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For Freedoms: NARI WARD, “Mass Action,” 2016 (shoelaces). | ©Nari Ward. Courtesy the Artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

 

ONE WEEK AGO TODAY, AMERICA WOKE UP to a new president-elect. The largely unexpected result has struck fear, anger, disappointment, and disbelief, in a majority of the voting populace. Americans are dismayed that the electoral college has selected a temperamental candidate who is loose with facts; repeatedly demonstrates surface knowledge of national security and domestic and foreign policy issues; disrespects military leadership, veterans, and the disabled; refuses to release his tax returns; and unwilling to disavow white supremacist support, regularly spews sexist, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric. The behavior of the incoming president would have rendered a schoolteacher, or any other public or private sector figure, jobless.

In response, thousands upon thousands of people have taken to the streets expressing their distress and consternation. Students are taking a stand by walking out of schools. Protests in cities across the country are an indication that while his opponent and elected officials emphasize the strength of our democracy and the importance of a smooth presidential transition, much of the nation is concerned about more than the standard ideological disagreements and policy differences that surface when one administration turns the reigns over to another.

Before the vote, artists reminded us of the urgency of now through their work, words, campaign donations, and direct action. Black women artists stood up for Black Lives Matter, an initiative that grew out of Simone Leigh’s “The Waiting Room” exhibition at the New Museum. Dread Scott reprised a provocative work, a flag drawing attention to police violence against people of color. Meanwhile, his “Imagine a World Without America” image graces the November cover of Artforum, a special issue on Artists on Politics. Carrie Mae Weems produced a video connecting images of everyday people with the words of President Obama during an address to the Congressional Black Caucus. It’s a nod to his legacy and a poignant get out the vote message.

Before the vote, artists reminded us of the urgency of now. …Post election, the urgency is ever greater.


“The Power of Your Vote,” 2016 | A Carrie Mae Weems Project, edited by Yao Xu; Paid for by Hillary for America

 

For Freedoms, the first-ever artist-run super PAC, was founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman. Through exhibitions, public programs, voter registration drives, and billboard advertisements, the innovative campaign encouraged political engagement and critical discourse during the lengthy fight for the White House, which was laced with unprecedented vitriol and influenced by round-the-clock media coverage. Relying on collaborations with cultural institutions and contributions by nearly 50 artists including Nina Chanel Abney, Edgar Arceneaux, Zoë Buckman, Rashid Johnson, Marilyn Minter, Aida Muluneh, Bayeté Ross Smith, Nari Ward, Scott and Weems, For Freedoms was active in many states—red ones, blue ones, and battlegrounds such as Ohio, Florida, and Arizona. It’s a campaign well worth continuing and replicating.

POST ELECTION, the urgency is ever greater. The time for social practice is now. Historically, artists have played a critical role in raising and distilling social justice issues and challenging the deeds of democracy. Their voices and insight, creativity and vision, have energized communities and helped to spur, define, and advance movements, and encourage political participation.

Historically, artists have played a critical role in raising and distilling social justice issues and challenging the deeds of democracy. Their voices and insight, creativity and vision, have energized communities and helped to define movements.

Scott is speaking out. Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz are writing. A number of exhibitions currently on view featuring work by Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Nick Cave, Arceneaux and Weems (in New York and at Harvard), and about the Black Panthers, “Vision & Justice,” and designing a better America, revisit the past, tangle with the present and consider the future.

 

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DREAD SCOTT, “Imagine a World Without America,” 2007 (silkscreen on canvas). | Artforum, November 2016

 

A COUPLE OF DAYS AFTER THE ELECTION, Stanley Nelson, the film director who recently documented the practices of Gates and Nick Cave for ART21, was honored with a lifetime achievement award from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival. In his acceptance speech, he commented on the election.

“This is a real sobering moment. I really did not think that America had the capacity to break my heart. But I was wrong. …I firmly believe that the biggest reason we’ve gotten to where we are today, is that we have failed to tell the full American story.” — Documentary Filmmaker Stanley Nelson

“I have spent most of my career making films about history, about moments in the American story that have been left out of the larger narrative. For me, as a historical filmmaker, as it is for many of us, this is a real sobering moment. I really did not think that America had the capacity to break my heart. But I was wrong. The most painful truth is that the media was complicit in making this horror show a reality. The media, and I am including all of us, have been complicit,” Nelson said.

“I firmly believe that the biggest reason we’ve gotten to where we are today, is that we have failed to tell the full American story. Our collective failure to tell the full story means that we cannot wrestle with the problems of the present or even make sense of them. Failing to tell the full story creates a fear and a longing for a past that never existed, instead of embracing the wonderful, unstoppable future that lies ahead. I feel privileged to have been able to contribute by telling a few of the stories that have been left out of the American narrative, but it is up to me and to all of us to do more and do better.”

Artists are storytellers, too. Scott, for example, is recruiting 500 people for a slave rebellion re-enactment next fall in Louisiana. The German Coast Uprising of 1811, the largest rebellion of enslaved people in American history is a pivotal, overlooked moment in the nation’s narrative.

Venues from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Studio Museum in Harlem to Artist Space Books & Talks in Tribeca and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., provide bases for engagement and resources for a fuller telling of the American story. Individual artists are also seeding spaces for uplift and change. Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice in Los Angeles and the Rebuild Foundation and Stony Island Arts Bank established by Theaster Gates in Chicago, are transforming neighborhoods through programming that bridges art, culture, education and community.

Mass change, requires mass action and mass intention. We should heed Nelson’s wise words and do more and do better in order to realize “the wonderful, unstoppable future that lies ahead.” CT

 

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For Freedoms: PABLO HELGUERA, “All Proceeds,” 2016 (acrylic on canvas). | © Pablo Helguera. Courtesy the artist