would he have appreciated the subtlety in Shimoni’s game plan?

Mr. A. displayed no openness to think deeply about the art he canceled, but his tolerance might expand if he knew that three of the most prominent Black artists of the last century chose to disrupt the same historical image — Emanuel Leutze’s (1816–1868) Washington Crossing the Delaware — in tried and true, shape-shifting, Shimoni-like ways.

Few contemporary artworld figures are more prominent than multimedia artist, Kara Walker (b.1969).

Her 2017 Leutze remake, The Crossing, was a protest rendered the day of Trump’s inauguration.

Robert Colescott (1925–2009), ranks in the highest tier among recent painters, and his George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware (1975) is even more at play with cultural stereotypes than anything Shimoni’s made. His happy hodge-podge of figures plays recklessly with historical cliches and heroic identity.

Active in another era, Jacob Lawrence’s (1917- 2000) deep abstraction of Leutze’s image, Struggle: From the History of the American People (1955), is matched by greater weightiness of message. He highlighted the bloody effort of Blacks to become fully-realized citizens within American democracy.

Art can use politics for its subject matter, but it serves audiences best when it remains at play with our partisan passions.

Many artists have done the cultural sphere a disservice by becoming mouthpieces for political agendas — rather than daring to wrestle with aesthetic possibilities that engage paradox, dodge tribalism, and dare to lure audiences beyond the party line.

In our supercharged, take-no-prisoners moment, it sounds overly quaint and insufficiently steely to say, but art has an even greater responsibility to reveal our inner beauty and that of the world. Of course, this isn’t just a retinal reality (as some might suggest), and it implies a moral imperative beyond public policy. If we’re to escape black and white thinking, if we’re to let go of each other’s throats, this imperative is one we might spend more of our collective imagination on.

If Mr. A — like so many of us — can only see the world in political, us-verses-them terms, it’s not wholly his fault.

Too many artists (and humorists) have ferociously battered “the other side” for too long.

This battle’s not all bad. When subsumed in aesthetics or comedy, it can bind us together. And many artists featured here are working this way.

But, because a promenade of harsher opinions is constant, when someone like Shimoni comes along with a spirit that is, frankly, one of fun, it’s no wonder cultural sophisticates or their counterparts have no eyes to see.

Eric Shaw is a freelance writer from Dallas, Texas.

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