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Something’s in the water.

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Vincent Valdez, a sharp and respected young artist from San Antonio, is currently at work on a piece that landed him in the New York Times’ Sunday Review a couple of days ago. And it should have. The massive painting, still in progress, is called The City, though the Times’ headline is “An All-American Family Portrait, in White,” because this 30-foot-long tour de force shows an extended and rangy gathering of Ku Klux Klan members. I haven’t yet seen the painting in person (it will debut this fall at David Shelton’s gallery in Houston), and there’s only a partial shot of it in the Times, but you can see that it’s startling and larger-than-life. In Valdez’s way, it pulls no punches; he has always been a politicized artist. The Times’ writer, Lawrence Downes, describes The City this way:

One holds a beer, one holds a baby, one checks his iPhone. One, with a woman’s hands, whispers to another. It is after dark. Dust swirls in the glowing headlights of a Chevy pickup, the main source of light other than a pinhole moon and the nighttime grid of a city in the distance. 

In other words, these are your neighbors, your relatives, your co-workers. This is the banality of evil, right under your nose, as it most often is.

Valdez started the painting back in the fall, before the white supremacy narrative fully invaded election coverage. It was only a week ago that Trump pointedly failed to denounce David Duke and his grotesque voting block, and the GOP establishment realized (and at least pretended to panic) that the party’s trusty old dog whistle (the one Lee Atwater invented in the 1980s for the election of George H.W.) has been retired for good in favor of the party’s followers’ and candidates’ outright xenophobia and racism. The Times’ column’s headline and this description of the painting sum up what is at least that writer’s projection about this particular work of art: We are all complicit. This is a great example of the Times’ time-honored op-ed hand-wringing, and in this case I’m right there with it. Living in Texas, i.e. the heart of darkness and the home base of Ted Cruz (surely the scariest likely presidential candidate I’ll witness in my lifetime), I’m looking to almost every artist (and myself), for signs of kicking and screaming. Now really isn’t the time to navel gaze or decorate.

Even if you’re generally conservative, what is at stake in this election is the well-being and freedom of someone you love and worry about. Probably a lot of people and things you love and worry about, including things you love about this big, generous, messy, complicated state of Texas. Artists and musicians and writers and filmmakers have always been good at sounding the alarm. I’d sure like to see more of it right here at home. Why not?

Unapologetic political art (there are subtler kinds) has an excellent track record. Hogarth, Goya, Beckmann, Dix, Posada, Orozco, Picasso. Artists who saw which way the wind was blowing and shuddered, and reflected this fear and disgust right back into society’s face. As the Times points out, Valdez’ painting calls back to Guston’s Klan figures—unpopular when they debuted and now one of the things he’s most known and valued for. We can make arguments that political art is often heavy-handed and easily dated, and we’d be right. An artist can fight this problem by going with an abstracted, tasteful, ultra-dignified variety of political art: Doris Salcedo. Rachel Whiteread. But that’s not going to cut through the toxic sludge that’s jamming up every circuit of our lives right now. Artists would do well to tap their inner revolutionary. The darker chapters of history have a nasty habit of repeating, and disgust is forever.

Much of our population here in Texas and beyond is currently lined up in the gun sights of the calcified few. Some of the targets: seemingly all black people, all Latinos, all women, queers. Academics and educators, scientists, young singles, people who care about the welfare of the planet. Artists. People who produce culture. Why is Vincent Valdez the only Texas artist making something that’s made international news?

 

(image of Valdez in his San Antonio studio: Michael Stravato for The New York Times)

also by Christina Rees
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25 Responses

  1. We remember great political art because it was good art, not because of its politics. (Does anyone today care all that much about the invasion of Spain by Napoleon?) Most political art has ended up on the trash heap of art history, because most political artwork is bad. I dread going to an art exhibit that I know will be overtly political because I feel torn between feeling obliged to support it because of the righteousness of its cause or allowing myself to see it simply as art (and to like or dislike on those terms).

