Art world rejoices in Biden’s win of US presidency

Artists, collectors, policy makers and gallery owners share their reactions after the tightly fought election

“The frogs have managed to jump out of the boiling pot just in time,” the artist Martha Rosler told The Art Newspaper Photo: Martha Rosler

“The frogs have managed to jump out of the boiling pot just in time,” the artist Martha Rosler told The Art Newspaper Photo: Martha Rosler

From Los Angeles to New York, thousands of Americans took to the streets to celebrate Joseph Biden’s victory in the US election on Saturday, as his slowly growing lead in Pennsylvania finally secured him the necessary Electoral College votes to win the presidency, and remove Donald Trump from office after a single term. There was a similar outpouring of positive reactions from the art world for the new President-Elect and his running mate, former California senator Kamala Harris—along with caveats that there are still pressing issues that need to be resolved across the country. “The frogs have managed to jump out of the boiling pot just in time,” the artist Martha Rosler told The Art Newspaper, sharing the photo collage she made, above.

More than anything else, the 2020 US election had become a referendum on Trump’s term and impact on American life, and a decision about what path voters hope the country will take going forward. “We still must come to terms with the extent to which the structures of governance have been damaged and the government itself delegitimated—wantonly and steadily—by Donald Trump and the third-rate bottom feeders whom he empowered as his wrecking crew,” Rosler added. “In the midst of an intensifying pandemic, increasingly dire effects of global warming, a many faceted economic collapse affecting ordinary people while corporations and billionaires thrive, and an undeniable threat from the white supremacists, racists, and fascists Trump has encouraged, we are trying to knit together our fractured sense of time and being, to prepare ourselves for the collective tasks ahead.” But Rosler ended her comments on a positive note, telling Biden-Harris supporters to “take this moment of self-liberation to discover the sense of joy in ourselves and in the movements of support and solidarity we have built in struggle and opposition, and to appreciate what we have accomplished. We can breathe.”

Artists celebrate

Making the rounds on social media after Biden's win was Barbara Kruger's scathing 2016 cover for New York magazine, which superimposed the word "LOSER" across Trump's screaming face. According to the art critic Jerry Saltz, her post-election work for the paper features a looming black shoe and the words: "This is the end of something." The Chicago-based artist Nick Cave summed things up with a more resilient view: “You can’t win the country by dividing the country when the country is called the United States.”

“Our long national nightmare is over,” says the artist Deborah Kass, quoting the inauguration speech of former US President Gerald Ford, who took office after Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal. She added another quote, this time from a speech by the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s for the 1980 Democratic National Convention: “The work goes on.”

“I am beside myself with joy,” said the artist Sue Coe, who has taken aim at Donald Trump’s policies and divisiveness through her works, “but it’s not exactly a revolution, 4 to 5 million more Americans voted for Biden-Harris and rejected fascism. The reality is, capitalist democracy beat fascism by a razor thin margin, but our electoral system still benefits cruel bullying overlords. The struggle continues…"

“It’s great to see people so joyous and celebratory. Collectively people moved to defeat a hated leader,” says the Dread Scott, but added as a reminder that “Trump’s vitriolic white supremacy, mean spirited attacks on immigrants, entitled patriarchy, weaponised anti-science, and violent imposition of ‘law and order’ (chained at the hip to Vice President Mike Pence and his theocratic Christianity) were all attractive to almost half the people who voted. And just to be very clear, the open and emboldened racism, complete with armed racist militias, was the cutting edge in all of this.” Scott says that “continued mass non-violent celebrations and protest will be needed” to make sure that Trump and his enablers “do not succeed in their efforts to steal the election, by courts, disinformation, violence or any means”.

William Powhida, Possibilities for Representation (2020), currently on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut

The artist William Powhida shared an image of his installation Possibilities for Representation, currently on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, saying: "When I began working on this installation in January, I knew I wanted to create a visual representation of how long the primary and election would feel relative to the long history that produced the candidates. In the installation's timeline, centuries occupy the same amount of time as decades, then years, then months, and then election day. I am deeply relieved that my decision to give Joe Biden and Kamala Harris a very subtle edge in the seemingly glacial presidential race was proven correct by some 74 million voters.”

