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: firstname.lastname@example.org