The art of activism

By Ambreen Ali
July 21, 2010


Fed up with rising national debt, Stephen Barnwell decided to bail out America last week.

He sent $1 trillion bills to each member of Congress courtesy of "The Indebted States of America." The dollar replicas, part of the New Yorker's latest art project , carry an image of Mao Zedong and were issued in "Beijington, D.C."

Part tongue in cheek and part sounding bells to alert lawmakers to what Barnwell believes is a perilous amount of debt, the dollars are part of a growing movement of using art for activism.

Technology has revived "artism" by making it easier than ever for artists to collaborate and disseminate their work.

"You can't walk into a picket line with your computer terminal," said Carol Wells, head of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics . "You can't stick your computer terminal on your office wall or the street. You can do it with a piece of paper."

The roots of "art-ivism" can be traced back hundreds of years. Governments and activists alike used posters to round up support or opposition to the wars of the last century.

Wells, who began collecting political posters in the 1980s, said that art has been central to every major grassroots movement. She cited the songs of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Apartheid posters as examples.

"The best political art won't only convey an experience that's unjust, but it will convey that people are doing something about it," she said.

Today, artists are distorting the BP logo to speak up on the Gulf Coast oil spill. They are commenting on the immigration debate in Arizona from both sides.

Conservatives have depicted the state governor as the iconic Rosie the Riveter , getting the job done on immigration enforcement. Liberals combined the Statue of Liberty with a death skull to symbolize an end to her open-arms immigration policy.

And, in Barnwell's case, they are using the ultimate symbol of power – money – to challenge the government.
"Art lets you bypass the conscious mind. It helps you hear truth in a different way," he said. "Good art can change minds."

It takes him months to create his modified dollars, which he creates digitally by scanning and layering hundreds of elements from bills he has collected over the years. Since 9/11 moved him to artism, Barnwell has used dollars to protest radical Islam, the Iraq War, and the suppression of free speech.

Barnwell, who leans right politically, prefers subtlety to the in-your-face style of tea-party art. People seem more receptive to subtle art, he argued, but added that it sometimes means that they misinterpret it.

During the Muhammad cartoon controversy , Barnwell created a United States of Islam dollar that was blank in the middle to symbolize Muslims' belief that their prophet should not be drawn.

Jyllands-Posten, which sparked the debate with its cartoon contest, hung the protest dollar in its newsroom as a reminder to uphold free speech.

But Barnwell said he received praise from Arab Muslims who bought his dollar online thinking it argued in favor of not depicting the prophet.

"It's one of the flaws in my plan of being too subtle," Barnwell said.

That's why so much political art is flashy or satirical. Bright colors and use of iconography helps artists quickly convey their message to a person walking down the street.

"If a political poster doesn't convey its message to you in two-and-a-half seconds, then it's not working," Wells, the art collector, said. "The message must be clear."

Think of Shepard Fairey's Hope poster , which he created by coloring a news photo of President Obama. The large type and simple image got the point across quickly.

Fairey collaborated with other guerilla artists in the years prior to create anti-President Bush posters, too.
Such collectives often pool resources, use sympathetic print shops for free copies, and offer their art without copyright – a tactic dubbed "copy left" – to create grassroots support for their causes.

In 2004, the Partisan Project waged a poster campaign against former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) by distributing packs of poster images for people to hang up at work or give to neighbors.

"We are not naive enough to think that any of these posters will change a Santorum supporter's mind," the group wrote on its site. "Rather, we see them as rallying cry to the converted…. Think of this poster pack as a gift to anyone who feels Pennsylvania can do better."

Many advocacy groups rely on artists to create buzz.

Parisa Narouzi of Empower D.C. , which recently started paying artists for their work, said art helps her organization achieve its goal of bringing the community together.

"Art is something that is attractive to people," she said. "We as a membership organization depend on people to get involved."

The group asked political artist Cesar Maxit to create a wanted poster for D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty during a campaign to prevent developers from taking over public property. Activists then took the posters to city hall, where they demanded that the mayor be arrested.

"This was all theatrical," she said. "The whole point is to make it something that people want to be part of. If we're always somber and angry, then it's not as attractive to people."

Empower D.C. has also collaborated with performing artists to create puppet shows about housing issues and local rappers to make an album about their policy agenda.

Though Barnwell works alone, he is also hoping to create a movement through his money art.

"My ideal scenario would be having a member of Congress wave my note on the Congressional floor urging fiscal responsibility," he said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen."