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Kristian writes an Op-Ed about challenging art works

As appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune…

Dear Mr. Donald Trump, Jr.:
I am not a person who engages in direct political discussion, as I find in today’s day and age of partisanship we are most often reacting to political theater rather than issues. These sorts of engagements are most often fruitless and frustrating.

However, in questioning the New York Shakespeare Festival’s recent production of “Julius Caesar,” I noticed that you were not posing a political question, but rather were looking to the greater Twitter community for some “serious” answers on how to best approach arts and culture.

Just in case you have forgotten, your tweet was: “I wonder how much of the ‘art’ is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?”

First of all, let me say, “Bravo to you, sir!” As someone who runs a contemporary art museum I see people every day who are uncomfortable admitting that they might not understand something. It takes a lot to ask for help, and especially for us middle age white men (I go through this all the time with my 6-year-old when he asks me something that I don’t know the answer to but want to look cool).

I can tell you have a couple of questions, some are more direct and others a bit more philosophical.

Let’s start with the easy one: How much funding comes from taxpayers? Luckily for us, the tax filings for the New York Shakespeare Festival are readily available on their website, publictheater.org. As 501(c)(3) organizations are ultimately entities of public trust and regulated by a state’s attorney general, it is fantastic to see that public trust component of their charge enough to fully and thoroughly disclose their financial dealings.

If you take a look at their 2015 Form 990, Page 9, you will see that $886,000 comes from government grants. Equaling roughly 2.2 percent of their income — not an insignificant sum — but, when taken as a percentage, it isn’t huge number. As a citizen and taxpayer of the state of New York, you should take pride in an organization that is so independent.

The second question, as to when “art becomes political speech” is going to be a bit harder to answer. I think there is a long history of art that is political speech, just as there is a long history of art that is apolitical. However, as usual, the tension comes at the margins of an argument where the answer is less clear.

I might have you consider the work of an artist that is not usually on the lists of controversial artists of the past 100 years, Norman Rockwell. Take a look at his 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With.” In it, Rockwell depicts U.S. marshals escorting a young black child to a previously all-white school during the desegregation crisis of 1960.

It is difficult to look at. The violence directed towards an innocent 6-year-old girl is abhorrent. The racial slurs and KKK signs in the painting stir us to think about who controls political and economic power to what lengths they will go in order to maintain it.

Although art doesn’t have to be unsettling, often times the creative works that stand the test of time are. Beyond visual art, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” unsettles me to this day. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday is a hard song. Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” although set in the 1930s, continues to resonate in a country where jobs surrounding coal and manufacturing have created another generation of poor who feel forgotten.

As for “Julius Caesar,” it has been shown for 400 years or so. People have felt drawn to a story addressing the dangers of dictatorships and danger of vigilantism masquerading as patriotism.

I might humbly suggest that the Rockwell painting was, and continues to be, political speech. Does that change your opinion of Norman Rockwell? I find it hard to believe that if you were considering buying your father a Norman Rockwell calendar or mug for this upcoming Father’s Day, this image would change your mind. Just because an artist has the desire to remind us that we, as a culture, have shortcomings to address does not make them less of an artist. In fact, I would say that it makes them a better artist for taking the risk.

I hope your father enjoys his new mug.

Sincerely,

Kristian Anderson

Executive Director, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art