    1. Paula Newton

      I know the feeling, Robert, but I must point to the Station Museum. They mostly show “unapologetic political art” and they manage to put together some fantastic exhibitions.

    2. glenn miller

      Most attempted art is bad in general but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.
      So political art should be attempted because maybe someone will hit something important.

    3. Michael morris

      I’d maybe reformulate what you said here, Robert. Id say there is a good deal of political art that fulfills an immediate need and doesn’t age well. One of the bigger pitfalls than this art being didactic, IMO, is that the “political” becomes an aesthetic that fits nicely into the structures it ought to be critical of, rather than a real call for revolution. The art that endures often has a different relationship to time than the art that needs to be immediate, out of desperation, etc.

  2. Lynn Randolph

    You may want to check out the Corpocracy show at The Station, where political art in Texas has a deep history, also the Human Right collection at the University of South Texas has been collecting political art made in Texas for several years.

  3. seth

    Nobody ever looked at a painting and said “oh yeah, war and racism are bad things… never mind, let’s not bomb that country.” Why does anyone think art has that much power? Put up a billboard that says DON’T KILL PEOPLE and see if the murder stats go down. I doubt it. Even less effect is a painting in a gallery. I’m pretty sure anyone looking at a painting that calls out racism already thinks racism sucks. It’s preaching to the choir. This isn’t a judgement call about the quality of any of this art, I just don’t think art-as-protest does any more than holding up a sign on a street corner. If anyone out there has an example of art effecting political policy I would love to hear it because I would love to be wrong. I would love to believe art can save the world.

    1. Britt Thomas

      I would argue that political artists do not seek to change policy, but to provoke needed dialogue among viewers. Expanding on your example: if you construct a billboard saying “DON’T KILL PEOPLE”, it may not necessarily stop all murders or change gun laws, but it will get locals talking, debating, maybe arguing. And just maybe, it will prevent one murder… change one mind. That would change at least one person’s world.

      1. Dave Cearley

        Seth I’m struggling to understand how you could possibly believe art doesn’t affect political policy, at every level of government. It sounds like you’ve bought into that whole victim meme that tells you we need strong arm politicians to effect change because we’re all so “powerless”. BS. You don’t think the photograph of that Syrian toddler washed up on the beach impacted political policy, or the children’s art from the Sudan or soldier’s drawings from Viet Nam, or art by victims of the Holocaust? Heck, Fairey’s poster of Obama impacted politics, and the cartoons of repugs rolling grandma in a wheelchair off a cliff impact policy and more importantly, moves public opinion that drives policy. On a more personal level, I completely reject the progressive screed embedded in this reportage, but I LOVE the symbolism of the art work. Evil really is in the banal. A lesson we all need reminding of occasionally.

    2. Thomas Nast is judged to have helped bring down Boss Tweed, the ultra-corrupt lead of Tammany Hall (the “machine” that controlled NYC municipal politics for about 100 years). His cartoons identifying Tweed as the corrupt puppet-mster of Tammany lead to reversals for the Tammany slate at the ballot box in 1871, and Tweed was prosecuted shortly thereafter. Tweed escaped and fled to Spain in 1975, but he was recognized by a Spanish official from Nast’s cartoons. This is one case where art can be said to have legitimately affected politics.

      Nast was operating in a mass medium (so his work was seen by thousands) and his work was accessible (many Tammany supporters were illiterate, but the cartoons didn’t require literacy). Paintings in a gallery or museum are unlikely to ever have similar effect, but it is possible to say that J-L David’s pro-Republican paintings, The Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons had some effect. I don’t know if these paintings were reproduced as popular prints (as was often the case in those days), which may have given them greater impact.

  4. “Why is Vincent Valdez the only Texas artist making something that’s made international news?”

    Oh we’re out here Christina, but apparently it takes a Times article for Texas writers to notice.

