“Why even make art in the face of cultural turmoil, political corruption, and nascent authoritarianism? … What can art even do? … Can it effect actual change, like, right now, when we need it?” These are questions posed by artist and writer Greg Allen, publisher the popular arts blog greg.org, in the introduction to his new Kickstarter project, Our Guernica, After Our Picasso.
Arguably the most important painting of the last century, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which depicted the 1937 firebombing of a Spanish Republican town by Nazi interventionists, was exhibited during the outbreak of WWII, rousing support for European and American anti-fascist movements—no longer seen as solely the interest of radical Leftists. The Greatest Generation was awoken, in a sense, by a painting.
But for all the good their Guernica indirectly inspired (the defeat of the Axis Powers, the establishment of the United Nations, a generally cooperative European continent…) the collapse of the Third Reich has since become a sort of moral permission slip for abuses committed by contemporary democratic governments, threatening to destabilize the most peaceful period in the history of the world. Late last year, the children of the Greatest Generation brought to power a postmodern demagogue, raising the question once again of what power art can have in such an environment. For Allen, this question became a call to action.
“I think I've had similar thoughts to a lot of artists and art-world folks, questioning the effectiveness or importance right now of what they do,” Allen tells Artspace via email. Taking inspiration from Picasso’s masterpiece and the production schematic developed by master painter of kitsch Thomas Kinkade—whose prints surely adorn walls within every suburb in America—Allen’s project will reproduce images of the Trumps’s rise to power in painting, beginning with a photo that Allen first saw on Twitter of Angela Merkel casting a sidelong glare at Ivanka Trump. “In that moment, I imaged Merkel was thinking what most people were,” Allen writes. “What is Ivanka doing here, and why should I listen to her?”
But Allen, whose work often references the stylistic and conceptual frameworks of famous artists, wants these paintings to emulate the “vision of the most famous painter of the day: George W. Bush.”
“I’ve long had issues with the attention or respect given [Bush’s] paintings,” Allen told Artspace. “Partly because that discussion displaces other issues about him, like his culpability for his wars. But also because of the default assumption we seem to have that artists, and thus art, inhabits some ethical plane. Bush and his new and ‘improved’ paintings were in the news already, getting far more attention than any other paintings at the moment (yes, even Open Casket), and that seemed relevant to me.”
Recently, the 43rd President has been seeking to redeem his political reputation by promoting his paintings, which were published as a best-selling book and are currently on view at his Presidential Center in Dallas. Although the subjects of Bush’s recent portraits are wounded veterans of the wars he committed them to fight, Bush learned his craft by painting portraits of other world leaders—including Angela Merkel.
“The idea of introducing Guernica into the convo is less about conflating Trump with the Nazis than about comparing Bush to Picasso,” Allen continued, “because [Guernica] was created in a hurry, as a direct response to eyewitness accounts and ensuing protests. But also because we have an idea that it’s the greatest political artwork—and yet it failed to achieve the stated purposes for which it was created. So where does that leave us?”
Allen writes on Kickstarter that he wouldn’t ask Bush to paint the picture even if he thought his offer would be accepted. So, rather than approaching the former president, Allen’s commissioning an unnamed “artist in China who will channel Bush to create a unique response painted in W.’s maturing style.” While Allen plans to keep the original painting, reproductions will be made available following the “Thomas Kinkade Editions Pyramid,” a method for determining the production of giclee editions. (Disclosure: This writer has pledged $25 for a 6x10" print.)
Funding for the project on Kickstarter began on April 2, and is open until April 26, 2017. Apart from a $5 rewardless pledge, donations range from $10 for a 5x7" postcard edition to $1,200 for a Master Edition—a “unique, hand-painted oil on canvas… variant of the original.” It’s not clear how, besides the mere production of the artwork, the painting will do “painting’s job right now: to bear personal witness, to symbolize, to remind, and, when necessary, to shame,” as Allen writes on Kickstarter. Where, how, and if the painting will ulitmatly be shown seems like a crucial step towards effecting change via painting. Nevertheless, additional paintings may be commissioned if the crowd-funding project is successful. Any cash overflow from the project will be folded back into the series.
“In my darker moods, I imagine a series of paintings of such moments will come—Angelus Novus looking back and JPGing us toward the future,” Allen writes on his website. He’s referencing Walter Benjamin’s 1940 essay On the Concept of History, in which the famed critic described the angel of history as painted by Paul Klee:
“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise… The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Blindly hurtling along the shockwave of a thousand traumas. Our guide, the predecessor to this newest gale, redeemed through his art. A “Made in China” sticker. A perfect storm, indeed.