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A Dangerous Nostalgia

When Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas created For Freedoms in 2016, no one could have been prepared for the magnitude of the political upheavals we have been experiencing. Since its formation, For Freedoms has become an increasingly visible challenger of political agendas that infringe on human rights and democratic ideals. As they pass their one-year mark and begin to set new goals, I had the privilege of speaking to co-founder Eric Gottesman about what it means to be an artist and an activist in this turbulent moment in American history.

Maaza Mengiste (MM): I was excited to hear about this initiative that you and Hank Willis Thomas were starting up, and I was also intrigued by the idea of an artist-led super PAC. Can you tell me what exactly that is, because it seems like artists and a super PAC don’t necessarily partner naturally?

Eric Gottesman (EG): A super PAC is part of the election funding structure, which governs how candidates receive money to practice so-called political speech. It’s a way for people with a lot of money to meddle in elections, though others argue that it’s a form of free speech. We’re sort of side-stepping that conversation and thinking more about how artists engage in the political process. There are reasons for why an artist is expected to go into his or her studio, work in isolation, and present this masterpiece to the world, which is the way artists have operated throughout history. Artists are supposed to do everything, including protest, but not necessarily supposed to go into the state house to make laws. We acknowledged that artists aren’t supposed to do that, but also wondered what would happen if they did. We wanted to put our skin in the game and actually enter into the political process by creating both a real super PAC—we are registered with the FCC and the IRS—and also a performance of a super PAC by artists.

Artists work on longer timelines, and a lot of these political structures work on 24-hour news cycles and four-year election cycles. We wanted to think long-term about how artists shape the institutions and societies in which they engage.

For Freedoms public installation at Afropunk, 2016, courtesy of For Freedoms.

MM: This might seem like an obvious question, but what made the recent presidential election “the one” to create an artist super PAC?

EG: Well, the real answer is that it was the time when Hank and I finally got around to doing it. We had been talking about doing something that engaged directly in the political process for over a decade. And that kind of intensified, for me, in 2004 when I ran my father’s local campaign in New Hampshire. But we had been talking even before that.

MM: You state on your website that you were inspired to start For Freedoms because of Norman Rockwell’s paintings Four Freedoms. The word ‘inspired’ becomes complicated here. We like to think of inspiration as an imaginative leap that takes us beyond the original source, but here you seem to be using ‘inspired’ as something you’re pushing against. I was wondering if you could talk about your response to Rockwell’s work. He’s steeped in nostalgia for a kind of Americana that in many ways the Trump administration seems to be promoting, but for many people, that nostalgia doesn’t necessarily exist.

EG: Those four paintings became magazine illustrations, which, because they were so widely popular, were later distributed as posters by the Office of War Information. They were physical and literal propaganda used to raise money for the Second World War. And then how we related to them is again complicated: on one hand, I admire how Rockwell was able to capture the collective imagination at that time of what Americanness was, and was able to achieve such wide distribution. At the same time, nostalgia is built into how those images are supposed to work, specifically as a sort of whitewashed history.

MM: It’s interesting to think about what nostalgia is, and how our minds reshape something that happened into an aspirational goal as opposed to what it actually was. And so, to have nostalgia for this Rockwellian America doesn’t mean it existed. It’s almost like a memory that we created in order to aspire to that in the future.

It’s been almost a year since the presidential election, and I know that you did an annual report for For Freedoms in which you assessed how many viewers you’ve had and how many states you’ve been in—I believe it’s 18 states and 28 cities. You’ve had over a million viewers. How has your intent as an artist-led super PAC begun to shift from 2016 to the present?

For Freedoms lawn sign activation, Brooklyn Museum, 2016, courtesy of For Freedoms.

EG: Every project I take on, whether it’s my own project or a collaboration, starts with a set of questions and evolves. I’m not the kind of artist that has a grand vision to impose on the world. The goals of For Freedoms are shifting: at first, we just wanted to carve out a vehicle that engages or claims to engage in these different conversations about politics. Then, after we created the vehicle, we thought, “now what?” We had to go somewhere with it.

Moving forward, in the run-up to the midterm elections, we will have concurrent events—including art installations, exhibitions, billboard campaigns, town-hall meetings, concerts—on public college campuses in all fifty states. In this next phase, we really want to hit young people with our work. This conversation about freedom of speech converges on college campuses. What speech and participation mean is being battled out, sometimes literally, and we want to engage in that conversation and hopefully broaden the discourse around it.

