Fear and Art

Chicago, Illinois

I admit that it frightens me. On April 7, Secret Service agents arrived just before the opening of an art show in Chicago and launched an investigation into one of the pieces hanging there, a set of mock postage stamps by local artist Al Brandtner. The image on the stamps is a revolver pointing at the head of President Bush with the caption “Patriot Act.”

The piece is part of an exhibit titled “Axis of Evil, the Secret History of Sin” at Glass Curtain Gallery at Columbia College. 47 artists from 11 countries designed fake postage stamps thematically exploring “depths of evil,” depicting a range of political and religious leaders while spotlighting issues such as racism, war and sexual abuse.

The federal agents, who photographed artwork in the gallery and requested contact information for Brandtner and curator Michael Hernandez de Luna, claim to be “just doing some looking into it,” performing a routine inquiry in response to a complaint about the image, which appeared in Chicago media prior to the show. They “need to ensure … that this is nothing more than artwork with a political statement,” according to Secret Service spokesperson Tom Mazur. As if it could be anything else.

The implication is that the artwork might be a threat to the President’s safety. But who is threatening whom in this situation? Bush is clearly in no danger from this visual fantasy. It’s not a declaration of intent. It’s not a note assembled with letters cut from a magazine, or a muffled call from a pay phone. It’s not someone holding a real gun trying to enter the White House. It’s not even necessarily the depiction of the artist’s wish. It’s purely the visual expression of an idea.

To find the actual target of threat, we must locate the fear. “It frightens me … as an artist and a curator,” de Luna told a reporter. “I think it’s frightening for any artist who wants to do edgy art.”

As a political artist and cartoonist, my first reaction to this incident was outrage. In response, I immediately planned to draw a cartoon that included a caricature of Bush with a gun to his head, as a take-off on the stamps. Putting pen to paper though, I hesitated. Did I want sinister Secret Service agents coming to my home or workplace, demanding an explanation of my motives and possibly harassing my friends and family? Did I have the wherewithal – money, lawyer, publicity machine – to fight such a violation? Caving into cowardice or prudence, and hoping others might be braver, I decided not to risk it.

The threat in this situation is not to Bush’s physical well-being. A framed work of art doesn’t leap off the wall to attack the President. Clearly the only reason for this investigation is to intimidate artists, to chill the expression of dissent. To threaten us with the realization that to speak certain thoughts aloud, to draw them on paper, to write them down, turns one into an instant suspect in the eyes of the state.

De Luna states, “It starts questioning all rights, not only my rights or the artists’ rights in this room, but questioning the rights of any artist who creates – any writer, any visual artist, any performance artist.”

When fear enters into the decision of whether or not to create a work of art, it’s clear where the threat lies.

Stephanie McMillian is an artist and cartoonist. Her cartoon “Minimum Security” appears regularly in Z magazine, The Humanist, ACTivist and other progressive and alternative publications. She can be reached at: steph@minimumsecurity.net










More articles by:
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography