Become a Patron!

LISTEN HERE (Support this project at patreon.com/AfricanElements)

Art and politics have long had a complex relationship. From late show monologues to editorial cartoons, politics has long been a muse for creativity and commentary.  

And politicians have used art as a tool to engage and connect with voters — as seen in the many battles over the use of popular music in political campaigns. The complexity of that relationship has only intensified as political divisions have grown. 

So, in this politically polarized and media-saturated world, what lies ahead at the intersection of art and politics? Zydalis Bauer spoke with political consultant Ryan McCollum to find out. 

Learn what goes into the art of crafting political cartoons in our digital exclusive feature on editorial cartoonist Chan Lowe.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Art and politics have long had a complex relationship. From late show monologues to editorial cartoons, politics has long been a muse for creativity and commentary, and politicians have used art as a tool to engage and connect with voters, as seen in the many battles over the use of popular music in political campaigns.

And the complexity of that relationship has only intensified as political divisions have grown. So, in this politically polarized and media-saturated world, what lies ahead at the intersection of art and politics?

Ryan McCollum, Political Consultant: From the beginning of — of politics, from the beginning of democracy, art has had an impact on on politics. Because both art and politics are very broad subjects,  they — they have to have an impact on one another.

And so, whether it’s — whether it’s music or poetry or the fine arts, like we talk about when we talk about paintings and drawings and sculptures, but also in campaign art, right?

So, propaganda — for lack of better words — needs to be appealing to make your case. And so, when you’re working on a political campaign, the logo, the lawn sign, everything that is part of your campaign should be aesthetically pleasing, right? And that takes artists, whether they’re digital artists or hard artists, right?

So, I think of Shepard Fairey’s poster of Obama that said “Hope,” right? That was a very sticky image, to use kind of a marketing term. People remember that poster of Obama done by an artist. If you go back to JFK, some of his posters were very artsy, for lack of a better word.

So, even when you’re running a smaller campaign, the logos can be very important. If you have a true digital artist doing some of those logos, it’s helpful.

And same thing when it comes to the larger campaigns, right? So, Trump’s folks and Biden’s folks or Trump’s folks and Hillary Clinton’s folks, they definitely leverage artists in thir campaigns.

Zydalis Bauer: The art world tends to lean more towards the liberal side of politics. Why do you think this is the case and why don’t we see more conservative art and artists?

Ryan McCollum: You know, historically, it seems like that in America. I think maybe because, you know, you can’t — you also can’t divorce politics and social movements. And our social movements in America have tend to be more progressive and to be more liberal, whether it’s the Civil Rights Era or the Protest Generation during the Vietnam War.

And so, artists tend to be a little bit more liberal, right? They tend to be, you know, live in more liberal places and have more liberal and free thought ideas and are usually trying to get across the message of love and peace and change.

But that’s not to say there’s not conservative artists, right? There’s not — there’s plenty of conservative artists. There’s plenty of — especially coming out of the faith community, right?

So, you know, nowadays, if you look at the country — the country music genre, they tend to be more conservative. And they might not be outright saying, you know, “I’m a Trump guy,” but they say things that are more conservative about standing up for the national anthem and protecting their Second Amendment rights.

So, there’s not a lack of it. I just think that just through organic, you know, just through time in America, that’s social change piece and politics are so interwoven that, you know, artists tend to be a bit more liberal.

Zydalis Bauer: That brings me to my next question because music seems to be a different medium where more conservative voices are shared.

You mentioned country music, rock and roll. We’ve had Ted Nugent; Kid Rock; recently, western Mass’s own Aaron Lewis. They’ve been outspoken in their views throughout their music.

Ryan McCollum: I don’t know if it’s about, like, comfort level to have a voice. I think it’s everybody loves music. And if 35 percent or 40 percent or 50 percent of the country is conservative, then it might be reflected in their in their music.

When we talk about artists, the good artists, right, hopefully it’s not contrived, right? So, like Aaron Lewis, who’s a local guy, feels these feelings. That — those are his principles and those principles are going to come across in his music. I don’t agree with them, but at least he’s staying true to himself.

And so, you know, while somebody like that may lose some people, he’s probably gaining some folks as well.

Zydalis Bauer: Switching gears just a little bit, throughout presidential elections, we have seen the clash between arts and politics.

The first major collision, according to Rolling Stone, was Bruce Springsteen objecting to Reagan’s use of “Born in the USA.” And more recently, we saw Neil Young and Pharrell Williams stopping the Trump campaign from using their music.

Ryan McCollum: I think the overlap is necessary, right? So…because art in politics again, like I said, are so, so, so deeply impactful on our lives and also just have no choice but to be interwoven.

