Can an Artist-Formed PAC Sway the Presidential Election?

Two artists want to change the political conversation.

Eric Gottesman, left, and Hank Willis Thomas. Gottesman, courtesy of the artist. Thomas, Tim P. Whitby, courtesy Getty Images.

The current presidential campaign is proving to be like none other in recent memory. A real estate magnate who has referred to immigrants as rapists and who has been slow to disavow the KKK is poised to seize the Republican nomination. On the left, meanwhile, a Democratic Socialist is giving the nation’s first female presidential contender, a member of one of the nation’s most powerful political families, a run for her money.

Artists Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas are also marking a first by jump-starting For Freedoms, an artist-founded political action committee (PAC). The name contains a punning allusion to the “four freedoms” articulated in 1941 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. “Our medium for this project is American democracy,” say the artists on the project’s website.

The organization’s headquarters will be set up this summer at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, which represents Thomas.

PACs have been a symptom of the runaway influence of big money on politicians; Gottesman and Thomas aim to turn the very entities used to drown out the voices of the people into a service for voters. The funds raised will go to commission artists (whether by invitation or open call, which is yet to be determined) to create political advertisements in the form of billboards, yard signs, and radio and TV spots advocating for candidates for office at state and national levels. If the first phase of the project is successful, the artists hope to extend it beyond the current election cycle.

Thomas and Gottesman hope to change the way we do politics.

Thomas and Gottesman hope to change the way we do politics.

Gottesman and Thomas have known each other since the 1990s, when they both lived in San Francisco and were involved in political organizing against the American invasion of Iraq. In 2004, Gottesman went deeper into electoral politics. “I ran my father’s campaign for a New Hampshire state Senate office,” he said. “He won by 137 votes.” The artist and organizer currently is in Ethiopia on a Creative Capital fellowship. His first book, Sudden Flowers, created with children in Addis Ababa who were orphaned by AIDS, was published in 2014.

Gottesman concedes that other activist-minded public figures have taken to politics, but maintains that those efforts are often more in the vein of performance art than For Freedoms, which has higher ambitions.

Stephen Colbert and Lawrence Lessig have tried to make the super PAC into something that would crumble into itself,” Gottesman said. “But we’re actually looking to engage deeply and improve political dialogue. How can artistic tools for critical thought allow real conversations to take place?”

Thomas is also known for his politically-charged works, but his hit closer to home. A sculpture that was on view at Shainman’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2015 was later highlighted on Beyoncé’s website. It depicts black men with their arms raised as if in surrender, in the “hands up, don’t shoot” position that has marked recent protests against police brutality.

“If I’m going to spend all my time obsessing about political issues, I might as well make art out of it,” Thomas told artnet News in a phone interview about the PAC.

For Freedoms, say the artists, will be a non-partisan organization. Could they support just any candidate, though?

“We could even make pro-Trump ads,” Thomas said, “they just might be horrible ones.”

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