Art IS democracy

Art is Democracy !


1)The Design of Dissent, Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic, Rockport Publishers Inc.

2)Paper, Paper Publishing Company, New York,

3)Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Richard Marshall, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

I am strolling past a a well-known Tea and Chocolate store in Broome Street, Soho, New York.  And I catch a glimpse of a magazine called Paper.  On the cover is Gael García Bernal.  The Mexican new wave actor, who played Che in the Motorcycle Diaries. I thought it was a great flic. Very inspiring. Of course on this cover feature, he is modelling clothes  or occassionally talking a bit about Tarkovsky, Buñuel and Antonioni. All the films he mentions are my favourites as well, especially Zabriskie Point and Los Olvidados.  It spurs my interest in the magazine.  He is branded as a great thinker. “ More like García Lorca than George Clooney—(he)  has the mind and soul of a poet.” But, of course!  One would expect so, from a person who has acted in a few thoughtful plays and movies and in one or two esoteric /quirky ones, as well. Thinking artists provoke notions of the democratic process in the roles they play. Benicio del Toro does the same. Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando have done the same, at times. And directors like Gilo Pontecorvo, Mrinal Sen, Costa Gavras, Ken Loach and Montreal documentarist Mary Ellen Davis and Indian documentarist Anand Patwardhan (the latter two interviewed in Montreal Serai, previously) maintain this thoughtful process of interrogating democracy through their Art.

I am compelled to sit down at the café, notwithstanding the legendary reputation of the chocolates and teas served here,  and breeze through this rather well produced magazine and then I notice there is a very interesting feature on rebranding America.  It’s put together by Kim Hastreiter. Kim has invited several well-known American designers to take a fresh look at a post-Bush America. What has changed? What can be changed?  What are the new ways of looking into the future? And the designers have done a superlative job.  The mandate is to turn the United  States into a new U.S.A. The tone is set by a graphic which has the stars taking the place of the stripes on the flag.  A caption says “ A new US.” This one is done by Ivan Chermayeff.  “Rebranding means changing the values of the United states,” he says. Banal? Simplistic? Or, hopeful? I would say it is Art  for Democracy!  A valiant and hopeful expression, a  way forward and only artists and designers can practice this democracy. They are not constrained.  They are not fearful of litigation, despite it being the US of A. They are not shackled by lobbies. Like the new President of the US seems to be more and more, every day. But that was not a surprise, anyway. He is a utopian and as well an excellent  brand manager to boot, who believes that the philosophy that has governed the US for a century can still be made to work, somehow. He is handcuffed to the Pharmaceutical lobby, the Israel lobby and even to the Military lobby. He has waffled on Health Insurance, on Palestine and now even on the torture photos and Gitmo. An Artist is not shackled, tongue-tied and hamstrung.  An artist is fundamental to Democracy.  I turn the page and another great design catches my eye. It is an outstretched hand of the world gripping a hand-sketched outline of the US map. The caption says “Nice to meet you again.” It is made by Weiden + Kennedy 12, a creative school based in Portland, Oregon.

The next one that catches my attention is  a “SORRY” carved out of the US flag on a plain white background, with a diminutive  US bald eagle emblem  saying Humble, Strong, US in a very small caption instead E Pluribus Unum.  It is done by Andy Spade. He says the following- “Our thinking behind the assignment’s solution is that by offerring a simple apology, we acknowledge our mistakes with the hopes of restarting our relationship with the rest of the world.” Indeed!


I flip the page, as my interest is definitely aroused.  There is now a rather well done rendition of a US one dollar bill. In a text note  attached to it, it says that Benjamin Franklin questioned the choice of the Bald Eagle as the national symbol of the US, claiming it was “ a bird of bad moral character.” It was, he suggested, too lazy to fish for itself, survived by robbing smaller, more vulnerable birds.  So instead of the bald Eagle, the artist has changed the bird to a dove.  Look carefully!


What a potent message in 2009, indeed for the US, to live up to! It is done by Kevin Roberts, the CEO  of Saatchi and Saatchi, the same people who have clients like Toyota, Lexus and JC Penney! The Bush era really pissed off so many layers of people and classes that even the handful at the top feel the need for some sort of “change.” And Mr. Obama, sure knew how to capitalize on that.   And then there is another one by Roberts, that says in bold letters on a white background “No more US  and THEM.” The US is made out of a US flag.

New York is where Jean-Michel Basquiat, exploded on to the scene and then disappeared so painfully at the age of twenty seven only.  Basquiat, it is said, painted with the militant emotions of Malcolm X and the subtlety of Miles Davis. Montreal Serai covered his works, a few years ago. I am back in Montreal and I am leafing through a book on his works, brought out by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The picture that I notice, is not by Basquiat. It is a conceptual photograph by Renee Cox. It is entitled, The Wall: They Say a Mad Man Wrote This, 1992.


A sublime rhyme  says it all “They never taught Marcus Garvey in our school, Christopher Columbus is their golden rule.”

Finally, I dust off a book I got as a present, three years ago. The Design of Dissent. It is an excellent catalogue of wall art, posters, guerilla stencils from all over the world, both before and after the Cold War, and also into the eight hellish years of George Bush. Extraordinarily well annotated and curated, it is a work of art by itself. It propels you into a sense of imminent reactiveness to the world around you.  Here, I find the essence of democratic dissent and art! For a start, using the format of the Arm and Hammer logo for selling Baking Soda, the artist Dejan Krsic from Croatia proclaims, Art is not a Mirror, it is a Hammer!


Finally, in the wake of Roe V Wade the same publication has this graphic poster by Trudy Cole-Zielanski entitled Preserve the Right of ChoiceAs per Wikipedia, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), is a United States Supreme Court case that resulted in a landmark decision regarding abortion. According to the
Roe decision, most laws against abortion in the United States violated a constitutional right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision overturned all state and federal laws outlawing or restricting abortion that were inconsistent with its holdings.
The note from the artist says “This poster was designed to promote the understanding that a woman’s body is her own, and she has the ultimate right to say what she does with it.”


Finally, in these times of rabid Islamophobia and incoherent terrordom politics,  Anatoly Omelchenko has the over-used and cliched  Che stencil of Korda on a Muslim green background, but along with the star on his beret is also a crescent moon. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” says the artist.


Democray without Art? Like humankind without O2.

Rana is a Montreal Serai Editorial Board member, engineer, author and playwright.