All Art Is Political: "For Freedoms" Asks, What Does This Mean?

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Street artist J.R.'s picnic across the U.S-Mexican border

Arguing "all art is political," a new, nuanced, massive public art project is using billboards along with   community events to urge Americans nationwide to engage with civic issues ahead of the mid-terms, and ask themselves, "What side are you on?" The non-partisan 50 State Initiative is the most recent project by For Freedoms, an "anti-partisan" platform aimed at promoting civic engagement, dialogue, equality and direct action through art. Started in 2016 by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, it was inspired by Norman Rockwell’s paintings of FDR's Four Freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The new initiative, touted as the largest public art project in U.S. history, will feature town hall meetings, art exhibitions, workshops and billboards by hundreds of artists installed in all 50 states. They range from the politically explicit - "Grab 'Em By the Ballot," "Every Refugee Boat Is A Mayflower" - to the intriguingly abstract - "Hurt People Hurt People," "Us Is Them," "Pardon Me" in Trump-font - to a mix of the two: A foggy shot of the Mexican border wall with the unexplained, "Romans 13:10," which references the teaching, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.”

Guidelines for the over 150 artists, chosen by a curatorial team, were what the organizers like to call "anti-partisan." They note, “Often the response to the billboards is a question: ‘What does this mean?’  We say: We don’t know, help us figure out what this means together.’” Their billboard director cites a query from a guy who called asking the meaning of the "Pardon Me" he drives past every day to work: "People can’t figure out what side we’re on, or if there is a side."

Many of the billboards, funded by 52 Kickstarter campaigns, stand pointedly along roads in rural areas, catching people unawares in quiet moments of driving. Some are specific to locales: Baltimore has a Freddie Gray tribute; one in Michigan, home to a large Arab populace and a Congressional campaign by a Muslim woman, spells out "Human Being" in Arabic, without translation; another offers "Thoughts and Prayers," with two guns pointing at each other, in firearm-glutted Chicago and Wyoming; one in Vermont reads "Land Acknowledgement" in Abenaki, the tribe historically based there. “It’s not about taking sides, it’s to ask questions, even if they don’t end in a question mark," say its creators. "Here was this divide between what is art and what is action that we thought shouldn’t exist. The action and the art became part of the same practice."

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