As an art therapist in NYC, I know firsthand that art can have a profoundly positive impact on feelings of disempowerment and oppression. Art-making gives us a way to be big, powerful, and assert control over the materials. It also gives the artist an opportunity to make images that express and work through exactly what is making them feel so small.
Art and the 2016 Election
This 2016 election cycle has been unfailingly messy, vicious, and at times, violent. On Tuesday, the election came to a shocking and devastating end, leaving me and many others feeling uncertain and fearful about where our country is at in the present and where it will go in the future. Throughout the election season and especially over the past few days, so many patients have come to me asking some version of, “now what?” It’s hard to answer these questions because the shock of the election results are so fresh and, frankly, people may just need some room to feel upset and take the reality of our current predicament in.
Yet as an art therapist, I know that there is power in community and public art and in personal art-making. In addition to taking space to be upset, art is a tool that we can use both collectively and as individuals to cope with feelings over this election and to reinstate our voices. As much as I want to cry and hide under the covers, which I still might do later, I want to take some time and space to celebrate two examples of successful public art that acted as tools of empowerment during this election cycle.
The Mural Heard Around The World
One of the first works of public art that came to my attention was back in May of this year. Lithuanian street artist Mindaugas Bonanu painted a mural of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin embracing and kissing on the lips on the outside wall of a barbecue restaurant. One of the eatery’s owners, Dominykas Čečkauskas told the Baltic News Service, “They both have an ego that is too big, and it is funny that they get along well.” Any further interpretation is up for debate–is this a comment on both of the men’s discriminatory agendas? Putin especially has come down harshly and violently on his country’s LGBTQ population. Or is this simply just a warning to voters to pay attention to Trump’s connection to an authoritarian leader with a history of threats against the US and its allies?
Regardless of intent, this mural caught like wildfire, reaching media outlets well beyond Lithuania. Bonanu successfully acted as a voice for all those harmed and quieted by Putin. He also was able to deal a powerful message to American voters and the rest of the world.
Reclaiming Language Through Art
Before this election, I am not sure I would have characterized an internet meme, a T-shirt or a button as art, but my mind has officially been changed. Wearable art, in particular, makes a statement that is certainly not neutral and is a public expression of their personal politics. There has been a great deal of hateful, disparaging, and discriminating talk towards many groups of people during this election cycle. However, there have also been countless examples of people artistically reappropriating the same violent and offensive language.
Probably the best examples of this came from the final Presidential debate. On that October evening, Donald Trump used two highly derogatory terms that ended up being creative inspiration. The first came as Hillary Clinton talked about Social Security and Trump called her a “nasty woman.” The second remark that became fodder for art-making originated from Trump’s denigrating description of “bad hombres” to a question about immigration.
This set off a fierce backlash on social media by women and Mexican-Americans who sought to reclaim these derogatory terms. A barrage of hashtags, cartoons, internet memes and merchandise were inspired by these phrases. It became an opportunity for people to take ownership and an empowered stance. For women and Hispanics (and it certainly does not need to be just limited to those two groups), a simple tote bag says to the world that they cannot be cut down by those in power and they cannot be made small.
Bearing Witness With Art Therapy
Over the past few days, weeks, and months, I have come across people who feel emotionally overwhelmed, triggered and frightened of what this election has brought to the surface and what this might indicate for our country. In a national event so massive, it is easy to feel anonymous and voiceless. Even if an individual does not have the opportunity or resources to exert an opinion in a public way, doing art on a small-scale level can have a large impact. Whether it is abstract or representational, the artist has complete license over what they share and what statement they want to make.
Even on this very micro level, the impact of having someone bear witness to you and your story can be an empowering experience. Every person’s voice and journey is valid and matters. Today is a day where words might fail–so much of what we have and are experiencing as a nation is hard to crystallize. Art and image is a way to help people make their feelings and stories public and seen.