Irreverent Political Art Is a Sign of the U.S.’s Health
By the time I got to New York’s Union Square on Tuesday, the grotesque statue of Hillary Clinton, naked, her feet replaced by hooves, had already been removed, only hours after it went up. It wasn’t likely to stay long: Its first appearance in the city a week ago, near the Bowling Green subway station, provoked an altercation between the sculptor -- apparently one Anthony Scioli -- and an angry woman who thought the sculpture was an abomination. And of course Scioli, like the authors of naked Donald Trump statues that cropped up in several U.S. cities in August, didn’t have a permit.
Ever since it became clear that Clinton and Trump would be the major-party nominees and the election campaign turned into an all-out farce, I’ve been looking for hopeful signs. The U.S. is better than this race, many people I’ve met in my travels have told me, and I agree with them. One reason is Americans’ anarchic, irreverent creativity, which rises up to fight the indignities of a political process gone badly wrong.
This creative resistance takes the broadest range of forms -- from a laconic “Dump Trump” pin designed by Milton Glaser, the author of the “I♥NY” logo and a bigger-than-life figure in the design world, to an amazing display that can be seen along a half-mile of fencing in the town of Mullinville, Kansas, where Myron "M.T." Liggett, an ornery 86-year-old, has cut and welded scrap metal to create the eeriest series of sculptures I have ever seen.
Hillary Clinton is there, among the totemic figures given the names of Greek gods, former lovers, local politicians and judges. The Washington Post recently published a column asking whether the New York statue of the Democratic nominee was "sexist." I don’t know what the author would have made of Liggett’s depiction; the amateur welder and Army veteran clearly doesn’t approve of her hankering for a strong government.
I found Liggett’s house in Mullinville, hoping to talk to him about that image and the reasons he keeps up his work at his age (he is a year younger than Glaser). He wouldn’t come to the door when I knocked, so I opened it a crack. "Careful, he may shoot!" a neighbor shouted from her porch. All the neighbors have Liggett-made steel signs in the shapes of hearts and smiley faces, but they’re tired of his erratic driving and his uneven temper. He never opened the door.
The Trump and Clinton statues that go up for minutes or hours fit somewhere in the space between Liggett and Glaser. I’ve read that the Trump likeness by a collective called Indecline “falls short as art and satire,” and I can think of a few objections to the hooved Hillary. Yet they are both legitimate art, if only because they are skilfully executed. The pieces raise meaningful questions: Does the taboo on body shaming apply to emperors who have no clothes? Can a public figure be mocked by imagining what his or her body might look like? And what if that public figure is a woman? Is there a certain comic equivalency between Clinton and Trump, and if there is, does it mirror a moral equivalency?
The statues also have a quality I love about the U.S. -- a transient impermanence, a sense of here today, gone tomorrow. The country that gave the world pop-up retail is now playing with pop-up sculpture as an answer to the ugliness of a campaign many will want to forget as soon as it’s over.
Although the sculptors are invariably told to remove their works, they are not arrested or charged. That may seem ordinary to Americans and Europeans, but not to a Russian: In my country, edgy art gets people in trouble. A statue of a naked, saggy Vladimir Putin wouldn’t have lasted hours on a Moscow street, and its creator probably would be well-advised to be far away when the police showed up to pull it down. Despite considerations of political correctness and permit systems, the U.S. allows these works to become a fact of art.
The reaction to political dysfunction with simple though controversial art forms proves U.S. culture is fundamentally healthy. The country is funnier, more spontaneously inventive and less vitriolic than the leaders it is being offered in this election. It’s more interesting than they are, and it’ll stay that way after they are gone.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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