The soft light and neutral palette of stark woods blanketed with winter snow is a welcome contrast to the opulence of the holidays. As the barren earth ushers in a new year, a blank slate presents the opportunity to contemplate possibilities for the future. This coming year is not only a leap year but one that will include a presidential election, with rancorous and partisan bickering bound to increase as the campaigns heat up. But does it have to be that way?
Wondering how art could be used to spur a more civil discourse, artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman committed themselves to renewing a sense of common purpose. In January 2016, they founded an artist-run initiative called For Freedoms, an official super PAC (political action campaign) that employs campaign-style tactics to introduce art into the political sphere. An impressive installation of their myriad projects is currently on view at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, as part of the museum’s We Are For Freedoms exhibition through March 1, 2020.
With For Freedoms, Thomas and Gottesman aim to engage audiences in civic discourse through a spectrum of exhibitions, events, and public art. Leading up to the midterm elections in 2018, they launched an ambitious 50 State Initiative that brought together more than 250 institutional and individual partners to host about 700 public events. “The medium for our project is American democracy,” said Gottesman, “and the Super PAC is our ready-made.” Part of their initiative included installations of commissioned art to be displayed on billboards across the nation, and an entire wall at the Currier Museum is peppered with a sampling of these billboards. Some offer simple messages of hope, while others may provoke viewers, but all are an accessible and democratic means to engage in cultural and critical reflection.
In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced a vision for a thriving postwar America in his State of the Union address, articulating an ideal in which citizens would enjoy four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Norman Rockwell illustrated these goals in four influential paintings that were published in the Saturday Evening Post and employed by the US government to promote the sale of war bonds in 1943. Rockwell was a master of composition and design, with a particularly strong sense for framing, human gesture, and ordinary details. And yet his vision for America was frustratingly narrow.
We Are For Freedoms arose from the ambition to renew and expand on President Roosevelt’s ideals, starting with a revised visualization of Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations. Hank Willis Thomas collaborated with photographer Emily Shur, Wyatt Gallery, and Gottesman to reimagine a more inclusive version of these basic freedoms. Four large-scale photographs are presented alongside posters of Rockwell’s originals. On an adjoining wall, dozens of versions of the photographs with different combinations of people are affixed in a stunning contrast of the earlier archetypes to today’s melting pot of American citizenship.
Included in the Currier exhibition is a striking black-and-white vinyl image of a protest organized by the conceptual artist Paola Mendoza and photographed by Kisha Bari, originally seen on a Rochester, New Hampshire, billboard in 2018. Children holding signs declaring “I am a child” recall the indelible photographs made by Ernest Withers in the late 1960s of civil rights marchers declaring “I AM A MAN.” This contemplation on dignity offers a chilling parallel to our current age of identity politics.
As a nation formed by immigrants, America’s population has always been diverse, but depictions of that diversity were rare in the early- and mid-20th century. African-Americans, the largest minority group at that time, were routinely absent from images in popular culture. Such public disenfranchisement only worsened the division and violence seen during the civil rights era of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Today, our nation has grown ever more diverse with the addition of considerable Latinx and Asian populations. Widespread dissemination of news and information means that our national diversity can no longer be ignored. However, media coverage cuts both ways, and the reaction of some has been to boost an oversimplified “us versus them” partisanship.
In retort, We Are For Freedoms hopes to dismantle the legacy of confrontation by promoting interaction with its audiences, bringing people together to listen and learn through an explicit antipartisan lens. As part of the Currier Museum exhibit, a video of several town hall discussions demonstrates the ability of people to build trust through open dialogue around important issues. In addition, visitors to the museum are encouraged to write postcards to their representatives or add their voice to the prompts, “I am…” and “Freedom for….”
At a time when our major news outlets and digital streams amplify extreme points of view and corral users into isolated bubbles of bias, it is illuminating to note that the majority of American voters opt not to register with either of the two major political parties. This is a powerful indictment of our current national divisiveness. For Freedoms proposes to break the cycle of polarization by finding common ground through the arts. Their belief that creative engagement can renew a sense of shared purpose is undoubtedly a lofty goal, one they embrace through multiple outlets. In addition to this exhibition, the Currier Museum has commissioned art installations on billboards and bus shelters around downtown Manchester and scheduled two more town hall–style discussions on January 20 and February 6. By engaging with art and with each other in expressive citizenship, We Are For Freedoms and the Currier Museum are opening the door to a cultural shift they hope will lead to a renewal of the American democratic experiment.