In "1984," George Orwell foresaw a dehumanized world, a universe far and away from civility and you might call political art the push-back against that nightmare. To sharpen the message, some political artists add words to their imagery. This style, called text-art, made the news this week when Barbara Kruger’s cover design for New York Magazine’s election issue hit the newsstands. What you see is a black-and-white close-up photo of Donald Trump with the word “loser” colored red obliterating part of his face.

Misogyny, politics and the making of pictures all rolled up in one

The coming together of Trump and Kruger is notable.

He’s been accused of misogyny and she’s long known for making art about the objectification of women. Her signature black and white photograph complete with words can be seen in a 1981 example of a woman’s face in profile overlaid with red letters that spell, “Your gaze hits the side of my face,” This work isn’t as neutral as it sound. The gaze in question implies a leer and the words represent a defense against that perceived invasion. So besides political art from Kruger, you also get feminist art; although unaccountably, she told Interview Magazine in 2013 that her work is neither political nor feminist art but rather the “result of historical circumstance.” This is a distinction without a difference as far as this column is concerned.

Feminist art can reasonably be viewed as another form of political art

Another of Kruger’s works also argues against her denial. Plastered over a black and whitephoto of a woman’s full face sliced down the middle, with one of the halves in the form of a negative exposure, are words in red that say, “Your Body Is a Battleground.” The work was expressly created as a poster for the 1989 pro-choice march on Washington.

Conceding the point, she told Interview Magazine her art “has always been about power and control and bodies and money.” Which makes Kruger’s New York Magazine cover of Trump a historical inevitability.

Man the battle stations. The fight is on to save us from dehumanization

At this point you may wonder if text-art can legitimately be classed as art.

Shouldn’t images be strong enough to stand on their own? Francisco Goya seemed to address the question some three centuries ago. After creating the “Caprichos” – etchings about the wrongdoing in his country in which he inserted written messages -- he told the Diarrio de Madrid that words don’t belong exclusively to poetry. Making the case is a warning he penned in one etching: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” The image shows him napping while demons run wild around him. The embedded words drive home the point that one shouldn’t rest while a world is in crisis. And given the way Picasso saw art – as a defensive weapon against the enemy – the use of words in art is clearly part of the weaponry.

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