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Art Inquisition: Are We Making America Great?

A billboard on Highway 80 outside of Jackson, MS simply reads “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” Aside from the fine print, that is the only text, printed in bold capitals over an iconic 1965 image by photographer Spider Martin, depicting a standoff between police and protestors on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, AL. The photo’s title is “Two Minute Warning,” after the notice given to marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River on their way to Montgomery

The fine print reads “paid for by For Freedoms” and notes that the billboard was not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. Wait a minute, who the heck is For Freedoms?

An artist-run super PAC.

“Wait, what?” I hear you ask, “a super PAC run by artists? That’s a thing?”

As of this spring, yes.

“Inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms from 1941, our super PAC aims to subvert a “Rockwellian” nostalgia for a “simpler” America while co-opting a visual language that is accessible to a wide audience of viewers. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.”

According to its website, the super PAC formed because its members were “frustrated with a system in which money, divisiveness, and a general lack of truth-telling have stifled complex conversation. We created the first artist-run super Pac because we believe it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.” Projects have included Dread Scott’s flag installation, A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterdaythe continuation of a nationwide tour of the Truth Booth, an inflated speech bubble that invites visitors to record their thoughts on what “The Truth Is…”; and Yard Sign Activation, in which community members may fill in the blanks on yard signs, displayed en masse, bearing the phrases “Freedom of ________” and “Freedom from ________.”

On the organization’s Facebook page, comments about the billboard are divided, running the gamut of emotions: the billboard has been declared hateful, divisive, confusing, “a slap in the face,” disruptive, provocative, engaging, inspiring, and part of the “fight against injustice.”

Brandi Hughes said, “I live here in Pearl, Ms and I cant believe that people jumped on this without first going to your website. I think that it is great for social interaction and coming together to discuss everything that has and is going on. I also believe that alot of people here still refuse to interact with each other which is very sad.”

On the other hand, Cardi B. Wells Teníadé complains, “I should not have had go through the shock of the photo, read the news story, visit the superpac website, read artists bios, then go to Wikipedia to find more info on this Hank Willis Thomas, then click on the link to his mama, then find this FB page & read this article just to contextualize this thing.”

Renee Converse claimed the discovery of appropriate context is up to the viewer, saying that “if the intended statement is written out, the feeling is lost. Its all about the viewers personal discovery of the meaning that makes art so profound.”

Still others fear the message is “too intellectual” or that the message “will be lost in interpretation.” There has also been speculation that For Freedoms is not truly a super PAC, but actually… well, anything ranging from “a Black Lives Matter outfit” to “an alt-right hate group.”

Local residents, both of Mississippi in general and of Pearl, the city in which the billboard was installed, have mixed feelings about its existence.

Governor Phil Bryant told Mississippi News Now the billboard was “reprehensible,” but resident Lizzy Brackett thinks the billboard’s message is a positive one.

Madeline Nixon said, “I don’t really know what to think. It’s definitely offensive, but its their right at the same time. And that’s what we as people need to understand: That everyone is entitled to their First Amendment.”

Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers originally said that the billboard is protected by freedom of speech, since it is “not vulgar,” but later asked Lamar Advertising to take it down. A spokesperson for Lamar Advertising told local news station WJTV that “since everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, they saw no issue with putting it up,” but the billboard was covered in black material as of Wednesday.

In a thoughtful article that provides some great context in and of itself, Kirsten West Savali of theroot.com says, “This is an admirable and necessary endeavor, but it missed the mark here.”

What do you think? Is the billboard divisive or thought-provoking? Does it stir the pot… in a good way or a bad way? Is any attention good attention? Is this the sort of action you’d expect from a PAC run by artists? Comment with your opinions below!

The Art Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab reader. It appears on random, occasional days at 3pm ET… Because NOBODY EXPECTS THE ARTIST INQUISITION!

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Beth Voigt

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around.

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