But like I just said, artists are humans and they have their own principles, as well. And so, you know, Pharrell or Neil Young not wanting President Trump or former President Trump to be using their music is, it’s their right. It’s their — it’s their work.

Zydalis Bauer: Late night comedy monologues are filled with political commentary. Does poking fun at politicians and government help to hold them accountable?

Ryan McCollum: Sure. Satire is– has long been used as a — as an art form to — to hold elected officials or leaders in- check, or at least to — to — to let the populace know and think about things in a different way. Whether it’s Trevor Noah or Jimmy Kimmel, or even some conservative folks on radio shows who make fun of liberals.

It’s…it — it’s part of.. it’s part of the ethos, it’s part of what happens. But comedy is an art form. Satire is an art form. And and again, you can’t separate art from politics.

Zydalis Bauer: Political cartoons is another art form that has been around for a really long time. According to Britannica.com, the first known American cartoon was published by Benjamin Franklin in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754.

Ryan McCollum: Definitely. Just like just like satire and just like a monologue, a political cartoon, when done — when effective, will give the voter a different aspect that they might not have seen. To make it absurd, or to make it ridiculous, and to put it into a cartoon format, allows your mind to maybe look at that issue in a different way.

Zydalis Bauer: The politics of now can be viewed very differently with the passage of time. What role, if any, does art have on how history looks at notable political moments?

Ryan McCollum: Yeah. So again, to keep it pretty local, one of my favorite pieces of political art is in the Springfield Art Museum, the D’Amour Museum.

And its a “Historic Monument of the American Republic.” It’s a huge painting when you first walk in, and it’s done in the romantic sense and the true sense of Romanticism. So it’s Roman, right? So, it looks like you’re in Italy, but all these different events that took place to help form America are in there, right?

And the artist is very clever of how he puts those different events in this huge painting, that looks like it’s some kind of monument in Rome. You know, again, whether it’s a bust of Benjamin Franklin himself, or it’s a statue of this or that, I think it’s very interesting.

The — one of the best piece of pieces of art now, in my opinion, is there’s a Robert E. Lee statue that has been transformed with graffiti and different pieces of art all over the statue and projection on the statue, as almost taking that old piece of art and making it new, in politics of now, to protest — you know, to say “Black Lives Matter.”

And so, that piece of art, right? Using that medium of a of a Civil War general who wanted to keep Black people enslaved, to now say “Black Lives Matter” is very interesting.

Zydalis Bauer: In this politically polarized world saturated with media, what lies ahead for the intersection of art and politics?

Ryan McCollum: People are consuming art much more differently in their homes, on their phones, on their computers, right? And so, I think that’s going to continue to be the case.

I think as politics have changed over the hundreds of years, so has art changed for over hundreds of years, but they’ve always been hand-in-hand. So, I think as our politics change and you know, we are polarized to a degree, I think — I would — I would posit that we we’ve been pretty polarized in the past, as well.

And it’s always when you’re when you’re in the now, you always say, “Oh, it’s never been this bad, right?” But like, Oh, it was pretty bad and my grandfather couldn’t drink from a certain water fountain, right? Like, that’s that’s pretty polarizing, right?

And so it does feel very polarized nowadays, but we’ve always kind of had that and that — and that is the — that’s what makes America kind of great, right? It’s — it’s, you know, or democracy great.

I know Churchill said “Democracy is the worst form of government besides every other form of government,”right? So it’s — it’s — it’s bad, it seems bad, but everything else is worse. And so, you know, as politics change and as we’re polarized, art is going to be the same way.

And like I said in the beginning, it can be beautiful art and things that are aesthetically pleasing to you that happened to take a different political stance than you. And people should be comfortable enough to admit that.

Holyoke-based artist and Westfield State University Professor Imo Imeh is set to debut a new project entitled in his name at Pulp Gallery in Holyoke on January 15th.  

The exhibit, which focuses on the January 6, 2021, insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, has been a work in progress for several months now.  

Connecting Point visited Imeh this past summer during the early stages of the project, and we rejoined Imeh in him Holyoke studio recently to learn more about both the completed exhibition and how the events at the U.S. Capitol one year ago inspired the collection.  

Imo Imeh explains the meaning “and i’ll be there with you,” one of the works featured in this collection, in a digital exclusive.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Local artist and Westfield State University Professor Imo Imeh is set to debut a new project entitled in his name at Pulp Gallery in Holyoke on January 15th.

The exhibit, which focuses on the January 6th insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, has been a work in progress for several months now.

Connecting Point visited him this past summer during the early stages of the project, and we rejoined Imeh in his Holyoke-based studio recently to learn more about both the completed exhibition and the inspiration behind it.

