American politics has always had its fair share of weirdness, but with presidential debate season underway we’ve reached new levels of surrealism. In the days following the first debate, YouTube videos circulated showing guys bashing in TV screens with baseball bats, dropping them from balconies, or even head butting them into oblivion. Not very productive, but at least these disgusted viewers cared enough to react. But there are also those who, instead of punching TVs in frustration, have taken their grievances, and their ideas, to the campaign trail. Over history—and even in this very election cycle—a number of artists have given up the studio for the state house, aiming to become a new brand of public servant.
The artist-politician has far-reaching precedent. Actors are particularly well represented amongst creative professionals seeking public office. But then again, it’s probably not a huge step from performing on stage or in front of a camera to battling it out in the parliamentary arena. The most famous example is of course Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor who became governor of California and later the 40th President of the United States. Arnold “the Governator” Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood (mayor of Carmel), actor-turned-US representative Fred Thompson, The Love Boat’s Gopher (Fred Grandy), and many, many others have exchanged billboards for ballots.
The music industry is another fruitful breeding ground for politicians. Dead Kennedy’s singer Jello Biafra (Eric Reed Boucher) has been an active member of the United States Green Party for decades. The punk rock icon ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 but got sidetracked by a hastily adopted law stipulating that candidates cannot run under a stage name. In 2000 he lost the election for Green Party leadership to Ralph Nader and he hasn’t sought office since. More successful was Peter Garrett of the Australian band Midnight Oil. He joined the House of Representatives in 1984 and twenty years later co-founded the Nuclear Disarmament Party.
While there is no shortage of politically charged art, visual artists do seem underrepresented amongst the creatives who have made the shift into politics. However, there have been some artists who have put their money where their mouth is. Here are some examples.
Photo: Dreaming Tree Studio, Via Kate McGraw on CrowdPac
Art doesn’t feature explicitly in Kate McGraw’s current campaign for Pennsylvania State Representative for the 92nd Legislative District. Her platform is all about agriculture and education. But then again, a lot of her art is also about farming and rural life. The Chouffe Mountain Farm Project, for example, entails an imaginary community where animals and humans live together harmoniously. McGraw takes some of this idealism to the campaign trail where she is up against a Republican businesswoman. One of her harder sells will be her stance on commercial hemp growth and decriminalizing drug use.
Political Action Committees, or PACs, are not exactly politicians, but they might be even more formidable in contemporary U.S. politics, raising money and funding campaigns to advocate or attack candidates. In 2010, Super PACs were created: they have unlimited spending power but are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns. Super PACs have already raised over $1 Billion dollars for America's 2016 election cycle, an increase of 1668% since their inception. For Freedoms is a response to these platforms of influence and control. The artist-run Super PAC is dedicated to bringing more artists voices into the political domain. The organization stirred up its first bout of controversy at its Jack Shainman Gallery exhibition this summer. Outside the gallery’s 20th Street space, Dread Scott put up a black flag reading “A man was lynched by police yesterday.” The work revisited an NAACP banner—reading "A Man Was Lynched Yesterday"—which flew outside the organization's NYC headquarters from 1920 to 1938. Scott drew threats, complaints, and litigation threats from the gallery’s landlord, plus a lot of publicity.
Jónsdóttir's cartoon alter ego, Joy B, illustrated by The Hand, Via this.is/birgitta
The banking crisis of 2008–2012 sparked off something close to a revolt in Icelandic politics. Most notable in its opposition to the corrupt status quo parties was Jón Gnarr who ran for mayor of Reykjavik in 2009. The comedian and former punk rock singer didn’t expect his The Best Party to win, not on a platform promising free towels in all swimming pools and a polar bear for the city zoo. But he did, and municipal politics hasn’t been the same since. The same goes for the Icelandic parliament, the Althing . It dates back to 930 and as such is the oldest still-functional parliament in the world. In the last couple of years its seats have held less conventional members than usual. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, member of the Pirate Party, is among them. She started off as a poet, became an artist—not to mention, a comic book character—and has done stints as the spokesperson for WikiLeaks. The “poetician” calls herself an “activist inside and outside the system.”
Tirana, Albania: Colourful houses along the Lana River. Tabakëve Mosque. Via Albinfo on Wikimedia Commons
There are many examples of government leaders painting in their spare time, ranging from Winston Churchill to George W. Bush. But Edi Rama actually started his career as a painter before becoming a statesman: the current Prime Minister of Albania, in fact. Rama stepped into the limelight in 2000, when after a two-year stint as minister of culture and sports he became mayor of Albania’s capital Tirana. His first public act was to have the façades of the city’s bleak brutalist architecture painted with colorful abstract patterns. It didn’t do much to alleviate the crushing poverty in the formerly Stalinist outpost, but it did lift inhabitants’ spirits. In 2013 fellow artist and Albanian Anri Sala made the film Give Me the Colors about Rama and his unconventional brand of cityscaping.
Chris Lloyd and Justin Trudeau, Via Llyod's campaign website certainlynotjustin
Actors are known to bat for the conservative team, but it’s near impossible to think of artists voting for, let along representing right wing politics. Still, that’s exactly what Chris Lloyd has done. The Canadian artist’s involvement with politics dates back to 2001 when he started his Dear PM project. On a daily basis he wrote an email to the Prime Minister, trying to become the official PM painter. Not satisfied with playing only a passive role, Lloyd subsequently sought office as an MP for the Conservative Party. He resigned after his candidacy was exposed as a work of performance art, with goals including “messing with” the Conservative Party. He topped it off with a 2015 presidential run as an independent but lost spectacularly to Justin Trudeau, who was sportsmanlike enough to allow him a joint selfie.
Offset poster for US lecture-series Energy Plan for the Western Man (1974) by Joseph Beuys,
organized by Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts
The shaman who proclaimed that everyone is an artist considered art the primary driving force of society. In his opinion, politics was a way to free all creativity, but in order to do so it must restructure society. Mind you, these were the sixties and seventies we’re talking about, when people were still quite receptive to this sort of revolutionary zeal. In 1967 Beuys founded the German Student Party, a glorified discussion group dedicated to absolute disarmament and finding the answer for life after death. The party’s name was later changed to Fluxus Zone West and was replaced by the Organization of Nonvoters Free Referendum. Beuys later became a founding member of the German Green Party and was eventually elected as a Green Party candidate for the European Parliament.
Vincent Trasov, or Mr. Peanut
Mr. Peanut at Vancouver Court House. Photo by Bob Strazicich for Vincent Trasov's 1974 Mayoral Campaign, Vancouver
Vincent Trasov’s Mr. Peanut act was somewhere between pop art, nutty fetishism, and smart marketing. The Vancouver native would slip on the Planters mascot uniform and go into the street to be photographed and filmed. The aim was to create an artistic atmosphere, something the city was severely lacking at the time. Mr. Peanut ran for mayor in 1974—the United States was headed by Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer, so why not? The campaign platform consisted of six points: P for Performance, E for Elegance, A for Art, N for Nonsense, U for Uniqueness and T for Talent. Despite support of public figures like novelist William S. Burroughs, Mr. Peanut’s efforts were in vain. Trasov pulled only 3.4 percent of the vote.