Political Art Month does not have the sanction of the city, state, or any local nonprofit. It is not affiliated with a particular gallery, museum, or performance space. Rather, PAM is a conceptual designation by its founder, Gene Elder, writer, conceptual artist, librettist and archivist of the Happy Foundation, an LGBT archive housed in the Bonham Exchange building. It arose “blooming like Athena” from his brain, partly in reaction to Contemporary Art Month (CAM) being moved in 2010 from July, the month it occupied when it began in 1986 in what was a then-emerging Blue Star, to the more tourist-friendly and less infernally hot month of March.
Initially, Elder didn’t care much for the move, as it broke the annual cohesion, and seemed a CVB gambit favoring tourism over grassroots San Antonio art culture. Nonetheless, CAM's departure left a vacuum just waiting to be filled with: what else? Like the Declaration of Independence, July is inherently political and American. And like the Declaration of Independence, Gene Elder was born on the Fourth of July.
He wants to make clear that PAM belongs to everybody, can be co-opted, usurped, adapted, embraced, or rejected at will. He adds, “you don’t even have to go outside.”
Gene Elder, Our Founder
If you get on his email list, you’ll have things to read for the rest of the summer. A prolific social commentator, he tends to send a group email once every three to four days. In these, you will find film reviews, links to articles about good health or UFOs (he’s a longtime listener of Coast to Coast AM) video clips, art criticism, and almost always an axiom that makes me laugh out loud.
Ask your doctor if getting off your ass is right for you.
When I pledged the Pledge of Allegiance to God and country there was nothing about following orders. So I don’t.
Political art may cause hindsight, nausea, projectile vomit, heart palpitations, sweaty palms, bowel irregularity, dry mouth, high blood pressure, blurred vision, violent laughter, and other uncontrollable irritations. But relax, it is only art.
He’s a rights-fighting LGBTQ OG as well, marching on Washington in 1987, one of the activists who volunteered for an arrest on the steps of the Supreme Court.
He’s the grassroots journalist behind “A View of Reality from a Chartreuse Couch,” a column currently featured in Out In SA, and his letters to the editor, often about the River Road neighborhood in which he lives, make the San Antonio Express-News fairly regularly.
An irreverent devotion to San Antonio history is a theme throughout his work, including an eight-year performance project covered by The Wall Street Journal in an August 20, 1999 article entitled “Performance Artist Gene Elder Walks into Tourists’ Home Movies,” which is exactly what he did — in front of the Alamo.
Even before the internet, which empowers anybody to be a self-appointed anything (curator, media producer, “journalist,” etc.), Gene Elder took to as many media as his imagination could handle. He once wrote a “revenge ballet” called Fairies Fiasco … but that’s a story for another time. For the purposes of this PAM scavenger hunt, a kind of ad hoc go-guide, he acts as curator, docent, and verbal archivist.
The PAM Survey: A Colloquial Study
In years past, Elder has, in fact, fomented some PAM activity, but this is the first two-person downtown survey of political art that anyone can get their eyes on. Here’s how we did it: Gene Elder and I drove around downtown, with Elder both driving and opining, with me taking notes. As we approached a particularly juicy piece of work, he’d stop the car and I would hop out, examine it, make notes, hop back in the car, and get Elder’s take. See how easy PAM is?
Several of these pieces, you doubtless will have seen. La Antorcha de la Amistad (The Torch of Friendship), at the very least. Some of these, you’re likely to have walked by a dozen times if you’re a denizen of downtown, with hardly a second glance.
A note: These remarks are not meant as a historical or critical study; rather, they’re verbal drive-bys.
Another note: Out of the seven pieces we chose, four depict men with guns.
Let’s get rolling.
Veterans Memorial Plaza
1oo Auditorium Circle
This plaza houses not one, but two bronze soldier groupings, one memorializing Vietnam, the other Korea, but in aggregate meant to honor all our fallen, anywhere. The figures are tensed, ready for battle, tough, memorialized. Oddly, they from some angles appear to be at war with each other. One cannot find issue with its mission, in this most military of American cities. Often, visitors to the site leave remembrances — cards, flowers, a patriotic ribbon tied around one of the guns’ barrels.
The plaza itself, however, seems both over- and under-designed, a series of separate gestures — the islands of men huddled together, one in an improvised-seeming pile of concrete. The figure rendering, while competent, is a little sketchy. They are like claymation in bronze.
Elder is not a fan, and points out that it was a railroaded, occult sort of project that covered up a perfectly good WWI memorial.
Confederate Civil War Monument
301 E. Travis St.
I opine that this outsized obelisk marks San Antonio as part of a larger, if distant South. Elder is skeptical. But we were officially segregated, I protest. The Robert E. Lee Hotel is visible from here. There’s a high school named after him. Think of the accent, the biscuits, the risible and continuing issues of social justice. Whatever else San Antonio is, it’s Southern.
The legend on the obelisk reads, “Lest we forget our Confederate dead.”
Elder sniffs. “There can’t have been that many.”
100 Military Plaza