By Jakob Sergei Weitz
The first artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms, is running an exhibit at the Jack Shainman Gallery on the West Side through Aug. 10, showcasing new forms of discourse it has promoted amid the detritus surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Founded by two activist-artists, For Freedoms crystallized out of frustrations with a system in which money and divisiveness prevent dialogue. Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas felt that it was time for artists, and the unique conversations they can spark, to become more involved in the political process through their work.
The super PAC, registered as a political action committee in January, draws roots from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech and the four Norman Rockwell paintings that were inspired by it. FDR articulated the principles he considered foundational to U.S. citizens: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Norman Rockwell captured these quintessential Americana ideals in an iconic quadtych. But that was 1943, and FDR’s fundamental freedoms still have not been realized for every American.
For Freedoms wants to start a conversation by asking artists to raise questions about progress toward these ideals through their pieces. It’s 2016—do we have freedom of speech? Do we have freedom of worship? Is every American free from want? Is America free from fear?
For Freedoms isn’t about picking a side or a candidate—something unusual for a super PAC, an institution that can raise unlimited sums of money from any donor and influence elections like partisan advertising agencies. Rather, says co-founder Gottesman, the goal of For Freedoms is to “elevate and expand the dialogue that no longer exists in our sound bite culture, [with] its ‘gotcha’ tactics and oversimplified conversations.”
Instead of picking a candidate and throwing gobs of money behind advertisements or rallies, For Freedoms strives to distribute messages as diverse as the roster of artists that contribute to the PAC. As more artists contribute, more diverging views will be presented. “There are not just two sides, conservative or liberal, black or white. The country is increasingly confronting how one person’s freedom may impinge on someone else’s,” says other co-founder Thomas.
The For Freedoms exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery tackled issues such as gun control, gender equality, campaign reform, and racism. The messages of the artwork cover a wide range, speaking to the super PAC’s role as a vehicle rather than a soapbox. For instance, photographs of African-American artist Carrie Mae Weems in front of infamous locations from the United States’ troubled civil rights history is placed next to a series by photographer Bayeté Ross Smith of gun owners and their favorite weapons, which itself is next to a brain-bending graphic manipulation of the “Four Freedoms” speech by artist Rashid Johnson, highlighting the connection between want and fear in America. The pieces are meant to raise fundamental questions about American freedom that the super PAC hopes will cause internal political movement.
Proceeds from the gallery exhibit and donations go toward funding a “public gallery” nationwide, across billboards, bus stops, and commercials—wherever the PAC can find space—injecting artwork into political culture. Gottesman says, “[For Freedoms’] strategy is going to be to insert these forms of art into popular culture in a way that will reach the highest amount of people.” For Freedoms wants its art to reach people who would not normally visit art galleries or become involved in politics. The group wants the average person to be aware of the freedoms promised to them by the government and the state of those freedoms today. And they want people to ask questions, feel, and talk. They want people to consume politics like they consume art. These are lofty aspirations, but noble ones, expressing a rare sentimentality in the world of super PACs, one of the most hotly debated and notorious institutions in campaign finance.
Although PACs have been around since 1944, super PACs did not come into existence until 2010, after the controversial rulings of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Speechnow.org v. FEC. These two court cases upheld 1) that corporations and unions could donate politically as if they were people and 2) the idea that PACs, as long as they weren’t explicitly contributing to candidates, parties, or other PACs, could accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions, or corporations and spend an unlimited amount. These newly-minted super PACs, a term coined by Politico journalist Eliza Newlin Carney in 2010, were no longer bound by the legislation that limited PACs. The old regulations, known as the McCain-Feingold Act, put limits on soft money PACs could accept from corporations and put restrictions on political campaign ads that PACs could purchase. The Citizens United ruling dropped those restrictions.
Legally, super PACs aren’t allowed to coordinate directly with a candidate or political party, but they are still allowed to support a candidate in other ways. This is typically done through commercials, pamphlets, articles, outreach, hosting fundraisers, or many other options. In 2016, super PACs have already spent almost $480 million on the presidential election. Technically, candidates aren’t involved in super PACs’ activities, and this money is private citizens speaking their minds, without expectations of personal gain or quid pro quo relationships. But behind the scenes? That’s up for debate.
It is with this unsavory lineage that For Freedoms is breaking a mold in the super PAC world. Rather than giving wealthy people and corporations access to politicians’ ears, the powerful artwork of For Freedoms becomes an avenue for artists to speak to people. Political apathy is a dangerous drug that stifles critical conversation and hamstrings progress, brought on by the constant static drone of “This political ad is paid for by…” For Freedoms works hard to bring a roster of artists together to fight that apathy with artwork, to spark that conversation with billboards, and to start political change at the grassroot, instead of the ivory tower.
Jakob Sergei Weitz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Image courtesy of Phillip Callas. Image design by Jakob Sergei Weitz.]