Trump’s border separation policy is in one word, extreme. Extreme vetting, deportation, and of course the aggressively extreme measures of separating immigrant children from their parents. Yes, there is a real crisis at our nation’s borders.
Throughout history, the United States has been host to numerous waves of immigration, and although America is a country built by immigrants, it hasn’t been the kindest to the immigrant experience. However, immigration and the resulting diversity, is undeniably one of America’s greatest assets. As a country that aspired to democracy, humanity and equality in the words of its founders, it feels incomprehensible that the United States is so lacking in both, and to such an extent, as to justify its recent withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council. “America first” policies, indeed.
Over the past two months the southern borders have played out the devastating repercussions of the new “zero tolerance” policy that was announced in early April. Children separated from their families and held at “tender age” centers - an inhumane show of force by the sitting president in order to manipulate the vote on the long promised border wall before the midterm elections. Democracy, humanity, and equality feel far away, especially considering Trump’s latest signed order, which ended his previous policy of separation, now makes it possible for families to be detained indefinitely together (and be called humane). Yet it is immigrants that built this country, shaping our history, and bringing with them their ideas and talents.
Artists don’t just reflect the world in their work, they engage with it. As cultural landmarks, arts organizations share in the responsibility of engagement and dialogue of the shared and common threads of the human experience. Both MoMA and the Whitney Museum have developed and presented programming that explores histories of immigration through public programs and exhibitions, a both timely and timeless topic.
Some of the most celebrated artists of the past century were immigrants, and their contributions have shaped the course of art history. In various ways, their immigrant experience, their otherness, has become lost in the lexicon of the language around their work. Yet the story of American history (and art history) is one of global exchange and innovation that stems from the migrant experience.
Of note, three immigrant artists, without whom the landscape would be much different:
Unknown, Willem de Kooning in his studio. (Image courtesy of WikiCommons.)
Willem de Kooning, (1904 - 1997)
Regarded one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning was born in the Netherlands, and arrived in the United States in 1926 as a stowaway on the Shelley, a British ship bound of Argentina.
Photo of Mark Rothko by James Scott, 1959. (Image courtesy of WikiCommons.)
Mark Rothko, (1903 - 1970)
A celebrated artist closely associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, Rothko’s family emigrated from Russia in 1913 as political refugees, as well as to escape religious persecution.
Anonymous, Photograph of Piet Mondrian. (Image courtesy of WikiCommons.)
Piet Mondrian (1872 - 1944)
A pioneer of 20th century abstract art, Mondrian created geometric paintings that sought to express universal beauty. He immigrated to New York city in 1940.