In certain parlors, the mixing of art and politics is considered vulgar. If so, then vulgarity reigns supreme in the memory of recent presidential elections. We have barely entered the primaries of the 2016 Presidential election, yet artists have already begun to satirize the candidates.
Sarah Levy’s fantastic portrait of Donald Trump, entitled “Whatever,” was painted with her own menstrual blood and tampon as a critique of the presidential candidate’s now infamously misogynistic comments about debate moderator and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. “You could see blood coming out of her eyes, coming out of her wherever,” Trump said to CNN following the first Republican presidential debate.
Like those before her, Levy recognizes how impactful politically motivated art can be during an election season. With the Republican threat to defund Planned Parenthood heading toward the Senate, artworks like Levy’s can serve as an effectively critical tool. In her own words, Levy gets it right:
[In] today’s click-bait culture, art can pry its way into the media spotlight—which, if seized, has the potential to start a conversation and say things that need to be said.
IT MIGHT seem like a small thing, but I think that an issue like menstrual shame is related to the overall body shame that many girls and women in our society are raised to feel as a matter of course. So fighting this shame is one small step toward raising a generation of confident women who have the courage to fight for equality for themselves and others.
Levy’s work may be the most serious artistic critique of any current candidate, but she is not alone in using art to call attention to bullshit. Down in Chinatown on Orchard and Canal, New York-based graffiti artist Hanksy created a large mural of Donald Trump as a fly-ridden pile of poop. Unsurprisingly, the mural has exploded on social media, and the physical site of the work has become a fledgling tourist site.
The artworks of Levy and Hanksy are only two examples of how artists have used election art to not only voice their political inclinations, but to discuss key issues of our times. Predictably, artists have typically focused their disdain on Republican candidates.
First, let’s look at Andy Warhol’s reaction to Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign. In “Vote McGovern,” Warhol creates a demonic portrait of Nixon, with blue skin and orange lips. The print, however, is more than just a mockery of Nixon’s appearance; it also references his embarrassing 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy. In short, Nixon refused to wear proper makeup for television. When Nixon started sweating under the hot studio lights, viewers at home could see beads of sweat forming on the candidate’s upper lip. After Nixon lost the race, polls revealed that more than half of voters were influenced by the debate. By simply depicting Nixon in this horrific state, Warhol tells the viewer, “Just look at him. Remember 1960? Vote McGovern in the 1972 election.”
Warhol was not the only major artist to give his political two cents. In 1980, the fiercely anti-republican Keith Haring satirized Ronald Reagan during that year’s presidential election. Haring collaged the headlines of the New York Post to create subversive headlines. For example, “Reagan: Ready to Kill” displays a tiny image of Reagan with the caption, “The policies for a strong America,” juxtaposed with the large headline and an image from the Ku Klux Klan. Resembling a guerilla political campaign, Haring would take these collages and paste them on newsstands or lampposts around the city.
Jumping ahead 30 years, artists have never had such broad access to an audience as they do today. The rise of internet culture seems to have spurred a proliferation of election art. And although many cite Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, more interesting is what happened in 2012.
The 2012 presidential race was the election that launched a million memes for the Republican ticket. Remember Clint Eastwood’s one-sided debate against an empty chair? Or Paul Ryan’s embarrassing TIME Magazine gym photos and their subsequent lives as memes critiquing his women’s health policies? How about Mitt Romney’s diatribe against the “47 percent” of Americans who he thinks sponge off of the country’s welfare program? A million memes were launched after he apologized for his comments, saying he was “completely wrong.” To this day, when you search that innocuous term on Google Images, Romney’s face covers the page. And it would be remiss of me not to mention Romney’s “Binders Full of Women.”
In the real world of 2012, many from the art world united to oppose the Republicans. Assembled by Gemini G.E.L., Artists For Obama 2012 was a special portfolio of limited edition prints by 19 prominent American artists created specifically to raise funds for Obama. John Baldessari’s “Double Play: Feelings” stands out for its allusion to one of the strangest anecdotes about the Romney family. The story goes that in 1983, the Romney Family went on a family vacation. Seamus, their Irish Setter, was crated and strapped to the tap of the family Chevrolet station wagon. Unsurprisingly, the dog became sick during the ride with a bad case of liquid diarrhea. Romney stopped at a local gas station, hosed down the dog and car, and continued driving.
Meanwhile, other artists took to the skies to voice their disdain for the Republican candidates. The Los Angeles-based graffiti artist SABER created an “aerial graffiti” campaign entitled #DefendtheArts above New York City to oppose Mitt Romney and his pledge to eliminate government subsidies for the perennial victim of budget cuts, the National Endowment of the Arts.
Although Republicans largely face the brunt of artistic attacks during election season, Democrats are not exempt. When Jon McNaughton paints, his main subject is usually either President Obama or Jesus Christ. His most famous work is probably “The Forgotten Man,” which features President Obama foregrounding a crowd of former presidents, stepping on a crinkled Constitution, and ignoring the titular forgotten man. McNaughton’s paintings are compositionally busy, intent on conflating conservative and Christian ideologies in the academic style of Neo-Classicism. While you may not agree with McNaughton’s message, to his credit, it is clear: President Obama has overstepped his Constitutional boundaries for president and violated Christian doctrine.
While Levy claims that election art can steer discourse toward “things that need to be said,” it seems that this type of art has an underestimated power to persuade. Meanwhile, we are still far away from the 2016 Presidential election, and artists have over a year to capture the inestimable political goofs and gaffes of the oncoming season.
I leave you with one of the more wonderfully bizarre oeuvres in election art online. Dan Lacey is an artist who paints politicians with pancakes on their heads. You may also recognize him as the artist behind the above “Binders Full of Women” piece. Best of all, though, is his recent portrait called “Ted Cruz Pancake Suit of Armor Painting Version #2,” although one could also imagine its name to be “Pancake Pastor Ted.”