MM: That reminds me of the billboard erected in Mississippi last November that generated quite a bit of publicity and caused a lot of angry responses, even from liberal activists. Some felt it could incite and even encourage white supremacists. I was reading your response in another interview about the billboard. You said that art itself is and should be ambiguous, and it’s dangerous because it promotes a conversation where all the answers are unknown. But when I look back at that billboard and think about ambiguity, I feel there is a fine line when it comes to talking about race and discrimination in America. Maybe art is immune to it, but could you talk about that particular billboard and also the kinds of conversations art needs to promote?

EG: That’s the thing. Every conversation I have about this project very quickly goes to an ontological explanation of what it means to be an artist. In relationship to that specific billboard, ambiguity is dangerous.

MM: I felt I could understand exactly the point that the billboard was making, but it really seemed to create an uproar.

EG: What’s exciting to me is that the billboard clearly touched a nerve, but it also highlighted something I’ve been thinking a lot about, which is that people read political messaging and advertising in specific ways. Billboards and advertising often want to direct you, to make you buy something or vote for something. But art in my mind is supposed to complicate that. In a sense, the public’s response to the billboard exhibited quite clearly that that is the way in which we relate to political media. It didn’t necessarily solve the problem, but it pointed to an important question.

MM: It’s been said that we’re living in a post-truth era. We’re doubting everything that’s presented to us as true, and that what matters more is our own preconceived notions of the world. If it supports what we already thought, then it must be true. How does For Freedoms negotiate this tricky terrain of truth? How do you work with the constant doubt of what is true?

EG: This is something that has been fascinating to watch in the political arena. In the last fifty years of intellectual history, post-modernist thought and art have chipped away at the kinds of structures that exist in society in order for us to question those structures and open up ideas of relativity and perspective. This set of ideas is traditionally aligned with leftist intellectual thought and practice, but now all of a sudden, the people of the United States on the right are experts at it! And I was fascinated with how that flip happened. One of the things we’ve talked a lot about is that these notions of right and left are not real divisions. The real divisions have to do with how people express power and how they are motivated by more primal human feelings, like fear, in the sense of wanting to be on top and not wanting to lose. These essential human emotions drive our progress, and we at For Freedoms are trying to figure out how to harness those emotions to ask the critical questions that post-modernism was built on.

MM: It’s interesting to hear you talking about how power uses fear, and the way that fear makes us willingly erode all the things that could connect us in the name of self-preservation. The artists you work with seem to address that fear, whether or not they are confronting it directly. I’m thinking of the banner that says “A man was lynched by police yesterday.” Another was the “Absolute Isolation” ad. It was harrowing to stumble across on the street unexpectedly. The first thing those pieces do is tap into fear. They speak to a history that is immediate, and it makes you pause.

EG: I think those two pieces you mentioned out are pointing to a specifically American kind of fear built out of our history’s related to race and how race is related to power.

Ibram Kendi says that oppression causes racism, not the other way around. If we think about it that way, whether you’re talking about Dread Scott’s banner or Hank’s “Absolute Solitude” piece, those practices—lynching and mass incarceration, or what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow”—are systems built with economic intent using fear as the central tool to jar people to buy into those systems. For Freedoms is also trying to jar people, but rather than propose specific political solutions, we want to move people to question the structures that surround them, whether it’s the incarceration system or the history of oppression.

MM: You’re now entering into year two of For Freedoms, and you’ve talked a little bit about what the project will do, but what else do you have planned for the next year?

EG: The fifty-state strategy is one of the main projects we’re going to be working on to get people involved. Hopefully we’ll be surprised with the ways in which people iterate on what For Freedoms is. We want to better understand all the complex ways in which art can be a form of power by continuing to reach out and broaden our network. We also want to keep refining the shape of the vehicle, and the corporate structure that we’re using. Does it model after political movements in the US? Does it reach outside the country? I’ve been working on some of these ideas in Ethiopia, and they’re definitely relevant in parts of Europe, so we’re going to be expanding our ways of connecting to reach an even wider audience while continuing to adapt.

MM: These projects you’re working on in various countries can very well fit into some of the conversations we’re having here in America about refugees, immigration, and how we take care of the children in our communities. We can think of citizenship as something that can be borderless; we’re not concerned only for those within our borders, but others outside our borders who are struggling with similar issues. Those who might care about climate change in, say, Patagonia, would be able to work together on one particular issue. There seem to be endless possibilities for what you’re doing, partly because there is so much that needs to be done.

EG: I’ve often worked on a more local level than For Freedoms, trying to unravel all the complex ways in which politics and power affect people’s lives. Hopefully that drives what I’m doing with For Freedoms, but For Freedoms has a large, national audience, and working on that scale is very different. I believe what we’re doing is intended to enable a wider and larger civic participation that can be applied in many different contexts. I hope the models we’re creating and experimenting with will open up new possibilities so that we might be able to contribute to a larger conversation about how that participation takes place and how art can have a role in it.