Democracy and the Arts

Back to Summer 2023: Volume 112, Number 2

By Joni Doherty 

When people think about democracy, the arts are not what typically spring to mind. The same is true for most artists. They also don’t see a connection between the two. Yet many philosophers and political theorists — and some artists — assert that arts and politics are inseparable. To better understand the relationship between democracy and the arts, it may be helpful to offer working definitions of each.

Simply put, democracy is a form of government where citizens who are free and equal make decisions about how they wish to live together and what kinds of leaders, laws, and policies they want to have. All people in a democracy have a right to fair and equitable treatment. A democracy requires civic and governmental institutions to be accountable to the citizens and, in turn, citizens have a responsibility to fulfill their civic responsibilities. This is an ideal which has yet to be realized.

The arts can be defined as an array of creative practices that express human experiences and ideas through creating objects, performances, and experiences. The arts use the senses (including our abilities to see, hear, and move) as forms of expression and communication. The arts can make unique contributions to democracy. As noted in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, they reveal “aspects of being human that are not sufficiently addressed by other methodologies. [The arts] are needed in our repertoire of tools for understanding people and the world.” Because they are “multi-sensory and multifaceted,” the visual and performing arts resonate with our life experiences. They can express the ambiguities that characterize any democracy and investigate the complex challenges faced by the yet-to-be-realized goal of achieving a fully inclusive democracy. As the art historian Claire Bishop has observed, the arts “can question the power arrangements of the social order and the obviousness and naturalness that attaches to the order.”

In the professional art world, the beauty and quality of the art is prioritized. The standard for judgement is often based on belief in universal aesthetic concepts. Professional artists spend many years learning and practicing their art, and increasing numbers of museums and foundations now have programs designed to elevate the work of historically marginalized artists and art forms. This is a long overdue and a significant move toward equity.

The capacity to creatively express ideas, experiences, and concerns, and to challenge the status quo through artmaking is not limited to professional artists. It is a capacity that every person possesses. This observation is not a new perspective, but one that is informed by the ideas of Joseph Beuys, a twe0ntieth century artist who asserted, “Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives.”

In addition to expanding our understanding of who makes art, we are also interested in who engages with it. Too often the arts seem inaccessible to most people. Through affirming the impact and value of what Jacques Rancière, a political philosopher, calls “positionality,” art making and art engagement become more available to everyone. Instead of thinking of art as a purely aesthetic standard, he recognized that people bring a mix of personal and social experiences to the arts experience. This kind of engagement involves a “complex set of relationships between what one is allowed to say, to perceive, and to understand” and “rearranges the set of perception between what is visible, thinkable, and understandable, and what is not.” In other words, the arts have the capacity to open up new ways of thinking and feeling about others and about public issues. This approach to art aligns with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation’s mission of advancing inclusive democracies.

Because the arts have the capacity to affirm and advance democracy, the Kettering Foundation has decided to integrate the unique power of the arts into its work locally, nationally, and internationally. The Democracy and the Arts program will focus on deepening our engagement with core democratic values. These include individual freedom, mutual responsibility, fairness, belonging, and trust in each other and in the integrity of our public institutions, fostering citizen engagement, and supporting democratic ideals and practices. It will also support art which exposes threats to democracy and challenges authoritarian tendencies.

The Democracy and the Arts program has a generous view of what art is, who creates it, and who it is for. Art forms may include, but are not limited to architecture, assemblage, body art, collage, ceramics, dance, drawing, fiber arts (including embroidery and quilt making), film, graffiti, literature (including spoken word poetry), music, metalwork, painting, photography, printmaking, projections, storytelling, theatre, sculpture, weaving, and woodworking.

We plan to work with professional artists who are interested in engaging with others in the public sphere as well as people who are interested in creating or engaging with dialogic or participatory art in their communities. This kind of public art is not simply a sculpture displayed in a public setting but rather art that addresses public issues and is broadly accessible. Fred Evans, the author of Public Art and the Fragility of Democracy describes public art as “any artistic creation that has the intent or effect of addressing democratic values and occurs in public spaces.” It may be funded by the government or by private means. Some works are done by artists without outside compensation, such as graffiti by the English artist Banksy or the American artist Skid Robot. If the work is displayed or occurs in a private venue, there should be times set aside for people to freely access it.

