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The Art of Activism

By Steve Ramos · October 17th, 2002 · Arts Beat
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One of the most creative acts a person can do falls under the category of political activism. I'm talking about people like Shelley Stephens, who attended last week's rally for peace outside the Museum Center at Union Terminal while inside President George W. Bush spoke about attacking Iraq to a hand-picked crowd of supporters.

If you received an invite to watch Bush's speech, would you have gone? Could you have sat through the president's remarks without laughing aloud at his frequent mispronunciations? At least it would have been democratic to have been given the opportunity.

"People were annoyed that this was a town hall meeting but you couldn't attend unless you were invited," Stephens says, speaking recently. "You had to be handpicked by Chamber of Commerce Republicans. It was business people inviting other business people. I didn't want to go and listen to Bush, but I didn't think that myself and other protesters had to be so far away. We could not even get close enough for people to see us. The president couldn't see our message."

When people like Stephens raise their voice and raise a sign against Bush's call for war, I see her act of political protest a work of new millennium art. She's communicating her ideas, attitudes and beliefs to the public around her.

She's confronting the social issues that influence her life. Her shouts of protest offer commentary on society, no different than the spoken words of a poet.

I know some people will laugh at my premise. For these idealists, art is separate from the world around it. In their minds, when an artist crosses the barrier of politics, media and social dialogue, his or her work fails to be artistic.

The art that someone like Stephens practices is diverse and broad in scope. It's conceptual to the point of everyday actions, but it's inspiring just the same.

"It's good to see people saying something and doing something," Stephens says. "I saw mothers and fathers with their children. I saw older people alongside college-age people. I'm in my 30s, and I saw people my age, too. It was a really good mix."

Martha Stephens, Shelley's mother, is involved in another protest. She's helping filmmaker Barbara Wolf organize a letter campaign asking writers and artists to petition the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) -- the nonprofit organization that manages Music Hall, Memorial Hall and the Aronoff Center for the Arts -- to withdraw its appeal of its lawsuit against the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati (CJC) and the "Artists of Conscience" boycott. CJC's effort has caused several performers to cancel their Cincinnati dates until serious progress is made on the social and economic gaps that segregate the city.

Martha Stephens, a veteran novelist, wants it known that the CAA doesn't represent the views of many local artists.

"We are concerned that a group with a name bearing the word 'arts' might be thought to speak for the general community of Cincinnati writers and artists," her letter reads in part. "We believe that the CAA suit carries with it serious issues of free speech and First Amendment rights, and as painters, writers, performers and other artists, we have a special concern for the protection of these fundamental rights...."

Already the petition boasts an impressive list of artists who are taking a stand against the CAA's anti-boycott actions. Filmmakers Julia Reichart and Steve Bognar have signed the letter, as have photographer Jimmy Heath and stage actor and director Michael Burnham.

I don't see anyone from any of Greater Cincinnati's major arts groups on the petition list yet, but that's OK. What's more important is that a number of liberal local artists have decided to publicly criticize the CAA's actions against CJC.

Their petition signatures are about preserving freedom of expression, and there's nothing more artistic than that.

 
 
 
 

 

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