Like the PAC itself, several of the works included in the exhibition blend conceptual, artistic strategies with more straightforward forms of activism. Take, for example, the People’s Kitchen Collective, members of which were setting up in the gallery’s back room. On opening night, they asked visitors to write down and share the remedies (from ginseng to aspirin) provided to them by their parents, touching on both individual heritage and shared connections. “We’re looking for remedies to everything from white supremacy to diarrhea,” coalition member Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik said, laughing. “Anything your parents might have taught you.” I wrote down the very boring “Tums” as a parentally prescribed cure for stomach pain. The collective can usually be found in its homebase of Oakland, hosting a free breakfast program inspired by the Black Panthers, who at one point in time, Bhaumik says, “actually fed more children than the U.S. Government.”
The gallery will also distribute real voter registration cards, though they come with some additional messaging from artist
to make you question what it is you’re voting for. As I was leaving, Gottesman went to get me a form, paperclipped to which was Paglen’s contribution: a card that read “vote for war” in a style resembling
. “Are Donald Trump’s kids going to come over to get one?” joked Shainman. (Two of the presumptive GOP nominee’s children forgot to register as Republicans in time for April’s New York primary.)
Political art is sometimes derided by critics who think its messaging too overt. This is a fair point in many cases, and imbuing a work with a direct political missive doesn’t place it above scrutiny. But the subtext of such criticism is often that the art is too tied up with the concerns of the real world. If we delve even deeper, the implication is that grounding a work in politics takes it out of the ethereal domain of “fine art” (this is like Zagat critiquing a fancy meal for being too affordable.) Impact is, seemingly, the most meaningful criterion for evaluating anything that occupies a political soap box. But judging For Freedoms entirely by its success or failure at the ballot box is something Gottesman and Thomas would likely take issue with, and for good reason.
This is an election that will see center-left pragmatism and right-wing bigotry—neither particularly appetizing, to this writer at least—squaring off in November. We have 151 more days until Election Day, the very thought of which makes me reach for my Tums. In the meantime, give me a work of art that compels me to thoughts more complex than a binary choice, that lets us see a world in which there are more than two ideas of freedom, and that settles the stomach by unsettling the mind.