    “We remember great political art because it was good art, not because of its politics. (Does anyone today care all that much about the invasion of Spain by Napoleon?)
    Most political art has ended up on the trash heap of art history, because most political artwork is bad. “

    Robert, that position is narrow and reductive in my opinion. You can’t ignore the context in which a work of art is made. Nobody may care now of the Napoleonic Wars, but the reason that work of art is remembered is because of the context in which it was made. Any work of art that is remembered is based in placing it in the context of history, including figurative or abstract works. To negate that history is a bit disingenuous.

    I had a professor once tell me that the beauty of the art world is that it can even find a place for the duck painter. But I am surprised at the level of resistance that artists who speak about matters of politics or social change receive in the U.S., which in my opinion puts our contemporary art scene behind much of the rest of the world.

    And the statement that most political art is bad I think is hyperbolic. I would argue there are probably more bad still-lifes being made in the U.S. than political art, but no one ever criticizes that with the same disdain. Maybe most art is bad – OK. Maybe including mine… OK. But why is one subject more palatable within the broader frame of Art?

    Political work is simply another subject – and its merits are just as valid as any other type of work… including duck paintings.

    1. OK, I’ll bite. Most still-lifes are terrible. As are most duck paintings. (These facts seem so commonplace that they aren’t really worth mentioning, except that you brought them up as part of your argument.)

  5. Well, I don’t think that art can save the world, agree with a bunch of Seth’s points. Re painting in a gallery, I’ll bet that a gallery’s audience isn’t exclusively liberal and that some galleries in Texas and beyond might think twice before putting up work like Vincent Valdez’s. And I suppose that one Republican candidate for President is giving artists more than enough inspiration to respond, from their guts, to what that candidate represents. I think it’s Vincent’s personal Letter to the Editor created with a brush as opposed to a pen.

  6. Juan Miro's bastard child's child

    Ed Blackburn? Robert Pruitt? Hell, Valdez’s mentor Alex Rubio? They all make art that is politically motivated, might not be overt enough for some.

    Let’s get them an article too.

    Between crappy governors, senators and councilmen, artists should have material for days.

  7. Christopher Blay

    If your politic as a person, is apathy or indifference, you can comfortably compartmentalize your response to the world from your art practice. You feel no urge to respond to the world with what you make, and you have no conflict in that regard. Artist make the things they have to make, regardless of a sympathetic audience or quantifying their impact. Vincent makes what he makes because he has a microphone and sees it as a way of marking the times in which he lives. This op Ed feels like a challenge and encouragement for like minded artists to consider, in a current political and social environment where the loudest and most vehement voices go unchallenged.

  8. Billy Kirkland

    However trite it may be, I can never get enough of generic Southern white people being portrayed/exposed as Klansmen! It just never gets old!

    In addition to all the wonderfully evocative details present in this painting, e.g.,“One holds a beer, one holds a baby, one checks his iPhone. One, with a woman’s hands, whispers to another. It is after dark. Dust swirls in the glowing headlights of a Chevy pickup, the main source of light other than a pinhole moon and the nighttime grid of a city in the distance.”, I could easily imagine/picture Chik-Fil-A boxes littering the ground, spilling their partially consumed homophobic contents on the red dirt. Such a powerful work!

    I live in this heart of darkness known as Austin,Texas, the only major metropolitan city that’s actually seeing a decrease in its African American population. I’m white, so I wonder if I too should be afraid of my neighbors, my family and my co-workers. We all understand that it’s just too damn easy to be blind to one’s own complicity in the perpetuation of evil through the banal privilege of one’s own skin color. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out, I fear all of us white people will never understand what it’s like to be poor, to be homeless, to be imprisoned, to be oppressed for our beliefs (religious or otherwise), etc. I vote for more art just like this!

    As an aside, I think this piece would make a wonderful addition to the lobby decor of the offices of the SPLC (hint hint David Shelton Gallery)! I could see Mark Potok using it to great effect as a backdrop for his appearances on national media. What better image for highlighting the existential threat posed to our nation by white supremacists, domestic extremists, bitter clingers and Trump supporters (who are all neatly summed in this painting “The City”, or as the NYTimes would have it, “An All-American Family Portrait, in White”) than this work?!!!

