It has been said that within every artist lies an activist, as the creation of art, by its very nature, is a radical act.
Embedded deep within that provberb is the provocative idea that to be an artist entails refusing to accept something for what it is, rather than for what it could be. This ceaseless inclination to push back against the status quo is not only interwoven into the fabric of artistry, but it also happens to be essential to the American character; we are indeed a nation of skeptics. For many, art is medium through which that skepticism is expressed.
It is no wonder why then, at every seminal moment of social and political enlightenment in our country’s history, so too has there been a complementary surge in cultural liberation and ‘resistant creativity’. The counterculture of the 1960’s remains the high watermark of this confluence, but strewn throughout America’s existence are tales of citizens who have employed art to spur radical change or introspection in the body politic. Protest songs, political cartoons, and poignant poems are staples in our cultural lexicon.
And while every socio-artistic movement was necessarily unique in time and place, the tie that binds them has been their ability to ingrain themselves into the American psyche through their public consumption. This idea, that in America, one is entitled to publicly air out grievances, whether in an artistic fashion or in plain speak, seems so intuitive -- and yet, today more than ever, it is under assault from many angles.
The freedom of expression is a constitutionally protected right enshrined in the 1st Amendment. Despite limits in time, place, and manner established by the Supreme Court in the early 20th century, free speech has more-or-less managed to survive the weathering hands of time intact. But beginning in the late 1980’s with the advent of ‘free-speech zones’ at presidential events, on up through today, where we see a climate of state intimidation against social movements of any sort, freedom of public expression may be in need of resuscitation. Artists and activists are being systematically corralled into ever-tightening public spaces far removed from the view of media cameras and out of the conscious of America. Out of sight, out of mind.
The fight is not over… it is never over. What authorities fail to recognize is that, by cleansing public space of political art, they are in effect conceding the immense power of prose and imagery to shake the foundations on which they maintain dominion. Further, since artists tend to be contrarians with a knack for inventive defiance, they will eventually make mountains of ideas that could be mere molehills if left unfettered.
Finally, glimmers of hope remain in the fight for the freedom of expression scattered throughout the U.S., but they exist largely at the local and city level. One example is the town of Pasadena, California, which commissioned artist Susan Silton to decorate public utility boxes with quotes from outspoken icons such as Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.
Another is the story of Chris Drew, a Chicago artist and civil liberties activist who posthumously won the right to sell his $1 social-justice art pieces on the streets of the windy city.
Stories like these are emblematic of art’s eternal power. It is the one natural resource that America can never run out of; a fuel for social change which remains paramount to keeping the flame of liberty alive.