Today, Hyperallergic Weekend begins its new feature, DRAWING IN A TIME OF FEAR & LIES, with “Various Dismal Futures” (2016), a work in graphite on paper by William Powhida.
Over the past week we have witnessed the Trump transition unravel from farce to horror show. The salacious rumors swirling around the president-elect, including intimations that his actions are manipulated by Moscow, the inquiry into FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, the congressional moves to repeal Obamacare, compounded by Donald Trump’s bottomless ethical morass and the pandemonium that erupted at Wednesday’s press conference when he shouted down a CNN reporter, have transported what we once considered to be reality into the realm of The Manchurian Candidate and House of Cards, if not Caligula.
The business of governance, countered by a principled resistance to the exigencies of empire, has been for decades the construct through which we have ordered our political and personal lives. But that construct has suddenly been upended, and we find ourselves in a global drama lacking a three-act structure or an imaginable conclusion. The supreme irony for those of us who have devoted our lives to humanism and culture is that our impossible ideal has in fact been realized — life and art have become inseparable — though not in a way we ever envisioned.
DRAWING IN A TIME OF FEAR & LIES was sparked by a painting featured in the exhibition currently running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Max Beckmann in New York. The canvas is called “Birds’ Hell,” and it was completed in 1938, the year after the artist self-exiled from his native Germany to the Netherlands. It is a scathing political satire — an act of astonishing fearlessness given the obvious risks involved — but we wouldn’t know that now.
What we see, and rightly so, is a vision of utter despair, a luridly lit scene of torture and mindless obeisance to power populated by giant blue-and-golden birds, a blue earth goddess with four breasts, and a torture victim tied to a table. Our only tipoff is the straight-armed Nazi salute performed by the blue goddess and a cluster of naked green figures in a corner of the background.
It takes little effort, however, to discover the extent of the artist’s courage and conviction. Writing in the catalogue for the Beckmann retrospective organized by the St. Louis Art Museum in 1984, Carla Schulz-Hoffmann states:
A political connection with National Socialism seems evident: none of the artist’s other paintings take so undisguised and direct a stand. Stephen Lackner, who interprets the painting along these lines, refers among other things to the Hitler salute, the screaming mass, the Prussian eagle which the Nazis adopted as their insignia, and the saluting multi-breasted Earth Mother personifying the ideology of ‘Blood-and-Soil.’
To a contemporary of Beckmann’s, the political implications could not have been missed, or ignored. The show of defiance they represent would have been shocking and dangerous. But when we look at “Birds’ Hell” today, all we see is the art.
In the coming years, if Donald Trump manages to evade impeachment, there will be no shortage of political cartoons and protest art taking aim at his policies and personnel; DRAWING IN A TIME OF FEAR & LIES proposes to be something different: an arena of metaphor, texture, reflection, even ambiguity, but fueled by the same moral outrage that drives the protests in the streets.
The series title is taken from a statement by Malcolm X:
So, over you is the greatest enemy a man can have—and that is fear. I know some of you are afraid to listen to the truth—you have been raised on fear and lies. But I am going to preach to you the truth until you are free of that fear.
DRAWING IN A TIME OF FEAR & LIES joins a constellation of efforts now forming across the country to foster awareness and resistance. No single entity will be able to effect change by itself, no less one immersed in metaphor and reflection. But as the darkness encroaches, it may provide one more campfire to gather around.
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