Creative art and activism provide a narrative and a tangible body for the unthinkable—something we can grasp onto and make sense of in a world turned upside down. The impeachment, and the very recent acquittal of the president, have provided a wildly dynamic environment to explore political art as advocate, curator and historian. When it comes to the question of Trump and his impeachment, or the myriad other social crises that exist today, the creative expressions we have witnessed over the last few months—sometimes shocking and disturbing and at other times humorous—strike at what so many of us actually feel. Today more than ever, artistic endeavors illuminate the sideshow of hours of Senate hearings, or the victory lap that the President took following his acquittal, and gives us all in some strange and calming way the opportunity to gain an understanding of otherwise unspoken truths.
The impeachment issue, like so many of Trump’s issues, has divided the nation and proven difficult to discuss, yet political cartoonists have been helpful in making sense of it all. Major outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe, in addition to local papers all over the U.S., have been using comics to frame the issue of this impeachment in a way that is actually comprehensible. Cartoonist Lisa Benson used clowns to portray her understanding of the proceedings, and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon artist Tom Toles has Trump as a king piece on a chessboard, insisting the other pieces “tell them they can’t do this because I am King”.
Trump’s actions have inspired myriad content in the political cartoon world, beyond the topic of his impeachment. Most recently, Ken Catalino depicted the President opposite AliKhamenei , in his piece “Lose-Lose”, with the labels “Despicable Me vs Unstable Me” over the Ayatollah and President’s heads. In the same USA Today collection this month, Steve Breen depicted Uncle Sam being pushed out of a railcar by a man in an oversized suit with famously small hands, and into a menacing tunnel with teeth that spell out “Iran War”. These cartoons are able to touch on the questions and fearful consequences of an act the President, and so much of the media, aim to simplify.
The messengers are not limited to print. There is a website called Baby Trump Tour, which loans out enormous balloons depicting President Trump as a giant baby. The 20-foot blimps have been utilized, with some controversy, around the world to “welcome” Trump on his many travels and visits. Other visual artists have capitalized on what is bizarre and offensive about this Presidency, using creative platforms such as building a message into an oversized lawn under the Presidents flight path to share outcry about climate change, or a 16-foot statue of the President sitting on a toilet and tweeting expletives. The opportunities are numerous, as is the source material , and understanding continues to amuse and hit at the heart of so many of us.
Of particular interest to me is the remarkable caricatures and images that come from sketch artists, since photographers are not allowed in so many halls of power in our country. I was amazed to see the work of the New York Times’ famed court artist Art Lien in the recent article “A Sketch Artist’s View of Trump’s Impeachment Trial” There, frozen in time, are the moods and personalities of Senators clearly eager to be anywhere but where they are, consumed with the awkwardness and pathos of the moment. Add to this what comes next with the uncertainty in the Middle East, and the recent “peace plan” we are sure to see all over the world, voices capturing the non-stop crisis of the moment, sharing what we may or may not want to hear and understand in very creative ways. Without cartoonists and other creative artists covering the crises around the world, the scandal of this impeachment, and growing social inequality, we would be left with the sound bites and bias of a news media attacked as “fake news”, obsessed with ratings and ultimately playing to their base of support.
The stamp of impeachment will forever reside on the story of this Presidency. And so too will the art that has come out of this remarkably active and engaged period in art activism and political art; it will live on, long after this political craziness is over, as a testimony to what has happened, a lens into the arcane and the impossible. Art has always served as a medium for what we cannot say; for what we can only see, hear, experience, and hope to understand. Thanks to the many artists and their willingness to draw out what we find difficult to grasp in words. With so much happening in this world that we never thought possible, we can perhaps look to art and humor to make sense out of what seems utterly senseless.