Last week, President George W. Bush’s art police, aka the Secret Service, ruffled up the brushes of another artist. The artist, Al Brandtner, had the gall to create a panel of enlarged postage stamps with Bush and a handgun lurking in the background. This, of course, was considered a dire threat to the life of Bush and was enough to bring the Secret Service down to visit the Axis of Evil: The Secret History of Sin exhibit held by Columbia College in Chicago.
The Secret Service has been busy during the last few months. Early last year, it interviewed a high school student for his anti-war art class drawings. The Secret Service also stopped by a Colorado high school after a band calling itself the “Coalition of the Willing” rehearsed Bob Dylan’s “Master’s of War.” Who knows how many other anti-art missions the Secret Service has conducted? Some citizens even took a vigilante approach when they had an art show in New York closed because a portrait of Bush made out of monkey pictures and grass was deemed too offensive.
Modern Renaissance man Andre Malraux said, “Art is an assault on logic.”
Indeed, the true act of art, of creation and not of entrepreneurship, must boggle the mind of many Bush supporters. If you cannot profit or satisfy a power urge through art, why do it? In reality, war is a worse assault upon logic.
Malraux emphasized the purpose of art is to “let men escape from their human condition, not by means of an evasion, but through a possession, (for) art is a way of possessing destiny.”
Perhaps Brandtner was trying to escape the extreme terror Bush instilled in him and tried to turn the tables by turning the threat onto the threatener. The artist might have put a plaster head of the president in a vat of cow dung or painted his portrait with a rectum as a mouth if he felt the president was a liar. The point is the artist must express.
Yet, it is this ignorance of the purpose of art, or perhaps the realization that art is one of the few remaining avenues to subvert the Bush administration, that has inspired Bush’s crackdown.
While Bush is sending out the Secret Service to act like a modern-day Gestapo, artists are left to play the role of an enlightened David versus the savagely powerful team of media, corporations, religions and politicians. They cannot compete economically or engage in direct conflict with an oppressive government, but they can compete in the arena of ideas, and it is here they will win eventually.
Just beneath the surface, a cultural war is being fought. For every Wal-Mart representing the square, creative impotence of the drive for supreme profit, there is the locally owned cooperative with a mural on the wall. For every two-bit demagogue mindlessly spouting Bible quotes, there are youth writing poetry and hip-hop lyrics. For every Toby Keith wailing Bush love songs, there are probably 10 underground punk bands calling for Bush’s scalp.
The theatrics of the anti-Grand Old Party billionaires for Bush contrast the cold, professional stagecraft of Karl Rove’s direction. It is a battle between those who advocate free expression and a competing market of ideas versus the McDonald masses desiring sterile noncontroversy. Binaries they might be, but they help frame the debate as a cultural war.
By the way, another world leader didn’t like unflattering portraits of himself. His name is Saddam Hussein.
Karl Noyes is the senior editorial board member. He welcomes comments at [email protected]