When You Have No Words, Speak with Art

When You Have No Words, Speak with Art
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Clara Lieu

As a professional visual artist, all of the artwork I’ve created in my life is about as far away from politics as you can get. Not once in my entire career, or even as an art student, have I ever had any remote desire to address politics in my artwork. I once received an assignment in art school to illustrate a newspaper headline. I remember that I intentionally chose a headline that had nothing to do with politics. I had zero interest in talking about politics in my art and did everything I could to avoid it.

This year’s presidential election completely changed that. The election results left me in utter shock. I spent the day after the election reading a flood of emotionally charged statements and messages from my friends and family. I wanted to contribute, but every time I sat down to write, I simply had no words.

Recently, it occurred to me that many of my personal favorites from art history depict difficult, and often times violent political events: Kathe Kollwitz’s print Outbreak, Picasso’s epic Guernica, Leon Golub’s painting Interrogation II, Goya’s painting The Executions to name a few.

<p>Francisco Goya, "The Executions", 1814</p>

Francisco Goya, "The Executions", 1814

Francisco Goya, "The Executions", 1814

I know these specific artworks like the back of my hand. For years, I’ve analyzed their color schemes, deconstructed their layout and backgrounds, examined individual brush strokes up close in person, and more. Revisiting these artworks after the election, I realized that despite my comprehensive, formal understanding of these works as art, I really had no clue what pushed these artists to create these startling images.

Now, I completely understand where those artists found their motivation. For the first time in my life, I feel an intense urgency inside me that desperately wants to make art about events that are unfolding every day. I can’t just move on with my life and pretend that everything will be fine. Otherwise, I am just a bystander.

Despite my surge of desire to create political art, deep down I’m petrified to start. Most of my past artwork has been about personal experiences. The intrinsic nature of personal narratives is that they are experienced by only the artist, and therefore generally do not invite contentious public reactions. By contrast, political art inevitably invites intense scrutiny from the audience. Political art is frequently charged and startling, and easily elicits heated emotional reactions in a way that a still life painting of apples never will. For me, if I get up tomorrow and paint apples, that means I’m saying that everything is fine. If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s that nothing is fine right now.

I couldn’t agree more when people state that “words matter.” I would add that images matter just as much, and that art has always been a powerful means of communication that can resonate for centuries. This presidential election has galvanized me to make political art. The next time I step into my studio to work, it will be with a new sense of purpose.

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