Imo Imeh, Artist & Educator: It’s been a really grueling, but somehow purging process of working on on these drawings. And they’re large, they’re large images.

As I’ve been working on them, I’ve been, you know, coming to terms, not — not just with what happened on January 6th, because January 6th, really, for me represents a culmination of of many things that we’ve seen over the last decade, not just the last four or five years, but really over the last decade. And January 6th, in many ways, represents the American story, in so many ways.

And so, as I’ve been developing the drawings, I have been doing a lot of writing on the side, and taking a lot of notes, and realizing that the story is so much greater than any one day. And so, that has informed the — the — the works themselves. It’s informed the direction that I’ve wanted to take with some of the pieces.

And if works are still in progress, they’re still in development, it’s in many ways informed how I’ll bring them to an end. And at some point I really did decide at some point, “Imo, you have to bring the works to an end,” right? They can’t just keep going on.

But there’s so many stories that are tied in with them. And so it’s exciting. It’s a little depressing, if I’m honest with you, and somewhere in all of that is…my tremendous appreciation that I have art as an expression at this time.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, as you mentioned, this exhibit is through your viewpoint of the events that took place on January 6th.

Why did you choose the title “in his name,” and what drew you to create an exhibit on this event?

Imo Imeh: I chose in his name — all lowercase, okay — because I feel, as a Black Christian man, part of — part of the rupture, part of the scatter — the scattering that I have felt emotionally, has been around the idea that in my lifetime now, I have had a chance to really witness what I’ve seen in history books, certainly in the last century, the last two hundred years in the United States, where people have used the name of God to do the most vile, the most horrific things.

It is a sad, sad, sad realization to understand that so many people who claim to to believe in the same things that you believe in, only believe in those things to the degree that it may afford them a certain kind of license or power to harm others.

And so, the title for me is appropriate. In whose name? The his is, if it was capitalized, might might be talking, right, about about the Christian Jesus, right?

But because everything is in lowercase, it allows me to really frame this as a big question. Why? What exactly — in whose name are you doing this? It couldn’t possibly be the Jesus Christ of Nazareth that I worship.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, let’s talk a little bit about the artwork that will be featured in this exhibit.

As I was walking around, I noticed that many of the pieces are black and white, but there is one piece that does incorporate some color and some interesting materials.

So, talk to me about the decision to incorporate color in one of these and the material that you used.

Imo Imeh: Black and white…let’s start with the black and white. I have had a series of projects over the last couple of years that have really incorporated the use of black and white. And black and white is nice because it forces me, as an artist, to tell what might be a violent, what might be an aggressive story, with these very simple designs, right, in black and white.

And the pieces that I’m working on almost feel like political cartoons, right? There’s something that’s cartoon-y about them, there’s something that’s exaggerated about them. And I think that black and white allows our imaginations to go in many directions, because the color isn’t there to define everything for you. So — so, the black and white is a nice feel, and it’s something haunting about the images in black and white.

The — the work that has color in it currently, and I don’t know if all of them will, but the one that currently has color is titled “and i’ll be there with you.” And that is a work that features a female in the center of the canvas, who is laid out in a pose as if she’s being carried. And that female represents the woman who was shot at the Capitol.

Her name is Ashli Babbitt. She is, in many ways, a tragic figure. And that piece has color for a very specific reason. I chose to do a work about Ashli Babbitt before the controversy of her martyrdom and her perceived martyrdom and everything else.

Imo Imeh: And, you know, news channels and everything were talking about her, I knew that I had to do a work on her, or about her, because of what she represents. She represents really America’s everyman or everywoman, right?

But she…she’s a veteran. I mean, let’s start there, right? She’s a veteran, who in many ways became the definition of, I don’t want to say a traitor or someone who does treason, but — but someone who wanted to overthrow her own government. And so, her story is fascinating in how she was killed.

I was interested in painting a picture of someone who stumbled into a pit, really of her own making, but is now being held up not by anyone’s arms, but by the very stakes that the flags that cover her were meant to carry. The flag motifs that are around her body are her covering. These are the things that, in some ways, the ideals that in some ways that she carried the things that she believed.

But the title of the work also tells you a ton about what you need to know about this image. The title “and i’ll be there with you” sounds biblical, but it’s — it’s right out of the transcript of what Donald Trump said before she rushed the Capitol and was killed.

Imo Imeh: And he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there. She died alone.

And so her figure is taken from a work by Michelangelo titled “Pietà,” where the form of Jesus is being held by the Virgin Mary after he’s been crucified. I’ve replaced her body with that of Jesus because in some minds, she really has become a martyr. But in many minds, in my own included, she’s just a really, really, really tragic figure.

