The Guide. A First Draft. Topics, Values and Actions.

DIG DEEP: Art, Action & the Rootball of American Democracy 

Organizing Art and Artists across the United States of America
The “Blue Eagle” symbol of the New Deal in the 1930s, Here applied to public arts programs.


A Guide from  

Artists United for the American Democracy 

“In all people I see myself, none more and none a barley corn less”  
- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

 Preserving and spreading the roots of American Democracy through the most serious political threat to individual freedom and human and civil rights in generations of Americans.

grant_woods_daughters_of_revolution_2.jpg  Grant Wood, Daughters of Revolution 1932

ONE: Art, creating and transforming American culture, matters politically.  First, let us SEE ourselves, our communities, our nation. Let us show WHAT IS.   
American artists responded to great crises in the past, from slavery, the Civil War, the struggle against fascism and economic collapse in the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement. The value of creative individuals is recognized through the constitution itself.  It's not about one painting changing everything magically- Guernica did not stop the Nazis.  But just like democracy itself, where broad voting and participation can create a politics of involvement, transparency, individual freedom and social responsibility,  hundreds of thousands of professional artists and millions of others making art with a pluralistic approach builds our culture, our social values, the fundamental humanism that recognizes individual voices and community responsibility alike. We believe that seeing our nation clearly and expressing core values powerfully, among millions of artistic voices over the long term, can protect the rootball of American democracy from the danger of a long, hard freeze.  

That American democracy is flawed, that it breaks, that large parts of our history were as horrific as other parts were noble cannot, we believe, erase our obligation to protect and extend the hard won civil rights and constitutional liberties that those in our past worked or fought or struggled or died for.  It makes those accomplishments in the direction of justice that much more sacred.  Just like in studying the practice of art, in the struggle for justice, a reflexive insistence on perfection is so often the enemy of progress. As the women of men of the Civil Rights era showed us,  we cannot withdraw now.  We cannot indulge cynicism without condemning others who do not share our luck or our privileges of any kind to more desperate and frightened lives.  We must engage, in all paths that are open to us.  
Artists in the United States hold a long a proud and history of opposition to the abuse of power, and to the ongoing celebration of the great principles of liberty, individuality, humanity, community and equality in the American democracy.  


TWO: As Artists, we can be the most perceptive eyes of the democracy. We have freedom: to represent what we what see, to represent what that means.

So let us use for a broad cultural and political purpose, for the protection and growth of the culture of American democracy, the independence and deep perception that drives visual art.  How we visual artists respond to the rise of neo-fascism here, and autocratic nationalism worldwide, will matter not merely for the arts but for the whole democracy, for the whole of humanity.  

Will visual artists step to act in the public interest? We can.  Art working towards the defense of the values of democracy does not, we believe, demand purity, or conformity, or artmaking with exclusively political images.  We do not  promote one one style, or one path, or one subject. We are defending democratic pluralism in America:  Many views. Many voices. Many ways of being a human being, of creating a human community.

Rodin's the Thinker at the Palace of the Legion of Honor
"We need optimism like water and air. Pessimism is for good times."

But for Art to both maintain its independence and also defend, dispense and deepen the most human and democratic American values, it must move more toward the Public Subject as a whole: Art about the world, the country, the community and society. We want to document, represent and elevate the best of American democracy as it has been, is, and can be.  We educate anyone who wants them with skills, techniques and mentoring. We locate and cultivate simple art spaces across America and commission shows. We respect local American communities of all kinds, and perceive and record the locality of individual and community experience.
Resist Image 2017
We encourage influential and master artists to embrace American artistic traditions that raise and spread the democracy, both its culture and its specific forms of government, law, community organization, self-determination and freedom.

THREE    Art is part of the Fight.  Tyrants throughout history despise the free practice of art.
Practice and grow confident in the long term political and cultural power of what we as artists doThere is a kind of faith in artistic practice: the free and unlimited making of art which unites the mind, the senses, the spirit.   

So can American artists organize against a new fascist political movement in the United States with force, precision and long term cultural effect?   
Libraries are filled with books on whether and how art affects - or doesn’t- political reality. But we know tyrants the world over detest and envy the freedom of artists and yet seem to crave their approval and skill.  But the backlash to free art is predictable.  
Banning art, defunding art, erasing art - ever the mark of insecure autocrats all around the world, from China to Saudi Arabia and now to the United States, with a Republican administration hostile to a free press and to free art.  Perhaps art’s persistence, uncontrollability, independence  and search for permanence unnerves the powerful.

Art making is so instinctive, so natural to humanity, the hand of the child in the sand to the image, the making of art forging together the idea and identity and humanity and the body and the material world and the imagination and the full reality that can be seen, that it has since the most ancient times compelled human beings to empathize, to aspire, to recognize their shared humanity in others and yet the full individuality of experience. In many ways, the American experiment in democracy is to give everyone the promise of self-invention that artists enjoy.  Do not surrender your ideals, your hopes, your work, the confidence with which you make art that is, even without preaching, the beating heart of the humanizing, empathetic aspirations of American democracy at its best.  

J. Bollenbach, Womxn's March Sign, Seattle, Washington January 2017
FOUR.   The art world is a small place. But Art must consider the whole world, the whole of human perception, imagination, experience.
In the 1930s, under the Federal Art project, Artists spread out across America, from New York to the most remote counties. Paid low but steady wages, they were directed to view and present the American Scene spread now before them, their lives and their communities as they were, as they have been, as they could be. It was a journalism of Art, a morally driven humanism and belief in democracy.

