WASHINGTON — Pablo Picasso once described an artist as “a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.” Picasso’s definition of an artist may hold true, but artists today have depicted the political world through vastly different lenses, and not surprisingly, along party lines.
Figures like President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders have become heroic deities in some corners of the art world, with a style colloquially known as fan art.
Cartoons of Trump holding a smiling Garfield, Trump clutching an RPG with muscles that would make even Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous and a superhero-clad Bernie Sanders are all examples that a quick google search will reveal.
These pieces of fan art only begin to scratch the surface of a world of political art fetishizing modern political figures, created by artists out of support for campaign efforts, commendation for policies or even advocacy for fringe, controversial ideologies.
Philip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post, said political cartoons are “distillations and they’re often edgy and dangerous.” The best ones have an idea that you might not have wanted to think or may not have thought explicitly, but they manifest in a way that’s visually humorous, he added.
For artists across the nation, and even the world, the 2016 presidential election was the perfect time to share this type of work.
Elizabeth Zheng is the creator of a cartoon depicting Donald Trump and the comic book cat, Garfield, lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes in front of an American flag. The 15-year-old Trump supporter from Queenstown, New Zealand, said she supports his policies on trade and immigration and will keep making Trump fan art as long as he is in office.
Cartoons like Zheng’s are common on online art forums and anonymous chat rooms that easily can become political echo chambers.
Susan Dufresne wanted to bring her politically motivated art to a wider audience. In 2015 she started an art-sharing group on Facebook called Artists for Bernie Sanders with two goals: have a platform for talented artists to share their work and get Bernie Sanders elected.
The page features distinct portrayals of Sanders that echo everything from his campaign slogan to policy proposals. “Bernie inspired artists across not just the nation, but the world, and people just started flocking to this group during the campaign,” she said.
Many images on the page Artists for Bernie Sanders incorporate humor, which Kennicott said “makes it easier in a way to ponder the idea because it seems on one level to be absurd and ridiculous, but yet it’s an idea that has resonance; therefore, you give it some consideration.”
A Vashon Island , Washington native, Dufresne lives in one of the most ardently liberal places in the United States. During the 2016 election, her county led all other U.S. counties in per capita contributions to the Sanders campaign with $2,258 donated per 1,000 people, according to The Seattle Times.
“Historically, art and cartoons have always had a place in politics,” she said. “The difference that I see in Artists for Bernie is the positivity. A lot of political cartooning is mean-spirited or sarcastic, and sometimes people don’t understand that humor. But this is different, the positivity should be emphasized.”
Dufresne supports Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid, and the group remains an active spot for artists to share their Sanders-inspired work.
Where Dufresne’s fan art optimistically idolizes Sanders, other artists use the medium to communicate marginal ideologies.
One particular collection of political art from artist Jon Proby explores several deeper religious and historical themes than just a superimposed picture of Donald Trump as The Terminator. Proby, an unapologetic resister of “groupthink and liberalism,” created most of his art for no single audience or subsect of the political world, but rather as his own interpretation of America’s political evolution.
“The people that find interest will find interest and the people that will find offense will find that, too,” Proby said.
While Proby’s art showers praise on other figures like Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, Alex Jones of Infowars and Wikileakers founder Julian Assange, several of his paintings depict violent images and controversial figures used by the alt-right movement as memes to promote far right ideologies.
When asked about the association of certain figures in his art with the white nationalist movement, Proby said it “is like saying everyone that eats cereal is a white nationalist because white nationalists eat cereal.”
Kennicott said Proby’s controversial symbols and depictions of politics is part of a growing movement in the art world.
“At the current moment, there is an emergence of an interesting new phenomenon, which is a group of artists – who probably aren’t associated as a group — who are trying to put their work not just out into the world, but into the mainstream art world,” Kennicott said. “Often times, their work is filled with some pretty disturbing imagery. It’s sometimes overtly racist or gets close to racist.”
He described Proby’s work as “over-deterministic” and “quite frankly not good art,” but for Kennicott it signaled something more about the alt-right movement at large.
For years, artists on the political fringes have been trying to penetrate the mainstream art scene, said Kennicott. “Their voices are being squelched so they’re making art [because] they can’t get anyone to pay attention.”
Artists can ascribe a personal meaning to recognizable symbols to avoid social critique, Kennicott said. “It’s a way for them to use the symbol but not take responsibility for its immediate manifest content.”
The subtleties, messages, audiences and platforms allow people to visually express their true thoughts. While the convergence of art and politics isn’t a new development, its new manifestations have taken on forms different than past artistic trailblazers.