And that some how comes to represent where we are in the United States right now, where we are as a nation, where the belief in nothing can potentially bring you to death. But then, in the same way, that death can be — can be raised up to something really that it shouldn’t be, you know? And so, to kind of crystallize all of that into something that makes a little more sense, all right?

The flags covering her body represents some of the ideals for which she was killed, for which she died. But she’s being held up really by no hand, certainly not by the hands of Donald Trump. And the big question is, you know, if he wasn’t there for her, who was, in her death?

And so for me, she isn’t a political figure. She’s a tragic figure and somehow an indication of the larger, the larger trauma that this nation is currently undergoing.

Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned that some of these pieces feel like political cartoons to you.

What challenges do you encounter working on pieces like this when it’s talking about politics? And do you ever fear being too controversial?

Imo Imeh: I don’t fear being too controversial because…I have been afforded a station as an artist, as a professor, as a writer, as a speaker, and not everybody has a station like mine. And I’m very aware of that.

This particular body of work is special because, while it uses January 6th and the Capitol insurrection as a launching pad to have a bigger conversation, it dives into — it delves into these very, very tragic histories that have come to inform who I am as an African-American man.

And so is there a way, for example, to see gallows that are built at the Capitol? And yes, while people are chanting, “Hang Mike Pence?” Is there a way for me, as a Black man who understands that the Capitol at its core was built by African-American slaves? Can I un-see the historical gallows that killed so many of my people and not one hundred years ago? Is it — can I unsee that?

Yes, they were saying, “Hang Mike Pence.” No, they didn’t hang Black people at the Capitol on January 6th. But how can I see and hear the things that I saw and heard that day and not immediately be transported into my own history in this nation?

And that’s why there is this Black male that appears there, this angelic form, that reminds us that there were Black witnesses to other kinds of gallows that were built in this nation, not that long ago.

And it’s also an opportunity to warn of the fact that America doesn’t do a very good job with regaling its own history and with re-telling it. And we are constantly doomed to repeat the mistakes that we made in the past.

And so, as an artist, this is my opportunity to speak truth — maybe for the purposes of education — and also just as a purging, as a purging, and as a way of as a way of helping me to negotiate my own space in this nation.

Zydalis Bauer: This exhibit will also include the musical composition of Haneef Nelson.

Why did you want to include music as part of this exhibit? How do the two artistic mediums collaborate to tell the story of “in his name?”

Imo Imeh: Haneef is a tremendous composer and musician, and for me, the story is so much bigger than just the visual expression. The story is musical. It is textual. The idea of marrying image with caption. The idea of marrying image with melody to tell a fuller, broader, and more accurate story is something that I’ve wanted to do for years.

The reason why I’m bringing these two items together, and then later on text and prose, is because the story is big enough. The story is big enough and expansive enough that it needs to be told from these different angles.

Zydalis Bauer: And speaking of that conversation, as an artist, what do you see as the role of art and politics being?

Imo Imeh: Oh, I don’t think that — I don’t — I don’t know if art and politics can ever be separated. I just don’t know if it it’s possible.

I won’t say that the best art always speaks to politics. I won’t say that at all. I don’t think that’s true. But I know from myself, I — I think that art has allowed me to find my voice within a very political realm.

And so now that the skill is honed, and now that I’m of an age where I can actually marry my ideas with the techniques, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to host a conversation about these things and and because I have the platform to do so, I just feel like it’s the right thing to do.

Zydalis Bauer: When we last spoke to you, you stated that you refuse to separate yourself from this story and you’re unapologetic about it.

What conversations do you hope people have when they are engaging with this exhibit?

Imo Imeh: Ok, so the good professorial answer would be “I hope that this sparks a conversation about race.” And I don’t know if I believe that anymore.

I am very, very, very satisfied with these ideas, as uncomfortable as they are, and as honest as they are, and as raw as they are, and as unedited as they are — it’s the other thing about these images I’m working on: they’re not edited. They’re black and white on canvas, I’m not doing a lot of erasing. They’re — they’re there. I am okay with these images and accompanying text and accompanying musical scores, sitting and making people think and maybe even causing some discomfort. I am okay if that’s all that happens, for now.

That is not to say that I don’t want to have another conversation about race in America. We have had those! We have had them. I don’t know if that’s my job anymore.

I think that presenting the information and allowing people to walk away, perhaps with a new body of knowledge that they didn’t have prior to seeing the images and reading the text and hearing the melodies, maybe that by itself can do something.

And if more comes from that, then that responsibility should be on all of us: the artists and the viewers, right? The — the — the performers and the audience somehow working together to push this nation into a new place, that is something we do together. There’s no one person or group of people that can do that.

And so, that is where I am with this project and there’s something that has been fulfilling about working on them in that capacity.

This content was originally published here.

Back To Top
%d bloggers like this: