the artivists! for freedoms reinvents creative protest

November 5, 2018
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Few developments speak as clearly to the extreme nature of our civic times as the idea that artists are forming political action committees (PACs), strategic lobbying organizations that use financial power to influence elections, yet here we are. And no PAC has embraced the idea that common spaces and independent creative notions can combine to make persuasive socio-political statements, as For Freedoms, the New York-based organization co-founded in 2016, by the artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman.

Awol Erizku’s billboard Make America Panther Again; shot by an arrow in Atlanta, GA. (Photo: Tianrin Qin)

But artists being artists, For Freedoms is hardly a standard money-grubbing PAC, throwing its base influence by buying up elected officials. Instead, it’s a platform and venue for creative engagement, discourse, and direct action. Inspired by Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms’ exhibitions, installations, and public programs use art to deepen public discussions on social issues and core values, advocating equality, dialogue, and civic participation. For Freedoms is a nexus between art, politics, commerce, and education, aiming to inject anti-partisan, critical thinking that fine art requires into the political landscape through programming, exhibitions, and public artworks.

“Freedom of Speech” (Photo: Hank Willis Thomas & Emily Shur. c/o For Freedoms)

“Artists and creative people are often seen as voices off to the side, not necessarily driving the main thrust of public discourse,” Gottesman told The Guardian. “We want to put artists and creativity really right at the center of public discourse and recognize creative people don’t just make paintings, music or movies, but they shape the systems of the society we live in.”

Titus Kaphar’s “Behind The Myth of Benevolence” billboard in Louisville, KY in collaboration with 21c Hotels. (Photo: Mary Carothers)

In October of 2018, For Freedoms launched its most high-profile campaign yet, the 50 State Initiative, what they’re calling the largest creative collaboration in U.S. history. The central works in the Initiative, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, are roadside billboards throughout all 50 states, produced by some of America’s finest contemporary artists. Each bears a combination of phrases and images whose meanings have been tweaked in the context of these politically charged times. The purpose of the billboards is not to push the people who spot them towards one side of an issue or a particular candidate, but towards a deeper engagement with their own belief systems.

“Freedom of Speech” (Photo: Hank Willis Thomas & Emily Shur. c/o For Freedoms)

“People can tell you a million times how important it is to vote, but at a certain point you are going to decide whether or not you are going to listen to them,” said Taylor Brock, one of the members of For Freedoms’s billboard team, in an interview with Curbed. “Art works on a deeper level. It can show you its importance by treating these issues not as political problems, but human ones. Artists encourage us to imagine new circumstances outside of our current ones and allow us to experience new worlds outside of our own, which inevitably breaks down preconceived notions and stereotypes. It becomes less about me vs you and more about us.”

Lawn sign activation at University of North Carolina at Greensboro which asked students and community members about a time when they felt free, or when they felt their freedom had been taken away, accompanied by their portrait. Courtesy of UNC Greensboro.

Other manifestations of the 50 State Initiative have been photographic recreations of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms,” starring some bold-faced names, including actors/activists Jesse Williams and Rosario Dawson; and a Lawn Sign Activation, which encourages artistic-minded students to reimagine lawn signs, staples of suburban political campaigns, as advertisements for their own definitions of freedom. The latter corresponds with For Freedoms’ desire to update FDR’s list of core freedoms, and include the way younger generations approach the world.

“Freedom of Worship” (Photo: Hank Willis Thomas & Emily Shur. c/o For Freedoms)

“Another core value [of For Freedoms] is optimism,” Thomas told The Guardian. “We are trying to create a creative space that is not just about protest, but in spirit of things we believe. We are ‘For Freedoms’ because in democracy, you have to support things you don’t personally agree with or support. What we do…is not just an art project, but it hopefully contributes to the general progression and growth of democracy.”