I asked Chung, the Alaskan professor, if he thought that visual artists should have “total freedom in terms of what they depict.” In response, he sketched the basic framework of his own classroom. “The rule I have with my students is the same as most therapists,” he says. “They’re allowed to make work about anything, as long as it doesn’t demonstrate a risk to themselves or others.”
You might argue that exhibiting a nude Captain America flaunting the President’s disembodied cranium is flirting with “risk to others.” But Chung’s painting, he says, is more nuanced than it might seem. The basic composition is borrowed from a sculpture of Perseus and Medusa. “I substituted Trump’s head for Medusa’s, thinking about all the ugly aspects of our society that were reflected in the election,” he explains. “The painting really isn’t about Trump at all. He began to stand for misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. When he was elected, I mourned for the death of my belief that we, as a society, had made progress in those attitudes.”
Some artists who test the boundaries of free speech are less sanguine when confronted about their work. In 2010,
showed a series of drawings at the São Paulo Biennial, realistically rendered charcoal sketches of the artist, gun in hand, about to slaughter a cast of politicians and luminaries, from George W. Bush to the Queen of England. “Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favour to kill them, understand?” he countered. “Why don’t people in power and in the elite die?”
Just remember that if your art does push the boundaries of the First Amendment, when the controversy comes—you can still plead the fifth.