I posted this image on Flickr, and called it COULROPHOBIA: Reality TV Roadshow. The first comment appeared almost at once:
Not funny. No place for hatred and intolerance on Flickr. This is an art and photography community, Not a political platform.
At first I was aghast. A complex mixed reaction swept over me, compounded of anger at accusation of hate, and regret for having caused her distress, tinged with feelings that were admittedly political and inappropriate. It unsettled me. Here is my response:
I agree with you that this is not funny. That is why I called it coulrophobia, fear of clowns. I disagree that it is not art.
Art and politics are not self-exclusive. Consider Picasso’s Guernica or Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.
I am distressed with some of the ways our democracy is trending, and that distress finds its way into some of my images. It may not be politically correct, but it is honest and straight from the heart, as art must be,
In the cool light of morning, I have had time to think about this. The issues I have struggled with are threefold. Is this image hateful? What is the relationship between art and politics? What is the relationship between truth, free expression, and art?
I do not like to think of myself as hateful, but I admit there is hate in me. In general, I hate acts, not people. I do not care about a person’s skin color, ethnicity, of gender identity. When a shooting occurs in the inner city I don’t need to know if it was black-on-black or white on black to deplore the shooting itself. I respect the Muslim faith, but I hate murder in the name of Allah. I am incorrigibly straight, but I hate the idea that anyone else can tell me, or any other human being, whom to love.
I do not hate Donald Trump. I do not even hate his policies, although I disagree with most of them. I do hate the separation of children from their parents for political gain. I hat the imprisonment of children without due process, for the crime of wanting to stay with their parents when they tried to cross the border into America. I hate the kissing up to vile autocrats in Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia for the sake of American (and personal) business interests. I hate to see my country putting the interests of dying industries, like fossil fuels and steel, above the interests of a dying planet. I hate the nepotism. I hate the lies. I do not hate Donald Trump.
It fact, there are parts of the Trump agenda I agree with, in principle if not in implementation. The tangle of red tape that has resulted from Congress’ abdication of its legislative function to the Executive branch, and the jungle of expensive administrative agencies that has engendered, desperately needs to be cut back. Previous administrations have tried to do this, and largely failed. Trump is succeeding, but without any finesse, or heed to the damage he is doing. I like the end, but I hate the means. When you hire the bull to clean out the china closet, you may not be happy with the results.
My Trump images try to cleave to real events. When Trump steps up to the podium at one of his rallies, he reverts in my perception to a clownish constructed persona. When he slides into one of his cute but slanderous little skits attacking journalists and women, an adoring crowd cheers his performance and warm to the affirmation of their own beliefs. This is performance art, not leadership.
No, this image was not born of hate, but of dread. Coulrophobia.
Does art have a place for politics? Of course it does.
Aristophanes comedy Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece try to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from all Greek men until they end it, appeared in 411 BCE. Much art of the Renaissance was an extended paean to the Church, which at the time was as political as it was theologically. In 1830, French master Eugene Delacroix presented Liberty Leading the People to the Paris Salon. At the turn of the 20th century, the fierce battle between the Salonists and the Refusés was settled by Napoléon III—modern art began with an Imperial decree. As the 20ty century wore on, Lenin, Goebbels, and their ilk, made propaganda science. Art entered the service of the state, though one can argue whether Social Realism is really art.
In America, newly minted Impressionist began to turn their attention to urban themes, with a gritty reality that became as the Ashcan school. Franklin Roosevelt experimented with state sponsored art with the Public Works Art Project (PWAP) and its well-known successor, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Norman Rockwell shifted during World War II from homey Americana to strongly felt political imagery, beginning with Four Freedoms and processing through The Problem We All Live With, which portrays a young black girl in a fine white dress and carrying schoolbooks, flanked by federal marshals as she walks by a wall marred with racist graffiti and stained with thrown tomatoes, as she walks to her first day at a newly integrated school in New Orleans. For many (including me), that was when Rockwell rose from being a clever illustrator to being a profound artist.
Flickr, especially in the Smug Mug era, is devoted to photography. Because of its inherent documentary property, photography has always welcomed political art. Matthew Brady’s battlefield images affected Lincoln, and the course of the Civil War. Jakob Riis’ pictures in The Way the Other Half Lives profoundly affected Theodore Roosevelt, helping to usher in the Progressive Era. The Depression portfolio of Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks’ documentary work in the black ghetto of the 50s through the 70s carry potent political power.
My art does not rise to the level of these greats. It is not disqualified as being art, however, simply because it has political content.
“Beauty is truth, and truth beauty,“—that is all
ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
This is a quaint Victorian conceit, comfortable in its naiveté, but it is not true. Truth is not always beautiful. It is true, though, that what is not true is seldom art.
This does not mean that art must cleave to the laws of physics or the universe of facts. The truth of art is more profound than that. No one believes that The Wizard of Oz is an historical document. The truths that it tells about courage, intelligence, and heart, about the powers of persistence and love, and the battle between good and evil, all resonate with us. These deeper truths are the basis of its art.
My picture is not factual, but it is true to the feeling I get when I see clips of a Trump rally. I do not believe that I am the only one who sees it this way. It is not a beautiful image, but it is earnest and honest. The picture is not funny. It evokes a pang of truth that is unsettling. If it draws out a chuckle, it is not from amusement but from that most dissonant of feelings: irony.
I regret any distress I have provoked. I regret the loss of comity in our shared country, making it difficult today to hold sharply differing opinions without harboring ill feeling, and digging in. I regret that we cannot move our country out of the terrible mire we have driven into, because we have lost track of the highway of facts that could lead us through the jungle of unproven assertions. We have allowed our ability to compromise to atrophy to near uselessness. We have allowed our need to win no matter what to outstrip our need to do the right thing for our country.
I do not regret my image. It is not great art, but it is art nonetheless.