Hank Willis Thomas Speaks on the Work That Remains

The artist and For Freedoms co-founder was recently presented with the 2023 Medal of Arts award by the First Lady and the U.S. Department of State. He views the honor not as the destination, but rather a milestone on his mission to reframe art as a catalyst for change at the highest levels.

Hank Willis Thomas receives the Medal of Arts award at the White House, with Dr. Jill Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Verma. Credit: Erin Scott

It’s been a big couple of weeks for Hank Willis Thomas. On September 13, he became one of four recipients of the 2023 Medal of Arts, a prestigious accolade created by the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program and awarded to him by Dr. Jill Biden. This week, he participated in panels about the role of art in diplomacy and civic engagement at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Not incidentally, the museum is the first stop of the traveling exhibition “A More Perfect Union: American Artists and the Currents of Our Time.” Reinterpretations of Norman Rockwell’s New Deal–era Four Freedoms paintings, created by the artist collective and former super PAC For Freedoms (which Thomas helped co-found), will feature prominently in the show. Later this week, the Brooklyn-based artist will celebrate his mother, the artist, scholar, and MacArthur Fellow Deborah Willis, as the Smithsonian Museum of American Art unveils a room dedicated in her honor.

“I’m just following in her footsteps,” Thomas said when congratulated by Surface for his week of recognition. In her remarks, Dr. Biden commended the artist’s role in creating imagery that better embodies contemporary America. A conceptual artist, Thomas enlists media including sculpture, photography and collage to pose questions of identity, history, and culture. Together with fellow artists and friends Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery, he co-founded For Freedoms in 2016, which employs creative expression as a mechanism for civic engagement. To many, Thomas’s identity as an artist is inextricably linked to his identity as a co-founder of the organization. “Dr. Biden dedicated the entire opening of her speech to For Freedoms, the organization, and the photos,” executive director Claudia Peña told Surface. “She was also honoring Hank, of course, but there’s so much overlap. Any time he’s being honored, For Freedoms ends up being mentioned.” 

Deborah Willis, Sanford Biggers, Hank Willis Thomas, and Deborah Kass speak on a Democracy Day panel moderated by Ambassador Randi Charno Levine at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Credit: Tori See.

At the same time, Thomas is hesitant to speak on behalf of For Freedoms, redirecting a question about how the State Department’s perspective of art as a “soft power tool” aligns with how For Freedoms views its own work, to his fellow co-founders. To see a Cold War–era diplomatic term used in such a modern and even liberal context might give some whiplash, but not to Gottesman. “Because culture is [now] so much a stronger power than it was when the term was created, art is the sharpest tool for cultural shift that we have,” Gottesman says. “It’s moved more towards hard power. It would be very difficult to find a diplomatic mechanism or way that countries are interacting with one another that doesn’t involve creative production.”

Below, Thomas weighs in on legacy, artists as “the future of society,” and optimism in the face of impending doom.

In the past two weeks, the highest levels of leadership have facilitated conversations about your work and For Freedoms on a national scale. Do you feel like you’ve accomplished what you and your co-founders aspired to in 2016?

In many ways we’ve exceeded our expectations, and also, we have a lot more work to do. 

How is there now more work to do?

We started this project in 2015 and launched in 2016. A lot of the realities that are now familiar were unfathomable. It seems that we didn’t do enough, and that we have to work really hard to continue to elevate the conversation and complicate simplistic narratives that lead us to fall into traps of division and the revision of history.

Left: Freedom from Fear; Right: Freedom from Want. Credit: For Freedoms. Art in Embassies U.S. Department of State, Permanent Collection. Gift of Ellen Susman.

Has anything changed—for better or worse—in the five years between when you, Emily Shur, Eric Gottesman and Wyatt Gallery created that photo series reimagining Four Freedoms?

What if I said: nothing? I tend to be an optimist but also I am not a determinist. Objectively, things are getting better around the world in various ways, but the threat of imminent doom seems to overshadow that at every moment [laughs].

That is true.

Good art asks questions and good design answers them. The quality of the questions impacts the quality of the answers, and if we look at artists as the questioners and lawmakers and politicians as the designers of our society, I’d say maybe we can just continue to ask better questions.

The fact that we’re having the work in the collection of the U.S. government, and that we’re having the First Lady, Congresspeople, judges, and senators engaged with the work, as well as the millions of Americans who go to the Smithsonian, we believe that is a longer arc. Rarely does an artwork make its greatest lasting impression in its first few years. What tends to be the greatest art stands the test of time. It’s amazing that five years later, it seems like we’re just getting started. As this seeps into the psyche and vision of America that the government is promoting, the greater impact it will have. I’m excited to see that.

Left: Freedom of Speech; Right: Freedom of Worship. Credit: For Freedoms. Art in Embassies U.S. Department of State, Permanent Collection. Gift of Ellen Susman.

When you co-founded For Freedoms, did any of this seem possible?

To call oneself an artist is to live in the realm of the impossible. Most of the things that we do on a daily basis are not imaginable to us moments before, so it felt like anything’s possible.

Do you feel the First Lady’s word choice of “cultural diplomat” describes what you do?

As an artist, I see myself as a cultural diplomat. I don’t think we recognize that artists are important political figures in every society, and that most of what we know about past societies is through the art they left behind. Reason would suggest that we’re the future of our society. When I travel and make work—and often my work is about the United States —I’m doing my part to tell some of the stories of our country: some of the triumphs, many of the struggles that we are yet to overcome, and have overcome. If we can do this without being damning or condemning, that is what every artist or person who can say “I am,” should be doing. 

The power of art and image is tremendous, and with Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, he agreed to adhere to the Saturday Evening Post’s policy of banning images of people of color unless they were depicted in servitude. Do you think about the legacy of those original paintings?

I’m not sure history will judge me as generously as the present does. Looking back, it’s easy to point fingers and critique the way a person lived their life, or saw the world, within the context of the world that we can relate to. I do my best to time travel, but I try not to flap my wings too hard and really see it as a privilege to be able to look at that window and gain as much context as I can. I would hope that in 75 years, these images are antiquated and out of touch. That someone else will see them and be like, “Wait, this isn’t what we are. This is who we were then. Update that!”

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