American artists of our past often embraced the romantic, humanist mission of seeking what was true, what was just, what was wrong, and and what must be acted upon - our perception keen, our minds alive, our hands  busy, our hearts full.   Seek your communities as they are, as they have been, as they can be.
And our own past is rich with examples of both individual and collective paths that we can follow, and grow.  But it will take what may be an unfamiliar focus on the American scene, as it is, without a protective distance.  
The WPA era represented a federal mission to hire thousands of artists and document "The American Scene," the hard realities, the communities, people both famous and anonymous, historical and contemporary, with style, reflection, and self-recognition. As a government program it was inexpensive and very successful, creating many thousands of jobs across the country, and putting Art's focus on American life in its bewildering richness and complexity. Tens of thousands of artworks, murals, sculptures, prints and paintings began to adorn buildings in communities from Harlem to farmland and remote coasts.
The legacy: a grand, emotional, honest journalism of artworks focused on real life rather than symbols, bringing art of high quality to American communities that often had little tradition of it, sponsoring shows in high schools and gyms and armories, bringing artists from many backgrounds into the broad gaze of American culture; unusual for the time, it began to include women and artists from minority communities. Local committees organized around government sponsored and curated projects, and artists were selected through a balance of national and local organizations. National mission: regional artists: local work.
The artistic standards from the Section of Fine Arts were tough and specific, but the strings were loose. Making taxes count in the middle of the Depression created ambition to prove Art's value in practice.  Programs of art education flourished across the country, far beyond the cities, with lectures, free classes and self-organized art shows under the auspices of the Blue Eagle.  
The artists working with the WPA and Section of Fine Arts later built the post-war American art powerhouse that shook the world. The blue eagle itself was a symbol of FDRs broad moves for social justice and progress, for Americans looking out for each other; it became a symbol placed in the homes of many poor Americans who found it a source of strength or even of faith in their society. The New Deal art initiatives were a fine balance of democratic scope and progress and very high quality. Artist's wages were low, but steady: a godsend in the Depression. The touch of the bureau curators was light but firm and inspirational, the ambition enormous, the effect very lasting, and it reached many communities with no art traditions.
  • What is democracy in America? What has it been, what is it now? What is the inspiration, and also the hard truth?
  • What is our shared identity?
  • What is our individual identity?
  • What are our communities, their histories, their realities?  

Ben Shaun Poster 1940s

FIVE.  Under attack by right wing extremists, arts organizations, colleges, non-profits and public institutions, may lose their funds  - many may end.  
We will make our work and show it unintimidated. We will Teach, in every community across the United States of  America, how to do the same. We will share our skills, encouraging new voices and fresh eyes.  We will respond to the assault on art and arts education with resilience: spread why and how and provide tools to create a local arts scene in any community in America.
With the WPA in mind, build private/public/social support for artists to fan out across America, document, record, study, speak with local communities, recognize history, recognize reality, celebrate the growth towards democracy, honor the struggles of the past for justice, recognize paths of law and public education and community that exist today and propagate what is good and kind and fair in America. Imagine a set of private and open public funders, non-federal and private grants, much like the funding of a new museum, to create an endowment large enough for sustained operations.
Even if the NEA dies,  we can apply the successful principles of New Deal arts organizations even without federal support, and for artists, look towards a broad, humanistic way of working that gazes with clarity and passion at American life and democracy.  One option:  build a national Non Governmental Organization to replace the NEA, a private foundation with a broader and more forceful mandate for art and artists and enhance and expand the role of the arts in the American Democracy, without government interference, and with a renewed sense of mission, for the artists, for communities across the United, for the culture of the Democracy itself.  Here is where the New Deal Era models- the WPA and the Section of Fine Arts- might prove guides for the creation of modern NGO with a comparable mission- a national organization with state-by-state satellites, putting together resource to support arts creation and exhibition from community through professional levels.
Norman Rockwell Poster, 1960s

SIX.  Share workable actions for vital art to repair a great democracy. This is a not a hard, dark task. Think of A Christmas Carol's message: your obligation to ease suffering is fused to the joyous morality of the celebration of living.
Create a nationwide system of professional, intense mentorship from working artists to emerging artists: give one on one guidance for creating their best work.
Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic Series
Create a guidebook, usable by anyone in America, for using the resources they already have to getting resources for artists and art-making, finding and developing exhibition spaces, providing free and low cost arts education for adults and high school and college students in places without it.
A phrase of Resistance, practice it: "Yes. I will be there with you." 

We organize. We meet. We exchange ideas. Commission work. Work in groups with power or alone in the clearest perception.  When we describe our freedom, we mean to say also: this is your freedom, too. When we describe the humanity of our country, we can recognize both what we value, and how we we deny to others. When we raise of the ideal and history of democracy, a belief in fairness and equality, the great experiment of self-governance at a deep level, and can  creates recognition and empathy in most Americans.  To save American democracy, we cannot just tear down and attack. We need to recognize what is good, what is just, what is hopeful, what is admirable, what is fair.  We need to articulate this so when can fix when it breaks, or for many Americans, where it has always been broken.

Art can help build American identity and it can break down toxic forms of identity- Another reason it is so often despised by authoritarians  of all stripes.