The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is jumping into the heated US presidential race with a plan to appoint artists to cover the front-runners in both the Democratic and Republican parties. The new program, called Artists at the Front, will match one artist each to candidates Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, in what looks like a bid for relevance from a government agency that’s shied away from controversy since the Culture Wars of the 1990s.
“We want people to know that the NEA is not just some neutered government agency that gives money to book advocacy programs for kids,” NEA Chairman Jane Chu told Hyperallergic. “Our budget and existence are constantly being threatened by politicians for a reason. We want to demonstrate that reason.”
The program — which takes effect today, April 1 — sees the pairing of four US-based artists with four politicians: conceptual artist Barbara Kruger with Hillary Clinton, Neo-Pop artist Romero Britto with Ted Cruz, photographer Ryan McGinley with Bernie Sanders, and art world enfant terrible Richard Prince with Donald Trump. The artists will follow the candidates for the duration of their campaigns, using a mix of media and approaches to represent the politicians and make work about their proposed policies.
“I’ve been feeling the Bern for a long time now,” said McGinley, “so I’m pretty pumped to have this opportunity. Bernie really embodies the utopian aesthetic I’m exploring in my work. We’ve already started talking about a naked shoot on the beach at Coney Island. He’s into it. He’s so chill.”
The artists were selected by a panel of art world insiders — MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach among them — NEA staff, and a representative from each candidate’s campaign. The artists were notified only after undergoing a thorough vetting process, which included performing background checks on every single one of their unpaid interns. An NEA staffer who wished to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic that artist Oscar Murillo had originally been approached to cover Trump but declined to participate.
“What is politics I don’t believe in that crap,” wrote Prince via email in response to questions about how he felt representing such a divisive figure. “Fascism’s been done before but if you think about it not really in America and anyway Trump is an interesting guy.”
The initial artworks are mostly still in the development stage, but Kruger’s studio released an exclusive preview of her first piece to Hyperallergic. It riffs on her famous “Your body is a battleground” print, swapping in Clinton’s face for the anonymous woman’s and tweaking the wording to send a stark political message. Britto had apparently been in deep mourning since Jeb Bush dropped out of the race, but his assistants say he’s been reinvigorated by the challenge of adopting his bright, graphic style to fit Cruz’s blandness.
“I really think we have the potential to make history with this program,” said Chairman Chu, adding that if it’s well-received and the agency continues to exist, the NEA will look to reprise it in 2020. “The American public will understand the power of art in a new way.
“Shepard Fairey did it first, but we will do it better.”