Art Makes a Difference
As for impact, suffice it to say that the Bush Administration itself plainly fears the power of art. A year and a half ago Administration officials reportedly pressured the UN to drape a large blue curtain over the tapestry reproduction of Picasso's Guernica, which hangs along an entrance to the UN Security Council, lest Colin Powell have to make the case for war with bombed civilians writhing cubistically behind his head. Along with their objections to this or that Bush policy on war, the environment, healthcare and so on, artists have also taken to heart the Administration's contempt for free expression, and have been hellbent on getting their licks in before November 2. Sam Shepard, for instance, is rushing his new play, God of Hell--which he has called "a takeoff on Republican fascism"--toward an October 29 opening. Notes Boo Froebel, a co-executive producer of the Imagine Festival of Arts, Issues, and Ideas, which presented 200 events in seventy-five venues during the Republican National Convention in New York and which is now taking a festival of "Films to See Before You Vote" to Florida and Ohio, "People feel if they don't speak out now, they might never get a chance."
That's certainly what Pittsburgh graphic designer Brett Yasko was thinking when he came up with the idea of Partisan Project, a poster campaign with designs by fifteen artists--among them, both prominent illustrators and underground wheatpasters. "I've never been a political person," says Yasko, 35. "But I was filled with frustration and anger at this Administration and understood that Pennsylvania could be the Florida of this election. I wanted to do something more than write a check." The initial print run of 150,000 has been distributed all over the state and beyond. (The posters can be ordered or downloaded at www.partisanproject.org.)
Posters, of course, like various performance traditions, have a long history in radical movements, as artists have historically organized themselves to speak out collectively on such issues as the Vietnam War, nuclear arms race, apartheid and AIDS. In each instance, they have had to shape their techniques to fit the times. Images like the famous, plaintive 1969 "And Babies?" poster, reacting to the My Lai massacre, and the glossy 1989 "Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do" bus ad, responding to AIDS, were powerful in their day. Yet, says art historian Jennifer Gonzalez, political artists must constantly assess "how to capture the eye of a person familiar with the public visual landscape." Some of today's most effective posters, like the iRaq series, at once appropriate and subvert the slick appeal of advertising. Others, like many featured in the touring exhibition "Yo! What Happened to Peace?" (www.33graphic.com/yo) and those gathered by the No RNC Poster Project (www.visualresistance.org), cultivate a more homemade look. Artist Melina Rodrigo, who drew Pinocchio Bush--the smirking President with an elongated proboscis, now ubiquitous at protest marches--says she produces handmade signs to satisfy people's desire for authenticity. "I think people like to feel an individual actually made something to express themselves for the cause," she says. "That counteracts so much of visual culture that is all about trying to sell you something."
The gesture also reflects one of the most significant developments in the aesthetics of protest over the past dozen years or so: the do-it-yourself ethic of such movements as Reclaim the Streets and Art and Revolution, which replaced the old march-and-rally format with "festivals of resistance," featuring giant puppets, outrageous costumes and an anti-authoritarian spirit, deliberately operating outside the realm of electoral politics. Rejecting the Old Left notion that artists basically supply the bunting on the platform where the politicos hold forth, they dissolve the distinction between being artists and activists, between the medium and the message. (Think of Bill Talen's creation, the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, who is as much an organizer of strategic interventions against corporate greed as he is a performer.)
Under the Bush onslaught, these artist-activists have had to rethink not only technique but also ideology, suggests Nato Thompson, an arts activist who now works as assistant curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, where he recently assembled a show of critical arts interventions into the public sphere. "This big, theatrical, self-organizing, creative protest movement developed in the 1990s, when the enemy was Clinton--NAFTA, welfare reform and so on. Now it's flagrant empire," he says. Four years ago, the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) reminded spectators in a bouncy chant, "We don't care who you vote for. We already bought them!" This year, there's no parenthetical: The Billionaires are shilling only for Bush. The stakes are too high.
The upshot has been, at least for the moment, a tactical uniting of the various, often mutually suspicious, layers of the art world. At every level, the arts community has been stirred by the need to defeat Bush. This galvanizing goal has produced a momentum that won't be easy to stop--maybe not even in New Canaan. Froebel points out that the Imagine Festival is already getting requests from artists eager to know whether there will be another such festival next year. For his part, Brett Yasko is hatching a poster campaign for Pittsburgh's mayoral race next year-- and for the race against Rick Santorum's re-election campaign in 2006. Melina Rodrigo notes that hundreds of engaged visual artists from all over the country are on a huge e-mail list for the first time and are staying in touch, sharing work and ideas, and she holds out hope that a Kerry victory would create an opening that could inspire even more activism. And, she adds wistfully, "It would give artists some new iconography."