ONE YEAR LATER
by Leah St. Lawrence
This project began as a desire to historically archive media from the last election cycle. Images, social media posts, memes, posters and pamphlets ranging far across the political spectrum were put in the assembly. Over the last year, it has shifted in intention and concept, becoming a more widespread curated collection of artistic expression from different political stances. I do have stacks of posters, flyers, newspaper articles and photographs which will be posted in due time, but I found myself drawn towards a different kind of curation shortly after my discovery of the ‘conservative artist’. I spent about two weeks just looking at neo-conservative expressions, memes, and paintings. I wanted to know three things: 1. Why art? (painting, performances, photography) 2. Is this a new thing? 3. How successful is the work? I am still exploring these questions, but in the meantime, please enjoy the collection.
Originally intended as a catch all, without editing or censorship, some of the works forced me to consider what it really meant to hold freedom of speech/expression above all else. Freedom of speech is a fundamental function of the citizen, and a indistinguishable aspect of the social contract we have all signed as members of a democracy. When, though, does it become detrimental as well as constitutional? I have never been a proponent of ‘shock art’ or expressions purely meant to incite irritation – there needs to be more to it. There should be substance and feeling. Art has to be something you can stand behind for a greater purpose than just to push people’s buttons. What does freedom of expression mean when that expression is read as distasteful? Should one only curate the works which align with their own experience/beliefs/comfort zone? Can only career artists make political art? Is all political art propaganda? Is all art inherently political? What is free use in the digital age? How have images affected our political landscape? These are the questions I pose and the questions which have driven this project. I challenge you to consider them on your own and define your own opinions.
I might not agree with what you are painting, but I will defend your right to paint it. There is an acceptable level of defense of free speech that I find quite comfortable – and it is just that: a defense of. The line between the defense of and the promotion of is where everyone seems to be confused. To defend someone’s right to put their expression out there does not mean the promotion of the idea they are presenting. Rather, especially when it comes to art, we should refrain from promoting anything until we first critically approach it. It has to be a work we, as critics and curators, find interesting or worth discussing. The discussion of a work is also not the promotion of it; even though there seems to be some confusion on that as well. You can still be irritated at the reality of Donald Trump as our president while also being defensive of Lucian Wintrich’s right to curate and present “Daddy Will Save Us”, a Pro-Trump art show held in New York in 2016. Wintrich was kind enough to give me access to his documentation of the show, you can see it on the site.
I do stand by my belief in small government and personal freedoms. I want to live in a society where the individual is protected from the whims of the administration or the institution. To think, all of this political questioning because of a curation project, but isn’t that just the point of it? Everything was easier before I started digging into the web and through the muddy waters of artistic expression and political beliefs. There is so much pain and righteousness in our images; so much hatred and mockery. If I draw the line at “hate” where does that leave me? My first challenge was the hashtag series from Gavin Mcinnes from the “Daddy Will Save Us” show. Mcinnes was a co-founder of Vice Magazine and Vice Media, now he hosts a show called “Get off My Lawn” and is an advocate for far right politics. I will refrain from a detailed description of the series, but if you are interested let me know and I will share more. The series features multiple photographs, each portraying Mcinnes as a different figure in hashtag activism. He is dressed as a woman, a man, an indigenous chieftain, and a POC and is photographed in a degrading manner with corresponding activist hashtags. I believe that it is meant to ridicule liberal ‘hashtag activism’, but it comes across as blatant mockery of individuals’ real life pain. I wonder what he thinks about the #metoo movement. The most forgiving interpretation of this series I can come up with is that it is directed at white liberals, not the victims, who utilize the activist hashtag to represent some semblance of solidarity from the comforts of their privilege. As if to say that the hashtag activism itself is a safe space from which people virtue signal without having to actively dedicate effort in order to produce change. But it doesn’t work. It is a valid commentary which was presented in quite a distasteful way. In short, it is badly done; so I cut it.
I spent 6 months following conservative accounts on Instagram. This was during the first wave of immigration bans and the discussion in Washington about restricting monetary support for women’s reproductive health abroad. This was before Charleston and the escalating situation with North Korea, but after the first church shooting. This was before the hurricanes and Hillary Clinton’s book, but after the memorandum to construct the keystone pipeline. This was before the transgender in the military ban, but after the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. At this time, between December 2016 and April 2017, I dedicated myself to finding and understanding right-wing and neonationalistic artistic expressions. I dug deep into Breitbart News, DeviantArt, Instagram and Twitter feeds, all heavy with images. Freedom of speech or freedom from speech, it is a slippery slope that I have grown comfortable sliding down. Side note: when I first started following conservativemovement, no one I knew also followed them, which was not a surprise. Today, however, I share one common follower: Van Jones. Maybe he is doing the same thing I am, breaking out of the echo chamber and disregarding the concept of “freedom from speech”. I am curious what he is doing with what he sees, because for me, scrolling through the feed, I for sure want to be free from some of this speech. One of the memes is of a black and white image separated into two boxes. The left box shows a man kneeling to pray. In the right box there is a man and a woman, the man is standing facing the woman and the woman is on her knees reaching for his belt buckle. The caption reads “The only two reasons anyone should be kneeling in America”. Another meme posted to this Instagram is a hand drawn bald eagle, which fills the frame. The background is taken up by the flag of the United States. The eagle has Pepe the Frog eyes and the same smirk from the popular little critter and is pulling a piece of paper from behind its right wing that reads “We The People can do whatever the fuck we want”. There are racist posts directed at Latinas and Latinos, immigrants, and POC. There are posts mocking the pain of Transgender individuals fighting for basic human rights and ridiculing women in positions of power. This is not art, but it exists and Van Jones and I, for some reason or another, are curious enough to allow it to populate our feed.
Every time someone would decline to work on or help me with this project, from publishers to galleries, to curators, web designers, illustrators and graphic designers, I had to reevaluate my dedication to this idea of freedom of expression. I questioned myself more times than I care to admit, but ultimately it became clear that what I needed to do was write this essay. How was I going to present this project in a way where it was clear that I was not promoting negativity, hatred or violence? I do not support white supremacy, bigotry, or hate speech, but I do support the presentation of a controversial artistic expression for what it deserves: criticism. I believe that by taking these expressions seriously enough to criticism them within the art cannon, we can welcome conservatives to the battleground of art. Having gone to art school and been through more critiques than I can stand, not for a second do I think this is some great favor. Putting them forward to be critiqued is the best way to generate a dialogue not only about freedom of expression, but also about what we deem good/bad art. Are we dismissing it because it is controversial or simply not up to our standards? There is no point in waiting for someone to give you permission to do something. I didn’t want to wait to throw my hat into the ring and you shouldn’t either.
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