While there are many ways to categorize art, Kettering will direct its attention to three types that we are calling dialogic, interventionist, and participatory. These types may overlap, be mutually reinforcing, or one may lead to another. The examples below, which are not associated with Kettering, have inspired us in our thinking about this new program.

Dialogic art is the practice of creatively organizing human interaction around an issue. The focus is on the interaction, not the production of an artifact. It could also be an action or artwork that opens up a conversation between itself and another object.

One of the most famous dialogic projects occurred between 1991-2001 in Oakland, California, where artist Suzanne Lacey organized an effort that included the police department, public schools, and young people and was a sustained commitment to change. This engagement with the community and the issues it faced included a series of workshops and classes for youth, media interventions, and dialogues that were organized and held in unconventional spaces. These efforts led to changes in how various groups perceived each other, and in new programs and policies in education and policing. The work of lighting artist Dustin Klein provides an example of how two objects can be in dialogue with each other. In 2020, Klein drew attention to victims of violence both now and historically by projecting the image of George Floyd onto a Confederate monument in Richmond, Virginia.

The work by Klein led to the development of Recontextualizing Richmond, a city-wide collaborative public art project that occurred in 2022. The project is an example of interventionist art, which disrupts habitual ways of thinking and supports critical inquiry. Local artists, including Klein, worked with the city, civic organizations, The Valentine, and the American Civil War Museum to create and display public art that addressed neglected historical and social narratives and spoke to issues of racial, social, historical, or environmental justice.

1

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is an example of the intersection of participatory and interventionist public art. Cleve Jones, a human-rights activist, came up with the idea and organized what became the NAMES project. The Quilt, which was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington in 1987. Family and friends who lost someone to AIDS were invited to create panels about their loved ones. Making the panels offered survivors the opportunity to mourn together at a time when AIDS was seen as shameful and often its victims were shunned. Contributing the individual panels to the collective quilt humanized the dead and fueled changes in public opinion and public policy. This intervention caused the federal government and other health organizations and institutions to devote resources that had been withheld for too long to treating and finding a cure. The quilt, which now has almost 50,000 panels, continues to grow and has been displayed across the United States and in other countries.

Murals are a common participatory form of art in communities. While the mural is highly visible and involves a collaboration between an artist and community members, the heart of this type of project is its social impact on the lives of the participants and the social change it seeks to realize. For the work to realize its participatory aspirations, the community members must be recognized as co-creators and decision-makers, not simply studio assistants who help the artist.

The Democracy and the Arts program is in its early stages, so most of our efforts so far have been devoted to program research and development and to conversations with artists, arts organizations and institutions, civic actors, and community organizers. To date we have been involved with one visual project and one event.

The Kettering Foundation supported the development of 1/6, a graphic novel by Alan Jenkins and Gan Golan and illustrated by Will Rosado. The novel asks readers to imagine what would have happened if the January 6, 2021, insurrection had been successful. In addition to the graphic novel, there is a free education and action guide with ideas for what people can do at the personal, community, and policy levels to ensure their right to free and fair elections is protected. (For more information about the graphic novel or to get a copy of the free action guide, go to www.onesixcomics.org.)

3

Kettering Conversations with Democracy Innovators is a quarterly program that will highlight individuals with transformative ideas. During the inaugural program at the Dayton Art Institute in April, Sharon L. Davies, President and CEO of the Foundation, had a conversation with Willis “Bing” Davis, a Dayton artist, educator, and owner of the Davis Art Studio and EbonNia Gallery. Davis is an active, deeply committed member of the Dayton community whose work enhances the understanding and appreciation of African American art and culture, addresses police brutality, and supports the education of young people.

(For more information about this emerging program, please contact Joni Doherty at jdoherty@kettering.org.)

Joni Doherty is Senior Program Officer for Democracy and the Arts at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.

Captions/Credits:
1 Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. AIDS Memorial Quilt, Washington, D.C. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, [Between 1980 and 2006]. https://www.loc.gov/item/2011631696/.
2 Alan Jenkins and Gan Golan. Illustrated by Will Rosado. 1/6: The Graphic Novel, Issue #1 — What if the Attack on the U.S. Capitol Had Succeeded? Sun Print Solutions (January 1, 2023).
3 Kettering Conversations with Democratic Innovators. Willis “Bing” Davis and Sharon Davies (April 2023).

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners