Art and...democracy?

(This post is based on excerpts from a Jan. 11, 2008, piece "Exploring democracy and citizenship through art" by Minnesota Public Radio reporter Marianne Combs; read a transcript or listen on-line)

The Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota has pulled together several works of art from its permanent collection for a current, long-term exhibition titled "Who is a citizen? What is citizenship?"

In a few weeks, the museum will open one of several smaller exhibits that deal with notions of the democratic process. The traveling exhibition, Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power, is organized by the museum's lead curator Diane Mullin.

Mullin says the goal of the exhibition is to create a place where people can talk about issues and students can start thinking about their own responsibilities as citizens. "Art can teach us or demonstrate things about democracy," says Mullin, "but art can also participate in democracy because artists are in very important ways contributors to discourse, and contributors to our society. So they can put forth proposals and propositions to make us think about things, to make us think about where we live, how we live."


"Nobody Around Here Calls Me Citizen," painted by Robert Gwathmey in 1943, shows a tired black man next to the number two, implying he's a second class citizen. The lion in the corner, however, indicates his potential power. (Image and caption courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum)

Harry Boyte says he believes that "when art is really civically puts a public language to [our] private discontents, [helps us] to see them as shared, and capable of redress and action." He adds that art, at its best, illuminates the world and has the power to both anger and inspire.

What do you think? Has art ever taught you about democracy, or angered and inspired you to take action? What artists would you say incorporate democratic themes into their work?


One way to think about the role of art in public life and democracy is to highly sharply different models of politics and strategies that aim at social change and social justice. A model that comes from civic and populist traditions (such as the 1930s movements of the Great Depression and the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s) is what might be called the "art of civic agency." Here, the point of art is to encourage, challenge, and inspire people to develop their power and capacities as agents of change.

Many remarkable examples of such art can be found in the National Archives exhibit called "New Deal for the Arts," portraying various kinds of art from the 1930s.

A different model -- perhaps the dominant one today in public art -- is what might be called the "art of rescue." Here, the aim is to instill the desire to rescue the poor and the oppressed. It is full of good intentions -- and institutionalized in many professions in our service society. But it is not about the power and agency of people, but rather rescuing people. Interesting, a good example is the public art memory of the Great Depression -- the same period, sixty years later -- in the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, opened in 1997, the same year as the New Deal for the Arts exhibit. In particular, the two statues of ordinary people by George Segan, "Rural Couple" and "Breadline," inspire pity, and convey people as pitiful. See the images

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs