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Artists Wonder How Obama Might Change Art

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Barack Obama officially becomes the 44th president of the United States today. During his long campaign, the one constant was the promise of change. How that plays out in the arts remains to be seen.

It’s hard to imagine many artists more directly affected by the coming policy shift than Ray Noland. Noland, also known as CRO, started out making street art of Obama, and word quickly spread. Now, he’s got a set of Obama posters in the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian. He’s even been able to give up his freelance graphic work. NOLAND: Usually when you see political artwork, it’s usually anti, it’s usually negative, it’s usually like ‘Kill, Kill, Kill.’ Anarchy. So what I wanted to really do with this is really express something, one of his ideas about really trying to be positive, and I thought, that was what was different.

But now, Noland is struggling with what to do next. He doesn’t want to make Obama art forever.

NOLAND: You get to a point where a great portrait of Obama is awesome, is really easy to execute, and you know that’s really going to resonate with people, but you want to start to talk about more

He wants to make political art that’s more critical. He hopes people who bought his Obama prints, will still care what he has to say.

Across town, there’s a show called This Shadow is a Bit of Ideology, at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400. Seven artists take on politics through works like a latch hook rug of Louis the 14th. Or artist Matt Hanner’s drawing of a body, outlined in rings, to stand in for people lost in the war.

Andrew Falkowski turned to the words of ABBA to present authoritative regimes in quote “ridiculous ways.” He took a classic painting of Napoleon, turned it upside down, and made it hot pink. Then he added on the words, “I feel like I win when I lose.”

Falkowski says he’s wary of overtly political art because he thinks it can turn into propaganda.

FALKOWSKI: I know a lot of people have a lot of hope in Obama. I wish him the best. It’s still the same political system, and he’s still a lawyer, and he’s still a lawyer grasping for power. There should always be a grain of salt with beliefs in ideological pursuits.

Assistant Gallery Director Anthony Elms says nobody wants to place bets on what happens next in political art.

ELMS: They’re losing a favorite whipping boy in George Bush, so it’s going to change the tenor of political work because political work will have a different thing to criticize or support, rather than like this easy target that’s an easily identifiable marker.

GRACE: If it is not the end of the party, this is still sort of the afterglow. A lot of people are feeling very excited and good about the potential.

Lindsay Grace is a new media artist, and master’s candidate at UIC. Grace thinks the optimistic mood, could shift art from being critical, to empowering. But he thinks it will take at least a year to shake out.

ambi: sound of chanting

Over at the Museum of Contemporary Art, an exhibit creates a temple-like space that merges religious traditions. There’s a shoe shine stand in one corner, and a gong and chimes in another. It’s the work of artist Theaster Gates. He thinks the election could result in more attention to diverse voices and different neighborhoods in Chicago.

GATES: We’re in a moment where the dinner table wants to be a little more mixed up, and so what happens is you find there are deep wells of creative expression in places that you didn’t realize because you didn’t know they existed because you’d never been there.

Aside from increased diversity, at least one artist believes with Obama as president, artists won’t be so afraid to take a risk. Barbara DeGenevieve heads the photography department at the School of the Art Institute.

DeGENEVIEVE: People have really backed away from the more controversial work, unfortunately. There’s a definite reason why. You’re not going to be funded, and if you make it, even without funding, the political climate is such, it’s not going to be shown.

DeGenevieve experienced this firsthand. She takes controversial photos that are sexually explicit, and she lost an NEA grant during the culture wars.

DeGENEVIEVE: If we have a president who supports the arts, that will infuse the culture with this new attitude toward artists and hopefully, a new respect for artists.

But some artists and curators are concerned the economy, could make art more commercial. Like Kelly Chen, the visiting gallery manager at UIC.

CHEN: When you’re going to art fairs and going to galleries now, you see a lot more artwork that is not necessarily as risky in terms of the commercial world, you’re seeing art work that’s easier to sell in a lot of ways.

And the economy will likely make life even harder for the so-called starving artist. UIC professor Jennifer Montgomery taught a class looking at politics and art. Her students are optimistic, but they face a precarious financial situation.

MONTGOMERY: It’s very brave to say I want to be an art school student. But it’s also a fact that the chances of them getting a job out of school are very slim.

That’s part of the reason several artists are hoping for a revival of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed millions during the Great Depression, building roads and public buildings, and creating art.

Gregg Bordowitz is a professor at the School of the Art Institute:

BORDOWITZ: It will be a time where art will be politicized, probably because of labor issues, not only artists witnessing a great deal of lay-offs and unemployment, but also because artists and art teachers are also going to be facing a great deal of economic hardship in the years to come.

But not everyone thinks there’s a need for a new WPA. UIC retired art history professor David Sokol says there’s already a system in place to pass along arts funding.

SOKOL: When you’re letting go of Streets and Sanitation workers, and don’t have money for salt to do the streets in the winter, giving money to the arts council is not going to be a high priority.

The question, he says, is whether there’s the will to fund and support arts at the federal level. He hopes so.

SOKOL: We certainly don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. We have to recognize, though, that America, this country, has never been much for public support of the arts.

With so many problems facing the new president, it’s seems likely change will show up in art created to reflect this era, rather than much additional funding for the arts.

I’m Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.

NOTE: The sound from Theaster Gates’ MCA show was recorded by Michael W. Phillips Jr. and edited by Aaron Maier, and is an excerpt from Phillips’s upcoming documentary.

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