Our Public and Private Dramas, Played Out Through Art
Last week the White House moved the portraits of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from a place of prominence. Taken alongside Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to dedicate the official portraits of the Obamas, it seems clear this is about more than just bad blood between rivals. As an artist, naturally I am alarmed that art, and in particular, portraiture, has become weaponized to settle political vendettas. Even more ominous, however, is that this all seems strangely connected to the extreme right’s petty response to the push to remove Confederate monuments (read my recent article on the subject) and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Of course, art has always led the way in society, throughout history. But art also has a way of causing more controversy than a skunk in a perfume factory. Our heritage, as manifested by the art we choose to represent us, has always been emotional and ever changing. Historically, people have often objected to the presidential portraits. Who can forget the reflection of the blue dress in the portrait of Bill Clinton, or the choice of Obama wearing a tan suit, later turned into a portrait by dutch artist Edwin van den Dikkenberg. I believe this is actually one of art’s great purposes: to stir things up.
But the choice to place or remove artworks from a place of prominence, in public places, has become even more politicized as of late. Art in public places implies a public, communal choice. We think of it as an expression of who we are as a people. Afterall, our art should tell our story. But the curation of these stories, the decision of what to include or not include in them, has more often than not been the prerogative of our leaders. In a way, the curation of public art is a form of propaganda. Hitler had his Goebbels to craft his message. The Jim Crow south had its own version of the Civil War, which only recently has been challenged. Paha Sapa was the traditional name the Lakota people gave the sacred center of their universe, until it was turned into Mount Rushmore by a group of racists. Art, as the message/messenger, has always been subject to the whims of whomever was in charge. Rightly or wrongly, as the old saying goes, “to the victors go the spoils.”
And on a much smaller, more intimate scale, the work we choose to put on the walls of our homes and businesses, is a reflection not only of our tastes but of our world view. The story of family is always such a complex thing. As a portrait artist, I’ve seen a wide range of tastes in the art people have collected over the years. The decision of where to hang the portrait of dear uncle Todd, is riddled with controversy. Sadly, many fantastic portraits end up in the closets of homes who’s families have suffered from broken marriages and severed relationships. Likewise with our tastes in fine art: “I don’t know what my mother was thinking when she bought this creepy statue!”
As both an artist and an art consultant, I get to see some of those “skeletons in the closet.” Sometimes they ain’t pretty. Other times, however, I stumble upon a hidden gem. Often, it is an uphill battle to preserve our personal history, the good, the bad and the ugly. As I’ve said, I’m mostly an advocate for inclusion when it comes to art. In the context of the passage of time, water under the bridge or the simple act of understanding, the enlightened among us inevitably come to recognize the importance and meaning imbued within these objects. They shed light in the darkness. They offer a glimpse into the sublime. And very often, if we are lucky, they may lead to forgiveness.
Reconciliation probably will never come in the case of Trump and Obama. Or between the white supremacists and Black Lives Matter. These large scale dramas, of operatic proportions, are the stuff of today’s headlines. But history may one day paint a different picture, shedding a brighter light upon these power plays. One would hope that over time, these rifts might resolve and that art might play a part in the process of world peace.
But for those families who suffer over their damaged relationships, I hope always for reconciliation to come sooner than later and that the art of our ancestors might provide a life force, leading to a deeper understanding of our pasts. I can’t tell you how many times the artwork I have created for an individual or a business, helps tell the story of family in all the myriad forms that word evokes. Our art is our personal heritage. It not only contextualizes and explains; it can also lead to powerful transformation and the building of bridges over generations, even through the deepest of hurts. Art manifests, in physical form, the power of love and the indomitable power of the human spirit.