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Special Issue: America
This article is part of our America special issue. See all articles in this issue.

Need To Know


Artists Lead the Way

We’re Coming to America, Today

BY Eric Shiner
senior vice president of contemporary art at Sotheby’s


Dara Birnbaum, still from Technology/Transformation: Wonderwoman (1978-79). Courtesy the artist, Electronic Arts Intermix, New York and Marian Goodman Gallery

A nation, a place, a concept, an ideal: all of these are possible takes on the notion of “America”. Forever rich as a subject, artists have analyzed, critiqued, celebrated and questioned the fundamentals of the American experience as they have encountered it, either directly or from worlds away. Today, in a political and social landscape fraught with tension, many wonder if the democratic principles upon which the United States of America was founded are in dire jeopardy, whereas others view this age as one of necessary change and ultimate prosperity. That disparity is the beauty of the America that I love: a place of difficult juxtapositions in a constant state of flux that is bound to the voice of its people and, ultimately, to their collective choices.

We must remember that artists are critical in defining their age. They are often among the first to comment upon it: heralding the victories and aspirations of flush times and serving as a voice of reason in darker periods (or perhaps more pointedly, as equal parts critic, incendiary and witness). They become the documentarians of their time, and the works they leave behind bear the weight of human history, tracing what came to pass or what should have been.

Regardless of their politics, artists act as the mediators of their surroundings. Indeed, we may look to art, both past and present, for affirmation of our own views, just as we can find opposing mindsets validated or contradicted in equal measure. Ultimately, through art, differing viewpoints are given an equal playing field, creating a truly democratic stage upon which all voices matter. 

Now is the time to strive more fiercely than ever for the American dream

Like Andy Warhol, now is the time, I believe, for all of us to strive more fiercely than ever for the American dream. The son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Warhol combined his incredible talent with an intense work ethic to become one of the most important artists the world has ever known. He loved America and all that it stood for: equality, prosperity, freedom and wealth, to name only a few. He often said that he was as American as apple pie, and in so many ways he embodied what we understand as the founding notion of this nation: if one works hard, one can rise to the upper reaches of society, whether in the economic, social, or political strata. He, decidedly, hit all three.

Andy Warhol, Statue of Liberty (1962) Image and Artwork © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by ARS

It is important to note that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that Warhol was able to achieve his various successes. He was poor; he was gay; he was sickly. He was the anomaly that became the paradigm. His ability to overcome the countless challenges facing him was in so many ways due to the American condition itself—here, more than anywhere, one is able to overcome one’s lot in life in order to become someone else entirely, should one so desire. This intrinsic ability of artists to innovate, reinvent and reimagine their known experiences is what drives society, thought and understanding forward through visual means. Warhol excelled at this, and so too does any successful artist.

It is thanks to artists such as Dara Birnbaum, Hank Willis Thomas and Dulce Pinzón, to name just a very few, that we come to understand our own America, its strengths and its failures. Each, in her or his own way, has looked deeply in to the heart of America and created works of art that challenge us , the viewer, to consider other realities and positions that might reflect or stand in stark opposition to our own. 

Dulce Pinzón, Wonder Woman, Maria Luisa Romero from the State of Puebla, works in a laundromat in Brooklyn, New York. She sends $150 a week. From “The Real Story of the Superheroes (2005-10). Courtesy the artist

Whether through Birnbaum’s feminist stance through her looping video image of the all-powerful Wonder Woman transforming from mere mortal into superheroine; via Willis Thomas’s realignment of continents showing that “America” is forever bound to Africa through the ravages of the slave trade; or through Pinzón’s celebration of Mexican immigrants and their oftentimes underappreciated labor that makes this country function (while providing necessary support for families far away), all of the works illustrated here stand as markers of the America that we navigate on a daily basis. 

As we celebrate the birth of our nation this Fourth of July week, we must thank all artists for their labor and their bravery in choosing to become the arbiters of our age. Without their questioning, critique and selfless examination of power structures, social mores and culture writ large, we would not be able to imagine, let alone actualize, alternate outcomes. Luckily, this is not exclusive to the American condition, as the voices of artists the globe over have changed the world in truly countless ways. May we always remember—and value—the true power of art, which is to change things for the better.

Hank Willis Thomas, A Place to Call Home (Africa-America) (2009). Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York



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