“They, the People”

In the December issue of Art in America, I published “They, the People,” an essay on representations of the people in art and populist movements, and how each responds to the other. The essay covers Hank Williams Jr.’s halftime show, Tomas Rafa’s videos of European nationalists and refugees, Jacques-Louis David and Phrygian caps, Ronald Reagan’s heroics (as assimilated by Steve Bannon and dissected by Pablo Sierra and Pacho Velez’s The Reagan Show), Ferhat Özgür’s take on the imperial vision of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the culture of the popular front, Shepard Fairey’s claim to speak for everyone, Ken Loach’s ads for Jeremy Corbyn, and Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism. I also dig into recent writing on populism by Jan-Werner Müller, John Judis, Chantal Mouffe, Cas Mudde, et al.

Below is the beginning of the essay. Click here for the rest.

The people are a crew of square-jawed construction workers swilling beers at the end of a long day, pressing chilled bottles against their greasy foreheads, pumping quarters into the jukebox. The people are a band of protesters of all colors and creeds, shouting in fury or jubilation, hoisting curled sheets of poster board scrawled with block letters. The people are Midwestern women in raggedy dresses who have fled from drought to California, whose young faces have been made leathery by sunlight and hardship, who regard the lens of Dorothea Lange’s camera. The people are a chiaroscuro of white faces, ghoulish grins, clamped lips, and raised arms illuminated by flames—whether of crosses a century ago or tiki torches last year.

The people are brandishing the stars and stripes, the hammer and sickle, the German Wirmer flag. The people are as photographed upon arrival at Ellis Island at the turn of the century by Augustus Sherman, the chief registry clerk: Russian men with sheathed ceremonial daggers, Dutch children sporting wooden clogs, and Guadeloupean woman in floral dresses. The people are account managers in polo shirts, grilling burgers in the exurbs, singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”; they are miners wearing sooty overalls, gripping blunt instruments, mouthing the words to the 1931 union anthem “Which Side Are You On?”; they are Dallas Cowboys fans packed into AT&T Stadium, roaring their approval as Hank Williams Jr. howls, “Are you ready for some football?”