Powhida adds: “As good as the win feels at the moment, my relief is tempered by the sobering material realities waiting for us on the other side of election certification and inauguration. I'd like to remember how Saturday felt in the coming months and years as we begin to positively address the pandemic, systemic racism, and climate change not only in a deeply divided country, but a divided Democratic party. I don't imagine the collective ebulation I experienced yesterday is going to last very long as the new administration begins to define itself and its agenda.”

Comparing Biden's win to a "a breeze of fresh air we needed so badly", the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes says that while “working with grassroots gun control organisations, I learned Joe Biden has fought twice—and won—against the NRA. I believe we will see more and better gun sense policy coming now from the White House. Still, one of our top priorities as a planet is nuclear disarmament. Trump pledged 1.3 trillion dollars to new nukes on 2021, I hope this new administration can reverse that contract."

The artist Pablo Helguera, who regularly contributes Artoons for The Art Newspaper, says the triumph of Biden and Harris is “the result of the incredible collective effort of many that I think we need to recognise”, and he gives credit to organisers including: “Stacey Abrams in Georgia, but also the many other women leaders who helped turn the state blue: Helen Butler (Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda), Nse Ufot (The New Georgia Project), and Deborah Scott (Georgia Stand-Up); the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black community all over the country, and crucially in Philly who put Biden-Harris over the top; the millions of Latino voters in Arizona, Nevada and all over the country (much is said of the right-wing Cuban vote in Florida but more should be said of the Latino vote overall, particularly the Mexican American vote in the Southwest); Steve Schmidt and the gang of wild, fiercely anti-Trump Republican operatives from the Lincoln Project who the media dismissed as ineffectual but who, it might turn out, did manage to successfully take away a small but crucial percentage of Republican support from Trump.”

"Artists showed up like never before to turn out the vote—coalitions such as Joy to the Polls, Play for the Vote, Lift Every Vote, Wide Awakes, and Sankofa. Artists will continue to show up to bring people together and heal the nation”, says Tanya Selvaratnam, an artist, writer and producer, and a member of the Arts for Biden-Harris campaign. “With President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris, artists and the arts community can finally rejoice and cry tears of JOY.”

The arts writer Aruna D'Souza, who authored the book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, pointed out on Twitter that a victory video released by the Biden campaign on Twitter took clear inspiration from Lorraine O’Grady’s 1983 performance piece Art Is..., "a celebration of Blackness and community". According to the visual arts blog Culture Type, Biden's team reached out to O'Grady through her gallery, Alexander Gray Associates, to get her approval, and after seeing the finished video the artist said: “I gave to them and they gave to me.”

“Power to the people!!” tweeted the street artist Shepard Fairey. “The last four years under Trump have been heartbreaking, so I’m extremely happy that we can move forward again with the election of Joe Biden & Kamala Harris. A big step forward symbolically is the election of the first woman and first person of color as Vice President!” In another tweet he added: “We have a lot of work to do to make America more fair and equal, but we now have leaders who will respond to the people and respect democracy. Keep pushing forward and pushing our leaders everyone!”

International reactions

The results of the US election were also closely watched around the world. In France, among the first officials to respond to Biden’s win was the former culture minister and now director of the Pinault collection, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, who says he is “happy for America and for the world, which has suffered so much from Donald Trump’s violent contempt for them and for the fundamental values of the American democracy. With Joe Biden we can expect the return of loyal international cooperation, which is so important for politics, economy, and sustainability, but also culture and arts. In these difficult times, we hope that the new administration will bear the responsibility of supporting cultural institutions and networks, like Roosevelt did during the New Deal. In any case, arts deserve respect, something Trump was incapable of, so it is a wonderful news for the future of American culture.”

Emma Lavigne, the head of the national center for the contemporary art at the Palais de Tokyo, also asks the new administration to help the arts and artists, stressing that she knows “how privileged we are in France to receive this massive support by the state”. She adds that she has been "impressed by the contrast between the crisis striking American museums and institutions, and the strength, the energy and the spontaneity shown by artists like Jenny Holzer, Nan Goldin or Patty Smith” who came out to support election efforts. “If I had a message to send to Joe Biden, it would be: The artists went out in the streets to support democracy, don't let them stay in the streets. You have a great responsibility. Find a way to help them,” Lavigne says.

