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Long Before Trump’s ‘Fake News,’ Artists Stretched the Truth

Long Before Trump’s ‘Fake News,’ Artists Stretched the Truth
Michael B. Platt offers a distorted portrait of activist Angela Davis at age 15 to mirror the violence she witnessed growing up in Alabama under Jim Crow. (Photo: AU Museum / Gift of Mary H. D. Swift and Family)

“Fake news.” Of all the colorful catchphrases Donald Trump has thrown out during his presidency, this one could go down as the most consequential for years to come. Those two little words (tweeted over 800 times since his inauguration) allowed the president to dismiss anyone he disagreed with, blighted an entire industry and opened the floodgates for the public, politicians and governments to distort the truth in our digital-dependent world.

The term took on added resonance in the lead-up to the U.S. election, as truth became ever more malleable — and manipulative.

But while fake news has made headlines under Trump, the concept existed long before him. After all, the end of the 19th century saw the rise of yellow journalism, as newspapers used sensationalism and scare-mongering to gin up sales.

Artists, too, have a long history of bending the truth — part of a complex interplay between art and politics that has shaped our past and present.

“Art and Authenticity in the Age of Fake News,” a new virtual exhibition organized by the American University Museum, features 30 paintings, photographs and prints spanning the 20th century that illustrate how artists blurred fact and fiction to stretch the truth — and our imaginations.

Eglon Daley’s “Chinese New Year” illustrates the gentrification of D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood, now called Penn Quarter. (Photo: AU Museum / Gift of Nelson and Susanne Joyner)

The exhibit was curated by AU assistant professor Nika Elder and organized by students as part of her spring 2020 class “American Art and the Illusion of Truth.”

“The class looked at a number of artistic practices that don’t fit neatly into the narrative of American art — most of them involving falsehoods or replication or other things we don’t tend to associate with ‘fine art.’ A lot of this work looks distinctly apolitical, but actually emerges from politically fraught circumstances,” Elder told The Diplomat via email.

“Some of it is representational, but some of it is abstract. In this way, the exhibit gives viewers the opportunity to think about what makes a work of art political,” she said. “Sometimes the answer is clear cut, and a work’s politics are announced through its subject matter, but other times, it’s more subtle and has to do with the artist’s chosen medium, technique or process. Yet, in its own way, each piece in the show responds to weighty questions about identity, immigration and culture — issues we continue to explore today.”

For example, Michael B. Platt created a 1987 photo engraving of scholar and activist Angela Davis. He altered an existing photo of her as young teen, making her virtually unrecognizable. The jarring, furious scratches in the black-and-white engraving allude to the violence that Davis experienced growing up in Alabama under Jim Crow laws.

The piece resonates with Elder because “it in no way provides a likeness of Davis, but, in its departures from reality, attempts to offer a truer and more holistic sense of the activist as an individual,” she said. “To make the print, Platt would have manipulated a found photograph of Davis. So the work is a great example of the way in which process and technique can be political and of how the personal is political.”

Another political commentary can be deduced in Eglon Daley’s 1993 depiction of the Chinese New Year in D.C.’s own Chinatown. But instead of traditional dragon dances and Mandarin-language storefronts, we simply see a group of (mostly non-Asian) spectators mulling about — a sign of the neighborhood’s gentrification and loss of Chinese identity. (The fact that it’s now called Penn Quarter only reinforces the point.)

Meanwhile, June Wayne reflects on the conflicting journeys of immigrants in a 1976 series that honors her late mother Dorothy. Her lithograph is based on a photo of Dorothy and her three siblings around the time they immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in the early 1900s.

Instead of using the original photograph, though, Wayne uses its negative, with the American flag as a backdrop to symbolize the fantasy of the American dream versus the harsh reality that many immigrants face once they arrive.

Tania Antoshina flips preconceived gender roles in art by making the man, and not the women, nude in her work “Lunch on the Grass.” (Photo: AU Museum / Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection)

Gender roles are flipped in Tania Antoshina’s 1996 “Lunch on the Grass,” which reimagines Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting that shows a nude woman and a scantily dressed female bather casually enjoying a picnic with two fully clothed men.

But in Antoshina’s version, it’s the man who’s fully nude and the women who are fully clothed in a scene that forces viewers to question the art world’s long history of sexualizing the female form.

Even an abstract painting by Lee Krasner — Jackson Pollack’s wife —  hints at gender differences in art. Unlike Pollack’s iconic spontaneous brushstrokes, Krasner uses printmaking in “Special Rose d” to illustrate that forethought and purpose are always present in art, even in abstract works.

“I think the main takeaway is that fraught political circumstances impact art in strange and unexpected ways,” Elder said. “Today, we might see Lee Krasner’s ‘Special Rose d’ as a quintessentially abstract print, but analyzing the process she used to create it reveals much about gender and its role (or lack thereof) in the mythology around Abstract Expressionism. A feminist statement doesn’t always look like ‘Rosie the Riveter.’”

Tanya Marcuse’s photograph from her “Museum Series” shows the weather-worn torso of an ancient Greek sculpture with its limbs missing. A small hole has been drilled into the crotch area, likely to mount the sculpture on a wall, a manmade change that distorts the original form — much like the forces of nature did over hundreds of years. (Photo: AU Museum / Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

Elder sees many parallels in today’s obsession with fake news and artists’ own fascination with truth and politics.

“Today, the term ‘fake news’ is rarely applied to stories that are actually false; it’s often used to describe realities that are inconvenient,” she said. “This exhibit demonstrates that political rhetoric around ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ often produces artwork that explores similar ideas. So, I think the exhibit shows that art is a place we can turn for clarity during such troubling times. It doesn’t provide a solution, but it offers critical distance, space for reflection and an opportunity to imagine a different world.”

“Art and Authenticity in the Age of Fake News” can viewed online at https://www.american.edu/cas/museum/2020/art-and-authenticity-in-the-age-of-fake-news.cfm.

Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.