The most political exhibition in the most political city in America currently occupies the circular galleries of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. As the US was preparing to vote, the Hirshhorn has been showing work by Chinese artist and agitator Ai Weiwei, an exhibition that includes a load of rusty metal poles laid out on the floor, like a strange, monotonous rolling plain.
If you think this is a bit tangential to the US election, you have not been following its bitter rhetoric. In every TV debate between Republican candidate Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama, the economic power of China has been an obsessive issue.
Ai Weiwei’s exhibition fits with this ramping up of anti-China sentiment. He believes in freedom. He believes in the individual. Indeed, you could almost say Ai Weiwei is more American in his politics than any of today’s American artists. The ideals that he insists are universal are very much those of the country that still proudly calls itself the leader of the free world.
A short distance from the Hirshhorn, walking through autumn leaves, we come to the soaring obelisk that is the Washington Monument. Not only is this dedicated to freedom but it is also, a minimalist masterpiece, despite being completed in the 19th century. Pure classical lines, no decoration, and towering truth: this is the focal point of a vast democracy. We can see, too, the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream” speech. And, hidden in the trees around the White House, we can make out fire trucks awaiting the presidential helicopter.
American democracy is expressed in the neoclassical layout of Washington DC and its marble monuments. But what of the country’s artists? Do they have any political vision to offer in 2012? Four years ago, US art was galvanized by Obama. He got their backing, financially and vocally; he also inspired them. Shepard Fairey’s poster, showing the Democrat candidate’s face and (in its most effective version) the word HOPE, captured the exhilaration of reborn liberal America. It is, arguably, the most recognizable image created by a US artist this century.
But Obama has not inspired any comparable mood in the 2012 election. Back then, he was a blank slate; now he is an embattled figure whose first term can, by any standards, only be called a partial success. This does not mean he has no support in the art world: to look on the great works of modern American art in Washington’s National Gallery is to see a veritable Olympus of Obama’s supporters.
In its cool modern wing, we come face to face with the kind of ordinary, middle-class American both candidates are desperate to woo. Her name is Fanny and her face is 2.5m tall. Chuck Close painted this portrait with his fingers in 1985. A supporter of Obama, Close serves on the president’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities, and his portrait of his late mother-in-law is an icon of US democracy, with a twist. The enlarged scale makes the face an emphatic celebration of individualism, but there’s a warmth and tenderness to the work, too, a feeling of caring in no small way derived from Close’s painstaking method of using a tiny-scale grid to help him build up his minute fingermarks. It gives this ordinary citizen an air of vulnerability, one that can be read across the country as a whole.
Sculptor Richard Serra is another artist said to be in the Obama camp, along with the subversive self-portraitist Cindy Sherman, the visionary abstract painter Brice Marden, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, and the architect Frank Gehry – a gallery of living greats. Certainly, Obama was wins the art world’s support.
‘Five Plates, Two Poles’, a sculpture by Richard Serra in the Washington National Gallery, looks like a call to vote Obama. The massive, dangerous-looking steel plates, balanced precariously against each other, evoke America’s troubled industries; Serra uses steel mills to make his sculpture. Rust in color and blue collar in status, this mighty sculpture suggests not the power and glory of the individual making millions and bestriding the world, but the dwarfing of people by mighty machines and great cities. Running counter to the Republicans’ notion of a chosen land whose people don’t need a supportive state (just low taxes and free markets), Serra’s work shows us the America its great artists have seen: a place of sorrow, suffering and vulnerability, chronicled with compassion.
Even the dead guys seem to be voting Democrat. Jackson Pollock’s 1950 masterpiece ‘Lavender Mist’ keeps us coming back to the National Gallery. The skeins, strata, loops and scars on this beautiful web of color speak of American freedom – but it is a tragic freedom, the freedom of the blues and jazz that Pollock played as he painted. Within months of creating this lovely riff of a painting, this troubled man would surrender to his old demon, booze, and in a few years he was dead in a drunken car crash. No one was more in need of help than this great American artist – and as a young man, he got it, helped by the art program of the 1930s New Deal.