PHOTO: Courtesy of Cressman Center for Visual Arts
︎ Pearl, Mississippi, original site
Make America Great Again
Rife with political undertones, the Cressman Center’s newest exhibition For Freedoms: Make America Great Again presents a large billboard with Trump’s presidential campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” written boldly across it.
Originally displayed in 2016 on a stretch of Highway 80 outside Pearl, Mississippi, the 36 by 10.5 foot For Freedoms’ “Make America Great Again” billboard now rests on the dominant wall facing Louisville’s Main Street, inside of the Hite Art Institute’s Cressman Center. Peering in from the streets, onlookers have a clear view of a famous image from the Selma, Alabama, “Bloody Sunday” Civil Rights protest, depicting the moment of initial confrontation between Civil Rights protestors and Alabama State troopers and local police. In large white letters, Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is centered on the image.
The billboard was commissioned by For Freedoms, the world’s first artist-run Super PAC. The political action committee was founded by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman and now includes over 140 contributing artists. After previously being installed at MoMa’s PS1, the billboard has traveled to Louisville for the second installment of the Cressman Center’s “New Monuments” series, which examines one piece of contemporary art that focuses on current social and political issues.
While the billboard is the focal point of the For Freedoms: Make America Great Again exhibition, the remainder of the Cressman Center has been transformed into a makeshift campaign headquarters. Accompanying the billboard are documents proving the Super PAC’s legality, videos representing some of the group’s other projects, as well as press and YouTuber commentary on the billboard. Directly across from the gallery entrance, a merch table with pins, postcards, and bandanas is set up under the red and blue For Freedoms logo. To the right visitors will find a “Freedom From/Freedom To/Freedom For” sign making station and participants can even test their signs in a raised bed of grass. A television on the adjacent wall offers examples of the other billboards For Freedoms commissioned during the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election, including one showing a photograph of a pink hued locker-room, with the text “Grab ‘Em by the Ballots” centered over the image. iPads placed around the gallery provide contextual information for the Super PAC, including a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt whose 1941 State of the Union address inspired the Super PAC’s name. In the speech, then President Roosevelt outlined the “Four Freedoms” essential to American Liberty: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want. This same speech also inspired artist Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Four Freedoms” paintings reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post.
The mission of For Freedoms is to use art to engage communities, call for greater civic participation, and inspire dialogue and conversation. Unlike traditional Super PACs, which use their lobbying power to raise money in support of a specific candidate or party, For Freedoms remains non-partisan and is more interested in creating civic discourse, calling attention to contemporary social issues, and encouraging participation in the processes that bring change. As the video commentary on the billboard attests, the group was successful in their efforts to ignite conversation; while installed in Pearl, Mississippi, the billboard and its message garnered outspoken support and opposition.
The billboard on view, however, has lived a largely transitional life. In its original context, the billboard imitates a method of advertising. Its appropriation turned it into a site for social justice and awareness. As an audience, we are forced to question not only the meaning of the “Make America Great Again” slogan across such a famous image of Civil Rights activism, but the intention of the slogan as a whole. What does Trump mean when he says: “Make America Great Again?” Exactly what era of history is he recalling as “great?” With its move into a gallery setting, first at PS1 and now at the Cressman Center, the billboard again takes on a new life. Removed from its original location and mounted on the gallery wall, it has become an archived object of art. Surrounded by documentation of its original existence, its movement into the gallery raises a myriad of questions and places a heavy presence on everyone involved with its display and everyone who comes into contact with it. The array of visitors the billboard will encounter within the white cube of a gallery is much more limited than who may come into contact with it in its original location. Elevating it to the status of art object, have we, unintentionally or not, begun to limit the audience that will see it? When displaying this monumental work, we have to question its intention in the space. Have we brought this work here simply for its ability to spark attention or are we truly interested in igniting conversation and getting people involved with social change?
The friction within our current political climate does not allow for silence on the part of its citizens or artists. When our government fails to pass legislation, we see businesses and organizations taking a stance on important social issues. It is at this time we must ask ourselves, what are the responsibilities of our institutions? What are the responsibilities of artists and of art? The founders of For Freedoms, its many members, and its partners are convinced of the power of art to play a vital role in social justice, activism, and creating a more inclusive society. Is bringing an exhibition like For Freedoms: Make America Great Again to Louisville enough to spark movement and dialogue for change or will its message and momentum disappear with the exhibition’s closing?
To the right of the merch table inside For Freedoms’ new campaign headquarters, a map of the United States is dotted with multi-color pins. The blue pins depict all the locations a billboard was installed during the 2016 presidential election. A red pin notes the original location of the “Make America Great Again” billboard and white pins indicate where the Super PAC plans to install new billboards as we get nearer to the 2018 midterm elections. As evidenced by the “Make America Great Again” billboard, we can rely on the power of art to stir conversation. It will be exciting to see where For Freedoms plans to take this next round of their social activism. How we further their work—as artists, within our institutions and galleries, and as audience members—is up to us.
New Monuments For Freedoms: Make America Great Again on display at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts until April 7.
The Cressman Center is located at 100 E Main Street, Louisville, KY, 40202 and open from 11a-6p Wednesday - Friday and 11a-3p Saturday.
March 22 | 6-7:30p: Artist Talk with Eric Gottesman
March 29 | 6-7:30p: Round Table: The First Amendment, Corporate Personhood, and Citizens United
Guest Contributor to Ruckus