“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” -James Baldwin
This poignant excerpt from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son is itself a reiteration of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s statement on Voltaire’s idea of freedom of speech: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," in an American context. It is an intimate, thought-provoking declaration that not only expresses high regard for the founding principles of the United States but honors them enough to hold the realities of America accountable to those ideals.
In today's political climate, it seems increasingly difficult for people to speak their actual beliefs without garnering scrutiny and attacks from those who disagree. Modern America has chosen conflict avoidance, political correctness, and a selective dispersal of opinions only to those they know will agree at the expense of fruitful and honest discourse. Furthermore, we live in a culture where politically engaged individuals are pigeonholed into two tropes; the America hating critic who incessantly talks down on the US government, or the unquestioning fool who states that “America is the best country in the world” while acting blithely unaware of its very real polemics. Americans today are more likely to misappropriate freedom of speech to justify attacking the person who expresses something they dislike, rather than employing it to express an actual opinion.
In October of 2020, I had my first chance at meeting Shelly Mccoy—albeit in a virtual format—via an interview on Instagram. We were celebrating the opening of the CAMP and FAMA’s first iteration of “Women Pulling at the Threads of Social Discourse,” a group exhibition including female textile artists and the show’s focus centers around the centennial of the 19th amendment. McCoy, a sculptor who was at the time a novice to textile art, created a flag entirely covered in bras to represent the stripes of the flag, and plush penises to represent its stars. It was a statement on the realities of womanhood 100 years ago—subdued, marginalized, restrained by the limitations of the world around them and the expectations our culture held for women to remain domestic and motherly. The piece was titled Allegory of Sisterhood. When asked about how she would reinvent the piece to portray current political circumstances, she explained she would have to put a lot of thought into how to adapt the same flag imagery to discuss a contemporary context. And thus, the first seedling of this series was planted.
This anecdote is not to say that I had anything more than a small, supportive role in the creation of this series. It is more than likely McCoy would have come to this endpoint all on her own; after all, as a staunch feminist and sculpture artist entrenched in her concepts of right and wrong and her sharp sense of imagery, she has created works that focus on political and social issues her entire career and continues to do so with varying considerations for subtlety and nuance. In Latex We Trust, for example, can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways; from the calamity of the AIDS pandemic in the ’80s to the taboos of birth control to the heated debates in our current politics around women's reproductive rights and abortion’s legality. However, American flags with color-coordinated letters spelling Cult and Fucked are by no means subtle depictions of some of her conflicted emotions towards the United States... In a way, if the United States is a dysfunctional family, McCoy is the outspoken child who says what everyone else is feeling but gets blamed as being “provocative” for having the gumption to express herself. Much like Baldwin, Shelly McCoy insists on her right to criticize the current US political environment and the hand we have each had in perpetuating it.
Whatever the materials, subjects matter, or underlying statement, one theme rings true throughout the entire exhibition: the repetitive use of the American flag as a foundation for each piece. This evocative, quintessential American symbol today provokes mixed feelings throughout the world. For many, it remains a beacon of hope for a better life; for others, it may represent a revolution that has long lost its luster.
I beg each viewer to not only see the work as the machinations of a “bleeding heart liberal”, no matter what your political opinions are. To do so would be to short-change both the significance of the work and what the viewer stands to gain from seeing it. Think of the work more as a statement of an opinion, one that you are free to agree or disagree with, one that you are free to discuss and argue about with others. It is in thoughtful discussion and fruitful disagreement that we may be able to get this dysfunctional family back on track. We may all find that we have much more in common than previously expected.