The Paris gallerist Kamel Mennour says he is still “shocked by the results” of the tightly fought race, which shows a division that “has also fractured the art world” and society around the globe. “We have to find a way to get some peace,” the gallery owner says, adding some concern for artists: “How is it possible to create in such a universe?”

“Projects are cancelled, museums and galleries are closed, it is a very difficult time for the artists, and it will remain so for a while”, suggests the artist Adel Abdessemed, whose staging of Messiaen’s Saint Françoise d’Assise, for Geneva’s Grand Théâtre, has been rescheduled to 2022. “These spaces which allow the creators to breathe are closed but I am confident that we can find a renaissance, out of the institutions, out of the market.” Describing Trump as “a scream of hate and vengeance”, Abdessemed hopes that “Biden might be able to bring some peace to America and the world. If I had a message for him, I would quote the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s words: ‘The only ones perhaps to believe in the world are the artists and they express this through their art’.”

“Health care, education, environment, community care, there are so many battles ahead", warns the artist Camille Henrot, who hopes that the new Biden-Harris administration "will involve the younger and progressive generation that allowed this victory". Henrot adds that “many immigrants with a small business did not have access to the SBA loans because they feared the renewal of their visas would be denied, and this was the case for many artists. After the cancellation of Art Basel, I had to leave my studio in New York and move to Berlin, because I could not support the expenses—60% of the artists I know have lost their studios. And that represents a dynamic economy, with assistants, freelancers, the artisans, making glass, bronze or ceramics… Everyone speaks of the galleries and museums, but nowhere, except in Germany, did countries find a way to help artists. They have not been heard.”

"Health care, education, a green new deal, a change of the criminal justice system, more community care and less police, rent regulations ...there are so many battles ahead", warns Camille Henrot who hopes that the administration "will involve BIPOC and younger progressive democrats who mobilised the voters who didn't vote in 2016 and basically made this victory possible". She adds: "I hope that more help will come towards the art community too, especially to migrants workers. In the US migrants who own a small business did not have access to PDA loans because it compromised their visa", says the winner of the silver lion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. "Seventy per cent of non-American artists living in New York have lost their studios and left the city. Artist studios represent a dynamic economy, with producers, graphic designers, freelancers etc. Most artists live in a different country from the one where they were born and few have asked for citizenship. Everyone talks about the economic impact on galleries and museums, but nowhere, except in Germany, did countries find a way to help migrant artists. They have not been heard."

What comes next

“The election was a triumph for our nation and for its progress towards democracy, racial justice, and equity,” says Robert Lynch, the president and CEO of the lobbying group Americans for the Arts. “President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris bring a commitment to get creative workers working again. Our nation needs to capitalize on the abundance of under-employed yet talented creative and racially underrepresented workers in America to aid in the recovery, to unify, and to heal our nation’s communities and economy.”

Nina Ozlu Tunceli, the executive director of Americans for the Arts Action Fund, adds that there is “great hope for a pro-arts administration” with Biden and Harris, and as the new government takes shape, she says her organisation will look “to ensure the arts are central to Covid-19 relief, jobs, and infrastructure packages during the administration’s critical first 100 days of office”.

“I have spent the last four years politically agitating against Donald Trump, having known him for 40 years and always having believed that he is unbalanced. He proved it during his presidency,” says the collector and financier Asher Edelman. “Biden is a good man and will try to unite the nation. If he avoids the deficient advisors from some of the previous administrations, which many of us who are active and care about the lower 70% of earners will push hard for, he could lead the country and the world back to some form of sanity and decency. It will take a huge effort. Just thinking about documenting Trump‘s destruction is a mountain to climb. To fix it we have to climb to the sky. Let’s hope that Joe can do it.” Edelman added in a postscript that “having written some thousands of pages about Donald Trump, I am now cutting him out of any further attention. Waste of time.”