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Art Makes a Difference | The Nation

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Art Makes a Difference

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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.

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Alisa Solomon
Alisa Solomon, director of the arts and culture concentration at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of...

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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."

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."

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