    If it hasn’t yet occurred to you, it’s time to wake up Amerika!

    p.s., Chunky Mark, The Artist Taxi Driver, is also an advocate for a more politically engaged art practice…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swyAN7j1R7E&spfreload=10

  9. Ginger Geyer

    My inner revolutionary is boiling over, yet twice this week I’ve come across readings that uphold an alternative to throwing artistic grenades in times like this: 1) Pissarro’s People, an exhibition and book by Rick Brettell (2011) shows Pissarro’s anarchism expressed in two ways–a personal set of drawings of the disgraces of capitalism akin to Goya’s Disasters of War, followed by a series of serene landscapes populated by contented workers–the kind of impressionist scenes that most call “pretty” yet are radically political views of an anarchist utopia. 2) a review by Richard Brody in this week’s New Yorker of Terrence Malick’s new film which concludes with this quote: “You are not likely to be an angel; it’s not part of the job description for being in the business, or, for that matter, for being an artist. But be honest about your experiences, about your failings—and about your enduring intimations of beauty even in places and situations that you’d hesitate to call beautiful, because the production of beauty in a world of suffering, and from your own suffering, is the closest thing to a higher calling that an artist has, the closest thing to the religious experience that art has to offer.”

    Valdez’s painting is beautiful.

  10. Grant Thomas

    I suspect that neither the artist nor the editorialist recall the truth about the political leanings of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems to have been forgotten that the Ku Klux Klan was the enforcement and militaristic wing of the Democrat and segregationist southern politicians. Think of prominent former clan and segregationist members of the Democrat party: Robert Byrd, William Fulbright, George Wallace. While we all abhor racism, one must be careful in equating the current right-wing American political movement with it. In reality, recent history has demonstrated that the American left-wing is far more oriented toward racism. Now, back to the art – this certainly appears to be a powerful piece. However, its effect as lost as a jab at the right-wing given it its use of historic left-wing figures. A current corollary would be an admonishment of sexual harassment aimed at Donald Trump picturing Bill Clinton. At least, in that case, people would recognize the absurdity of it.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      The names of the parties change, but the fundamental poles–conservative and liberal–do not. Abraham Lincoln was a radical, progressive northerner, which hardly describes the GOP of today, although his nascent party was called “Republican.” The flight of conservative white southerners from the Democratic (Dixiecrat) party to the GOP in the 1970s is well-documented. George Wallace would no more be a Democrat today than Lincoln a Republican. You are correct, however, in saying there’s been plenty of racism to go around.

  11. Unfortunately this San Antonio artist, Valdez puts it out there in our face…yes the KKK still exists. But should
    we advertise for them? Trump has successfully bullied, shouted, roughed his way into the public media and
    has received a lot of ‘Free Press’. Take the other evening when Fox News gave him a whole hour of free time
    to talk about the near riots in Chicago. Bury those images and use the beautiful word to make sense of this world.
    (Or my bone images!)

  12. WOW! It’s great to be having this discussion about art and politics, and not about guns and politics, or Donald Trump. I “discovered” Vincent Valdez at the Blanton in Austin about a month ago. They have two of his “hanged men” paintings on view, and frankly, I think they are great paintings. Best new art that I have seen in a while. I don’t think that having a strong political statement usually raises the quality of art, but it is not a negative, and in the few pieces that I have seen by Valdez, it is so well integrated, so much a part of the impact of the work that it is hard to imagine the paintings without the politics. But if you prefer your politics without art, just watch the next presidential candidates debate.

  13. Quote on pablo picasso web site
    “As the artist once told author Antonina Vallentin, “A painting, for me, speaks by itself, what good does it do, after all, to impart explanations? A painter has only one language, as for the rest …” Picasso reportedly finished the sentence with a shrug.”

  14. My, my…. it’s been a long while since I’ve seen this many skirts get blown up all at the same time.. There must be something to this so-called political art.

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