Artists Came Together To Form A Wholly Unique, Non-Partisan Super PAC
Inside Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, Eric Gottesman is feeling a little out of sorts. The photographer is wearing a borrowed suit, fielding questions and greeting the public not as a featured artist, but as the co-founder and organizer of For Freedoms, a Super PAC that aims to reignite political discussions through the lens of high art. They’re currently running a self-titled exhibition, featuring artists like Marilyn Minter and Carrie Mae Weems (Milk’s own Albert Ignacio is a member of the organization).
By the organizers’ own admission, the creation of a Super PAC affiliated with artists instead of a political candidate or party is curious. Super PACs, after all, allow the richest of the rich to indirectly donate mass sums to politicians, and are generally viewed as symptomatic of money’s clout in politics. “We are a Super PAC, so we’re obeying the FEC guidelines and laws, but at the same time we’re interested in bending those rules and poking at them,” Gottesman tells me.
While the existence of an artistic Super PAC is new, fine art and propaganda have long been bedfellows. It’s impossible to think of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign without the emboldened declaration of “Hope” designed by artist Shepard Fairey. But For Freedoms does not shy away from the concept of propaganda. The entrance juxtaposes Normal Rockwell’s 1943 War Bonds posters with the pared down prints of contemporary artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed. Rasheed’s posters, pulled from her “How to Suffer Politely” series, take on the mandatory phrasing of wartime propaganda, but avoid its simplicity. “Tell your struggle with triumphant humor,” one says. “Lower the pitch of your suffering,” says another.
For artists such as Rasheed, an African-American Hijabi, For Freedoms presents a unique opportunity–an entryway into a political system that is not known for its inclusiveness. Late into 2015, the Brooklyn-based artist was pulled from her international flight to Istanbul for TSA, and later, FBI, questioning. When she admitted to feeling unsafe during the second round of questioning, an FBI agent simply responded, “Do you think we’re not going to search you just because you might feel ostracized and humiliated?” She ended up not taking the much-needed vacation. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Rasheed confronted the feelings of otherness that Muslim-Americans deal with at airline security. “Even though I have an American passport, I am still forever a foreigner.” The For Freedoms Super PAC allows her art to counter the Islamophobic rhetoric that plagues US queues and Senate hearings.
The inclusion of Rasheed reflects the open-ended, inclusive nature of For Freedoms. “I don’t believe in partisans,” author and For Freedoms co-founder Hank Willis Thomas says. “I acknowledge that we use those terms politically, but I think the spectrum is more circular than left or right.” So, while the gallery does hold a few direct reminders of the impending election–Fred Tomaselli’s “March 4″ paints Romney and Trump into “human centipedes” on the New York Times front page–much of the art is focused on its surrounding issues such as transphobia, women’s health, and race.
With the introduction of state-by-state bathroom bills, the issue of transphobia has turned presidential. Cassils, a trans performance artist and bodybuilder from Montreal, borders his “Advertisement: Homage to Benglis “(2011) with news bites of its controversy. The image, which presents the artist in briefs, is no more risqué than your typical Calvin Klein ad, but it was nevertheless barred from German train stations last May. In a press release, Cassils criticized the Deutsche Bahn for body-policing. “The phobic response to [the image] calls to mind broader instances of transphobia which seek to prohibit the presence of trans and gender-nonconforming bodies from public spaces,” he wrote.
Placed in the context of dissolving Planned Parenthood clinics, Marilyn Minter’s focus on women’s sexuality is particularly relevant. For the Super PAC, the famed artist eroticizes female pubic hair in a photo series from her 2014 artbook, Plush. The mons veneris are teased by models’ shimmering wet fingers, an occasional gold chain caught in the periphery. These exposures normalize women’s natural processes–a critical step in public understanding if Planned Parenthood clinics are to return.
Not all of the art on display is repurposed. Conceptual “post-black” artist and photographer Rashid Johnson painted “Run Jesse Run” specifically for the show. Featuring the title in bold black letters, the piece recalls both Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs in the 1980s, as well as Jesse Owen’s Olympic golds in Nazi-occupied Berlin. Since this November looks to pit white plutocrats against one another, the command “Run Jesse Run” could also be wishful. C’mon Jesse.
It’s worth mentioning that these interpretations are led neither by the artists nor the curators. The pieces by Cassils, Minter, and Johnson have no placards to cheat off of–none of the art does. Similarly, For Freedoms co-founders Gottesman and Thomas aren’t interested in limiting discourse. The art they feature, the ads they’ll run, their presence amid PACs–all of these are firestarters for bigger conversations. “The problem with taking a stance is that you lose the ability to be more open about it,” Thomas says.
For Gottesman and Thomas, this is just phase one. A second gallery is set to open later this month on June 30th, as well as a nationwide multimedia ad campaign featuring various artists. These campaigns, taking form as public installations, social media posts, billboards, and fashion, are all artist-initiated–a far cry from the typical attack ads one expects this late in the election cycle. In an age where political messages are ubiquitous, brute-forcing their way into our daily lives, the concept of political ads more concerned with asking questions than answering them is welcome.
As for the future? Thomas is coy. “This is a proof of concept,” he says, before adding, with some mystery, “Some argue that midterms are more important than the regular elections…”
For Freedoms is currently on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery, and runs until July 29th.
Images courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
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