Photo by Jessica Kincaid.
For Freedoms: Make America Great Again
Cressman Center for Visual Art
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
For Freedoms is America’s first artist-run “super” Political Action Committee (Super PAC), a collective that pressures the distinction between art and politics. The group was founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, and now also includes a core team of five — Elizabeth Baribeau, Michelle Woo, Taylor Brock, Emma Nuzzo and Evan Blaise Walsh — and a growing network of over 140 contributing artists and hundreds of institutions nationwide. – from the Hite Art Institute Press release on New Monuments.
There is a big billboard in the middle of The Cressman Center gallery right now. A full-size, honest to goodness billboard that once lived in Mississippi during the 2016 Presidential election. A bold juxtaposition of the Trump campaign catchphrase, “Make America Great Again” emblazoned across an image of the confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge between civil rights protesters and police in March 1965, it caused no small controversy in some of the communities in which it was placed, and begs the question: wherein lies the greatness we need to rediscover? The American past is filled with fantasies of idealism and security. Ozzie & Harriet and I Like Ike represent the romanticized ideals of mid-20th century America, but they also represent a time of Cold War hysteria and Jim Crow laws that would help fuel the dramatic social changes that followed in the 1960’s.
You can see the billboard in full through the windows on Main Street, but the view from outside may not bring clarity to the more nuanced aspects of the image, and that is precisely the point. Placed in dozens of communities around the U.S., the image was widely misunderstood and vilified. Perhaps a billboard is not a suitable delivery system for irony that employs history to make its point. Positioned above our heads and often along roadways that afford us only a few seconds to absorb the image, they are effective at communicating crass commercialism, but less successful at illustrating the nuance of a satirical viewpoint.
The rest of the gallery contains material intended to portray the space as, “reimagined as a campaign headquarters, a place to regroup and strategize before heading out into the community to canvass.” Yard signs emerge from a layer of sod, a table hosts registration materials, and buttons and posters are for sale.
Is devoting a gallery space to such an overtly political context in and of itself an act of Liberal thought? Conservatives would likely take umbrage at any position that not only doesn’t reinforce their point-of-view but, in fact, questions the status quo. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to expect the punitive label “liberal” to be trotted out once again in response.
Conversely, liberals will like as not happily embrace the exhibit’s thesis, and liberalism by definition seeks the inclusion of competing philosophies.
The concept that the gallery replicates a campaign headquarters seems slight; the experience feels much more academic than experiential, with five video displays, the largest of which features high-toned commentary and suggestions about changing the American system of government which might seem fairly radical to some and somewhat watered down to others.
Yet the context is crucial if it is to prompt a useful conversation about such political statements. Does the easy, knee-jerk reaction to this billboard serve as a potent reminder that jingoism and reactionary thought are the rules and that social discourse has deteriorated to the point where there is no room left for the reasonable exchange of more subtle observations?
For Freedoms also seems to be reacting to the powerful and disturbing trend towards anti-intellectualism that found expression in recent Presidential campaigns. As soon as such a statement is made, the strengths of the creation and the action are immediately attacked as being born of the intellectual elite, which means academia, which adds an additional layer of contextual complexity from placing the exhibit in a university gallery space.
As part of the exhibit, the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute and the Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society are hosting a public lecture by Eric Gottesman, co-founder of For Freedoms. After the talk, a discussion will be led by Hite Art Institute alumna, Elizabeth Smith.
Thursday, March 22, 2018, 6 – 7:30 pm Cressman Center for Visual Arts 100 East Main Street Louisville, KY 40202
For Freedoms: Make America Great Again
March 2 – April 7, 2018
Wednesday through Friday, 11:00am-6:00pm
University of Louisville, Hite Art Institute
Cressman Center for Visual Arts
100 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.