By this point in 2020, we are all exceptionally aware of what political activism looks like. Between social media posts, handmade posters, and physical artwork, the political climate of 2020 has become an enormous ground for artists who use their art to express their beliefs. Current events have provided the subject, audience, and often material/presentation ideas for many artists.
The New York Times Style Magazine released an article in 2017 titled “Protest Art in the Era of Trump” which discusses a number of artists including Betty Tompkins and popular PAC, For Freedoms, founded by Hanks Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman.
Tompkins is known for her minimalist acrylic canvas paintings that display a simple word or phrase that has been submitted by the public to her personal mailing list. The topic of these 1,000 paintings is women. The reason I bring this to attention now is because Betty Tompkins focuses on the functionality of her art, and its top function is to protest gender inequality. And, although these works were created in the very early 2000s, the fact that they are still relevant reveals the need for further current protest.
Additionally, the For Freedoms political action committee asked artists to create political advertisements, however, Thomas had his own idea that required a bit of explaining to the public viewer. He created a billboard that said “Make America Great Again” on a background image of “unarmed protestors… facing off against Alabama state troopers” on March 7, 1965. Contrary to the popular belief that this was in agreement with the right-wing, conservative people who were “empathizing” with the state troopers, Thomas explains that he is highlighting the idea that peaceful, unarmed protestors are the people who have the power to make our country great.
Gottesman also comments that protestors do the work that should be awarded with the recognition that police are unfairly receiving. These two artists had come together to reveal the injustice that they see, and they used their artistic platform to grab the attention of the viewer, but then juxtapose the immediate assumptions made about their work with the actual meaning. This tactic mocks the connotation of “Make America Great Again” by spinning it in the complete opposite direction and by allowing their art to catch the eye of people who may decide to completely ignore artwork or statements that too quickly disagree with their personal opinions. By exploring the idea of open-mindedness, Thomas and Gottesman successfully utilize their art to protest in a way that is all too relevant years later.
Photo Credit: Wyatt Gallery