News | Art / Performance - War / Peace - Ukraine Crisis “War Represents a Failure, Not a Solution”

In conversation with artist and illustrator Brian Stauffer

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Brian Stauffer stands in front of one of his paintings. It shows a portrait of Putin with tanks, missiles and machine guns sticking out of it.
Brian Stauffer in front of the picture "Putin's cruel vision for Ukraine". Photo: RLS

Brian Stauffer is probably one of the most widely recognized magazine illustrators today. Although you may not know his name, for over two decades his work has graced the covers of The Nation, The New Yorker, and in Germany, even Der Spiegel. His explicitly political work, which attacks the hypocrisy and war-mongering of our ruling elites, has won a number of awards from the Society of Illustrators, an International Design Award, and a gold medal from the Society of Publication Designers.

Earlier this week, Stauffer was in Germany for the opening of his first-ever exhibition in Germany, Pictures, hosted at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s headquarters in Berlin. Before presenting his work to the general public, he sat down with Albert Scharenberg to talk about his influences, process, and what he tries to achieve with his work.

How do you decide what issues or themes your artwork will focus on?

From very early on in my childhood, my parents took my sister and me along on the many different volunteer efforts they were part of. I think that instilled in me an appreciation for people who are willing to keep their eyes open to the suffering of others.

As a young graphic designer, I remember being very aware of how much more interested I was in social issue-related work versus more commercial. Over time, the work that I promoted myself, this socially driven work, began to represent the majority of my work. As an illustrator, the work that you show usually leads to more of the same being assigned.

Brian Stauffer is an American artist and illustrator. His exhibition Pictures is open to the public and can be viewed at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s headquarters in Berlin until 26 August.

Are there themes that you feel particularly drawn to — and if yes, what are they and why?

I think my answer to the first question applies here somewhat as well. That said, I love the power of images in speaking truth to power. In politics, it is immensely satisfying to know that I can depict the truth of a corrupt or inhumane act or policy. I am drawn to exploring the abuse of power, racism, and intolerance.

Your art is incredibly politically charged. Do you think that risks alienating parts of your audience?

My only concern is with being truthful. In the current political landscape, that means there is no shortage of people who will disagree with me.

For example, when there is news of a priest that has been proven to have abused many children, I’m going to do my best to illustrate an empathetic image that communicates the suffering and innocence that it creates. My image, however, will not be an indictment of all religions or religious leaders. It may discuss the failings of an institution, but it will not speak visually in hyperbole or oversimplifications.

To me, overstatements and sensationalism are the most offensive. When Donald Trump told Americans that COVID-19 would just “go away” and that all is “under control”, I was so angry at the level of irresponsibility. Out of that anger came the image “Under Control”, which appeared on the cover of the New Yorker. I value the fact that there is nothing that Trump could do to remove that image from the public eye. He can lie and condemn, but he could not stop that image from revealing him as ridiculous and corrupt. 

I love that art has that subversive power — that a shy kid who grew up in a tiny Arizona town of no particular significance could send a message directly to a world leader.

You are currently working a lot on the Russian war in Ukraine. The German public took note of your artwork for Der Spiegel just a few days ago. How did that happen? Is this your first time appearing in major German media?

No, I’ve done a few other Der Spiegel covers. One was about the decline of the Catholic Church in Germany, and the other was about the youth rebellion against old power structures. I’ve done a few features for Die Zeit around US presidential election issues as well. It’s a particular honour to be contributing to the discussion during this catastrophe in Ukraine.

Let’s stay on the Ukraine issue for a moment. Is there something about this war in particular that captures your attention, or is it a more general opposition to war?

My wife and I lived only one-and-a-half blocks away from the World Trade Center when the towers were struck. We were on the roof of our building, assuring our families by phone that we were safe, when the second plane crashed into the South Tower. My wife was seven months pregnant with our first child.

I remember distinctly on a small boat that was evacuating us to a safe area, that I hoped that we would not, as a nation, seek violent revenge. Although I am opposed to violence as a way to resolve differences, my concern in these wartime situations is always for the innocent civilians who inevitably pay the highest cost. I think war represents a failure, not a solution.

What artists influenced you in developing your style?

Two artists were directly influential to me, but for very different reasons. One is John Heartfield and his ability to reveal a more honest truth within unexpected photographic collisions of the powerful and elite. The other is Alexander Calder. His insistence on not being defined by the many -isms being birthed around his early work reminds me that my work can be anything at any moment. He also believed that humans were put on this earth to work hard at something every day, and that you must make time to celebrate life with friends.

Tell us a bit about your process

I’m a big believer in the power of the idea, and the willingness to use “everything” to get that idea across. My work starts as traditional pencil drawings but is then built into collages digitally. The objects in my images are usually shaped out of scanned indistinguishable bits of abstract textures. From old magazines to scans of my dog’s fur, any number of sourced images will be combined in my work.

Did you struggle, as a political artist in the US, to reflect Trump’s presidency in your art? What impact do you think his presidency had on artists generally?

Yes! It was the first time in my life that I was faced with a subject that was impervious to shame. In the US, that quickly devolved into a very distinct taking of sides where each side slung increasingly escalating insults and vilifications at each other while decrying the loss of the “real” America.

After six months of trying, I, along with many of my colleagues in the news, were exhausted and quite depressed. When someone can call a provable lie a truth, what hope does metaphor have? As I saw imagery become more and more hyperbolic, I became deeply aware that I did not want to contribute imagery that was part of the echo chamber. I wanted to talk to both sides.

I’m not sure anyone ever succeeded at that. The failing of the Left in the US (me included) was to discard people with whom we disagreed, as if somehow they would just become relics of an old way of thinking, rather than to accept and understand that people think what they think for very real reasons — that they learned their beliefs, whether good or bad. I hope in the end that my images might open a few eyes rather than close minds because of hyperbole.