Election 2012: Where are the artists?

Decline in activism since 2008

October 30, 2012

It’s a rainy weekday night in Chicago and Democracy Burlesque is doing their regular political satire. The sketch comedy troupe started the show in 2006. Their blend of songs and skits skewers both sides of the political spectrum. 
 
This year they’ve ramped up their schedule – they now perform weekly. Tonight though, the crowd is sparse. At first, artist director Erik Parsons chalked it up to the weather.
 
But backstage, after the show, he said people just aren’t as excited as they were in 2008. He thinks that election was different: "I think our audience in particular felt they were voting for something, which was kind of new."
 
That’s been the general take on this year’s election. Like the sophomore effort of a breakout band, 2012 just doesn’t have the electricity and novelty of  '08.
 
Ray Noland, the artist known as CRO, certainly thinks so. Four years ago he got deep into politics.

His art started to pop up all over Chicago's buildings and sidewalks.

Maybe you saw one: a simple, black-and-white stencil of Obama, the candidate in silhouette, his sleeves rolled up, shaking hands with another man, whose head is a map of the United States.

Noland said, "I wanted to talk about black identity and his being the first black president and how that was an issue, I think, for a lot of people."

"The past four years haven’t been that great. They’ve actually been four really, tough years, almost tougher than the previous eight year administration."
- Artist Ray Noland, aka CRO

Noland even took his art on the road, putting on shows across the country. His images became famous. But this year, he said he’s just an observer.

"The past four years for me, I mean, they haven’t been that great. They’ve actually been four really tough years, I would argue, almost tougher than the previous eight-year administration."

Noland’s not the only artist who’s lost his enthusiasm. This election hasn’t galvanized the art world the same way. There haven't been iconic images that have gone viral, like Shepard Fairey’s silkscreen Hope. No one's written a feel-good anthem like will.i.am’s Yes We Can. 

Art critic James Yood said he's not surprised. He thinks 2008 was an anomaly. He hasn't seen anything like it since the '60s, when visual artists like Andy Warhol got involved in campaigns.

But artists jumping on board campaigns is much rarer now.

"That’s much less of a common practice today," Yood said. "Not in the sense of fear or cowardice or anything like that. It’s simply that the agenda has changed, and people look inward to understand their politics, not outward."

Yood isn’t even sure how much influence artists have on elections, whether or not they get people out to vote. He added, "And I’m sure Obama does better having Bruce Springsteen appear than he would if Jasper Johns is going to make a poster in support of his candidacy."

If artists don’t always play a role in elections, they themselves can be transformed by politics. 

Chicagoan Jessica Disu is the hip hop artist FM Supreme. 

"President Obama has a lot to do with me …. getting my life back on track," she said.

2008 was the first time she was old enough to participate in a presidential election. She voted for Barack Obama and gave him a couple of shout-outs on her mix tape. Now Disu’s 24. She’s still making beats about the president. But mainly she’s doing politics, like registering young people to vote.

"What I’m doing is using my music, my influence and my hip hop to educate our youth, educate my peers, educate the elders," Disu said.

And though she’s not entirely happy with her candidate, she’s still on board this time around. "At the root of it, I’m not sure I believe in American politics, but I still believe in President Obama. I believe in a better America. And it’s all about the people we put in place."

In an election year where the outcome of the race may come down to a small percentage of voters, that’s likely sweet music to the president.