Art Makes a Difference
New Canaan, Connecticut, has never been anybody's idea of a hotbed of radicalism--or even of a warm bath of liberalism. The median household income of about $141,800 is more than triple the national figure, and registered Republicans outnumber Democrats three to one. Nonetheless, this fall, an 82-year-old art center nestled among the tony town's sloping hills and vivid foliage has been featuring an exhibit with some of the most powerful dissident imagery on view anywhere in the country. Painter Adam Niklewicz, for example, has contributed a brightly arresting tempera of Uncle Sam plunging his head into the sands of the Iraqi desert. Shiela Hale has built a mixed-media voting booth festooned with mirrors, chalkboards, news articles (on casualties in Iraq and on the economics of Wal-Mart, for instance) and graffiti. ("What do citizens do when tyrants and profiteers seize power?" "A noble dream has been stolen from us and we are complicit in the theft.") A conceptual piece called "In Memoriam" by Gerald Saladyga greets viewers at the entrance: A sheaf of handouts rests on the starry section of an American flag atop a white wooden pedestal. They are lists of US soldiers killed in Iraq.
The show is hardly typical fare for the Silvermine Galleries, but, explains gallery director Helen Klisser During, organizers of the space felt that passions around the elections were running so high, they had to respond. They invited the 326 artists in the guild affiliated with the gallery to submit pieces under the title "Political Persuasions: Left, Right and Center." Forty-two works came in. "We got nothing from the right," During says. Artists in the middle of the political spectrum didn't make much noise, either. One piece decries the stark split tearing the country, and another seems to pine for a sort of folksy patriotism. But the overall tone at Silvermine is clear enough. It prompted one disgruntled local viewer to chalk a snooty critique onto the exhibit's comment board: "The anti-Bush theme of all this is boring and unimaginative."
In fact, in highly imaginative and engaging ways, artists all over the country have been generating an accelerating torrent of anti-Bush material in every conceivable genre. It's easy to forget that just twenty months ago, the verb to be "Dixie Chicked" entered the American pop lexicon after some Clear Channel radio stations dropped the country music group from their playlists because lead singer Natalie Maines had made disparaging remarks about the President. At first, a chill swept through the cultural and entertainment worlds, leaving it to those working within activist and grassroots formations to keep the fires burning. But artists in more mainstream venues soon began to make their voices heard again. In recent months, even some of the most risk-averse big arts institutions have turned up the heat to a level not felt since the 1970 New York Art Strike Against War, Racism, Fascism, Sexism, and Repression, when major museums and galleries shut down for a day of protest. Coalescing around the urgency of defeating Bush, guerrilla theater performers, underground poster makers, mass-march puppetistas and radical interventionists find themselves joined on the public stage by swanky galleries, regional theaters, pop stars, major museums and other institutions that rely on corporate largesse or the pocketbooks of a politically diverse public.
To highlight just a few of the countless eruptions: Bruce Springsteen's raucous rock-outs in the Vote for Change tour; Pauline Oliveros's meditative "RingOut" around the World Trade Center on August 28; a pointed revival of Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw's denunciation of war profiteering at the San Jose Repertory Theatre; the Voting Machine series of performances, exhibits, films and discussions in a range of arts venues in Houston; the Whitney Museum's bold linking of Vietnam and Iraq in its current exhibition "Memorials of War," and its film series "WAR! Protest in America, 1965-2004"; and the iRaq posters that have been slapped up on city walls by Los Angeles-based Forkscrew Graphics, appropriating the iconic iPod ads of silhouetted figures on a fluorescent background to show, for instance, a hooded man with fake electrodes attached to his fingers. (For a weekly national calendar of "politically relevant cultural events to help promote social change," see www.activate.us.)
The perennial, cranky old questions about art's efficacy or whether it preaches to the choir hardly seem relevant these days. At a time when the flood of information carries the untreated sewage of lies and distortions, a sharp image, stinging satire, complex drama or rousing rap offers the public an honest, if plainly partisan, response to pressing issues and opens space for unmanipulated emotion and reflective analysis. Over the past year, the public's desperation for clear articulations of its questions and for frank grappling with its doubts has shown itself in the box-office success of Fahrenheit 9/11 as well as in the enthusiasm that has greeted smaller-scale projects around the country. At the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, for example, artistic director Gordon Edelstein presented Gip Hoppe's satire, A New War, an uproarious slam at jingoistic broadcast media and the arrogance of empire. "I was outraged over the lack of civic conversation about the war and felt I had to present something that could talk about these issues," Edelstein says. The play opened last January to exultant ovations. "What we said on stage wasn't really news to anyone," Edelstein recalls, "but people were so happy that anyone was saying these things out loud. It was received like manna in the wilderness and was the surprise hit of the season."
The comedian Reno has observed this shift in audiences, too, over the past three years as she has toured her show Rebel Without a Pause across the nation. Speaking by phone from a rental car somewhere between Cincinnati and Columbus, as she was helping get-out-the-vote efforts in early October, she noted how spectators seem much more interested in the policy issues around which she weaves her barbed and cunning narratives. "For the first time in my career, I can go on a tirade for three, four, five minutes before I have to get back to just being funny," she said. "The whole point in this work is never to lose the audience. I can feel they're with me when I'm carrying on about international trade agreements."