Dear President Biden,
I know this whole letter is going to feel super random but I need (actually need) to tell you about something that’s been troubling me since early yesterday morning. I’m guessing you’ve known about it since January 6th or 7th and that I’m just late to the party, but yesterday when I opened Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas’s, WP Op Ed “How My DHS Will Combat Domestic Extremism” I finally saw the picture of the “THIS IS ART” sign affixed to the gallows platform the terrorists erected in front of the Capitol. Although everything Secretary Mayorkas said in his editorial made sense and I appreciate him writing it, it was that image that stuck with me – actually, it’s haunted me.
I’ve tried to find out about the sign (e.g., what was the intent, who made it and put it there, what are people’s takes on it, etc.) and I’ve come up with precious little – no one claiming responsibility, no one unpacking possible meaning/intentions – basically nada. There are a couple of articles that reference its existence, but that’s all. I’m guessing the reason for the radio silence is that no self-respecting liberal-ish person (except, apparently, me) wants to indulge whomever added the sign by taking it seriously enough to think/write about what might have motivated it and what the implications of it might be.
Fair. Totally fair.
But it’s bugging me.
I’m guessing the general assumption on the part of liberal-ish people is that whoever put that sign there was poking at “The Elites” with a “how about this mind-f*ck play on “art”?” sort of contemptuousness. I mean, really, there’s little chance that whoever put it up was making an actual, sincere statement about conceptual art. But why bother with those words? Why not use the board, paint, stencils, nails, time, effort, and thought to make some badass DJT statement? Yes, such statements were a dime a dozen during the siege, but that spot on the gallows was prime and would have had a lot of visibility.
I think that when I’m finished with this letter, I’ll be able to let this go, but first I want to see if I can unpack some possible implications. First, if the art world, or at least some corner of it, was/is willing to see Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (the upside down urinal he signed “R. Mutt 1917”), as art, as in “real art,” then it stands to reason that pretty much anything can be construed as art, including a sick symbol of White supremacy and fascism. If I decide that a random spool of gray thread is art and I put it forward as art, then technically it’s art. Ok. So there’s that angle. Another angle that occurs to me is that maybe the sign is referencing the performative aspect of erecting a gallows, complete with noose, in front of the Capitol. It’s clear that the noose couldn’t possibly have functioned as such and that the gallows wasn’t meant to be the real thing – it was a sick, menacing, but not actually threatening, construction that sent a horrible message in very dramatic fashion. The last possibility that occurs to me is that the intention was to say the sign itself was/is art, as in literally, this thing that says it is art, is art. This is pretty plausible, but it can’t be denied that most all of its attention-grabbing quality derives from where it was displayed.
(The last idea did lead me, though, to think about making a series of prints – and framing and showing them – that say things like “THIS IS NOT ART” or “THIS ISN’T ART EITHER” and maybe putting an unframed scrap of cardboard nearby that says “THIS IS ART.” If they wouldn’t forever be associated with the grim gallows sign, I’d be really tempted to do it. Sigh.)
I know in the end it doesn’t matter to anyone else whether “THIS IS ART” is a valid statement in this context, but it’s clearly messing with my head that it might, technically, be necessary, on principle, to accept the statement as valid and true. I don’t like it, but I think this take is correct.
May we be safe from over-thinking things (this would have been handy an hour ago).
May we be willing, though, to muck around with uncomfortable ideas.
May we sometimes indulge our strong stubborn streaks.
May we accept that we can’t claim the high road and have things both ways (as in, it doesn’t work to claim that whatever I say is art, is art, but whatever you, domestic terrorist, say is art, is not).