Artists of color don’t have that choice.
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.