ARTISTS IMPACT THE 2020 ELECTION
The 2020 presidential election proved to be both one of the most divisive and important in the history of America.
Because of this perceived importance, usual conventions and taboos around discussing politics have shrunk, which allowed for more open discussion in a wider variety of settings, leaving silence as a decreasingly viable option. Rather than run from this responsibility, the visual art community has embraced it and used their cultural influence to send important messaging to Americans.
In years past, the art community has played an integral role in spreading the vote. In the 2018 midterm elections, the Center for Contemporary Political Art launched a project in which it invited artists from all across the country to try to represent what was at stake in the election. Artist Steve Brodner of the New York City CVA Chelsea gallery curated a similar project, in which he collected more than 200 politically focused cartoons called Art as Witness: Political Graphics 2016-18. His goal was not only to get out the vote, but also to bring some comedy to a stressful election cycle. Another mode of activism was fashion and wearable art. Artist Michele Pred partnered with, among other organizations, the National Institute of Reproductive Health, to debut a series of handbags with slogans such as “Vote Feminist”, “Me too”, and “Time's Up.” Drawing inspiration from the Women’s Marches in New York, Pred also led a series of performative protests both to launch her brand and to send a message that the art world “needs to work hard at bringing the political world into better alignment with our social and cultural realities and aspiration.”
The ability of artists to increase voter turnout goes beyond simply their duty as creators. High-end galleries often have the ability to raise significant money for a cause because of the wealthy clientele they attract. Organizations such as Artists for Biden, launched by David Zwirner of the Zwirner Gallery, held dozens of fundraisers in support of president-elect Joe Biden. Artists and estates donated over one hundred paintings and sculptures to help raise money not only for Biden’s campaign, but also to help address issues such as racial justice and COVID economic relief.
Another way the art community is helping do their civic duty is to volunteer their gallery or museum as an official polling center. In Atlanta and New York, the High Museum of Art and New York City Museum opened as polling locations on November 3 respectively. In Los Angeles, the Institute of Contemporary Art San José, despite being closed to the public, opened its doors for voters on Election Day. Many raised concerns about the admittedly strong lean towards liberalism in the art world, but The American Alliance of Museums is committed to ensuring that this is a nonpartisan effort for voter engagement. It even has outlines that specify what employees of polling station- museums can and cannot do in terms of election activities to counteract any biases within the art community.
The art community has also ramped up their engagement with politics in their works, with more pieces than ever before centered around getting out the vote. Yet, artists haven’t shied away from making their views about candidates clear, however controversial they may be. Paintings, illustrations, and cartoons centered around the phrase “U DECIDE.” Artists were allowed to submit work commenting on any candidate or issue they chose. In other parts of the country, there were whole communities banding together to comment on the state of the nation. One such community, in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is renowned for its outstanding quilt artists. This summer, citizens of Gee’s Bend worked together to sew the face of every member of their tight-knit community onto a quilt as a commentary on the eventual individualism of the ancestors of those brought to America in chains. The national attention this feat got the historically impoverished town inspired the Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership to establish the Gee’s Bend resource center to provide free internet access to increase voter registration, access to stimulus payments, and the accuracy of the Census, as Gee’s Bend is in the county with the lowest Census response in the state. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston also features a quilt made by Irene Williams of Gee’s Bend, entitled “Vote.”
The blood, sweat, and tears that artists put into ensuring widespread voter mobilization seems to have paid off, with the 2020 election boasting the highest voter turnout in history. However, an artist’s work representing cultural and political shifts is never truly done. Visual Artist William Powhida recognized this: “As good as the win feels at the moment, my relief is tempered by the sobering material realities waiting for us on the other side of election certification and inauguration. I’d like to remember how Saturday felt in the coming months and years as we begin to positively address the pandemic, systemic racism, and climate change not only in a deeply divided country, but a divided Democratic party. I don’t imagine the collective ebullition I experienced yesterday is going to last very long as the new administration begins to define itself and its agenda.” Artist Tanya Selvaratnam also sees the extent of an artist’s duties in 2020: “Artists showed up like never before to turn out the vote... Artists will continue to show up to bring people together and heal the nation.”