‘It’s our job to change it for the better’: can artists influence the US election?

<span>Images from Shepard Fairey and Beverly McIver.</span><span>Composite: Shepard Fairey/Beverly McIver</span>
Images from Shepard Fairey and Beverly McIver.Composite: Shepard Fairey/Beverly McIver

“I think what we’ve learned is that one man’s hope is another man’s fear,” broadcaster Alex Wagner observed in the final episode of the Showtime channel’s The Circus. “Barack Obama was the embodiment of hope for a lot of people and the embodiment of fear for a sizable portion of this country. And the same is true for Donald Trump. They are twinned emotions and we as a country cannot reconcile that.”

Street artist and social activist Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster was a defining image of Obama’s winning 2008 election campaign. Sixteen years on, with another presidential poll looming, it can often feel like fear has the upper hand in American politics. But Fairey is again at work to show that art can make a difference.

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The 54-year-old is co-chair of Artists For Democracy 2024, a campaign launched this month by the progressive advocacy organisation People for the American Way. It aims to create art that will motivate citizens to vote against the authoritarian Trump and reclaim concepts such as “freedom”, “patriotism” and “the American way”.

The lineup of more than 20 artists includes co-chair Carrie Mae Weems along with Beverly McIver, Titus Kaphar, Hank Willis Thomas, Victoria Cassinova, Christine Sun Kim, Alyson Shotz, Amalia Mesa-Baines, Angelica Muro and Cleon Peterson. Together they are setting out to cut through the political noise to surprise, entertain and shock voters out of apathy.

Fairey, who has contributed four images stressing the importance of democratic participation, says by phone from Los Angeles: “The amazing thing about art is that it can get to someone’s emotions around empathy, compassion, seeing that the country should work for everyone, not just for the super rich and powerful. Some of these goals with outreach are just to stimulate that moral centre of people.

“All humans are capable of making good choices, bad choices, having moments of joy, moments of pain, moments of hope, moments of fear. If we’re following the wrong story, the wrong narrative, making a more compelling alternative narrative can shift the wind back in the other direction, so that’s what I try to do all the time.”

Artists for Democracy 2024 also includes a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of billboards in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and an effort that will include peer-to-peer texting, radio PSAs, on-the-ground organisers, targeted digital ads and art activations with potential expansion into more battleground states such as North Carolina and Georgia. Activities include the release of visual prints, custom-made merchandise, radio ads, digital ads, celebrity videos, bus wraps and billboards.

People for the American Way was founded in 1980 by the TV producer Norman Lear as an advocacy group aimed at countering the rising power of the evangelical right. One of the pieces included in the campaign is a portrait of Lear – who died last December aged 101 - by Fairey that was inspired by the photographer Peter Yang.

The organisation has long engaged artists, from an advert narrated by the actor Gregory Peck urging Americans to reject the nomination of Judge Bork to the supreme court to board members including Seth MacFarlane, Alec Baldwin, Josh Sapan and Kathleen Turner.

During the 2020 election it ran an Enough of Trump campaign in swing states featuring billboards, street teams, art installations, digital content, organising and a six-figure crowdfunding campaign. Trump was indeed defeated, only to roar back with a 2024 White House run that is even more radical, extreme and driven by vengeance.

Fairey admits: “I never thought that Trump would be viable after January 6. He made many efforts to undermine all the institutions that preserve a functioning democracy while he was president the first time and he failed to completely undo all the safeguards.

“But he has more people who will be complicit with his malfeasance this time and so, if he’s elected, it will be a lot more destructive. I actually really care about democracy and care that people will have a say in all of the things that government does that affect their lives, so it’s pretty fucking important.”

Warning of Trump’s dictatorial tendencies, he continues: “I’m not someone who is prone to hysteria but this is an existential threat for a lot of the things that Americans have taken for granted and the success of this country has been built upon.”

But the notion of artists diving into politics might set off alarm bells. The perception that Hillary Clinton was palling around with Hollywood stars in 2016 fed an “us v them” narrative, dividing America between coastal elites and Trump-loving “deplorables” in the heartland. Could artistic interventions be seen as patronising, preachy and counterproductive?

Fairey insists that that some issues cut across partisan lines. “The idea that your freedom to vote might be limited can appeal to some people who normally don’t like liberal ‘woke’ talking points.

“I grew up in South Carolina which always votes for Republicans and yet I had and still have tons of progressive friends. Sometimes the outreach in those places makes people who might feel apathetic or like they don’t have allies feel a little bit more courageous. I don’t think it’s a wasted effort at all.”

There is another challenge this time. Opinion polls show that Biden’s staunch support for Israel as it wages war in Gaza is alienating young people, progressives and Arab Americans. More than 100,000 Michigan voters in the Democrats’ presidential primary election cast “uncommitted” ballots in a massive protest against the president.

Fairey understands the concerns but makes a case for pragmatism. “I do think that’s a problem but what I would say to any of those people is, regardless of how you feel about Joe Biden, if you can understand that your idealism has to be married to the pragmatic side of having a functional democracy, your next round of opportunity to place someone you like more than Joe Biden in the White House or any other political office is going to depend on democracy working.

“So don’t be shortsighted. Consider that, whatever you don’t like about Joe Biden, Trump will be much worse. Anybody who’s young who has listened to Trump talk about Israel should know that Israel is going to get more unconditional support from Donald Trump. If you care about a ceasefire and human rights in Gaza, Trump will not be the person to perform better on that.”

Fairey will vote for Biden, albeit not with the same enthusiasm that he felt for Obama. “I’m an idealist but I also understand that there is never going to be someone who’s running a perfect party, a perfect president or perfect Congress. This is where I get very frustrated with people who decide that it just doesn’t make any sense to participate at all if they don’t get precisely what they want, because all they do is ensure that they’re going to get even less of what they want.”

McIver is another veteran of the Enough of Trump initiative four years ago. This time she has produced Black Beauty II, an image of a woman patterned with flowers beneath the word “VOTE” – in which the “T” is stylised as a woman’s fallopian tubes and uterus.

The 61-year-old year old was “horrified” when the rightwing supreme court ended the constitutional right to abortion. “As a woman, I’m past the age where I would ever have an abortion but I still think it’s extremely important that all women fight for women’s rights,” she says by phone from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

McIver, who is African American, is clear-eyed about what a second Trump presidency would mean. “To even fathom that could happen makes me incredibly uncomfortable and very worried for humanity at large. I just think that we have to beat them. We have to get out there and vote.

“I’m gonna take people to the polls, I’m gonna make phone calls, whatever it takes to get people out to vote is extremely important because I can’t imagine that the humanity of the world has gone that low that it would be acceptable for Trump to be president again. That’s a hopeless thought.”

McIver is convinced that art can make a difference and rejects the charge of liberal elitism.That’s funny as a Black woman who grew up in the projects in Greensboro, North Carolina, whose family was raised on welfare, who wasn’t expected to amount to anything and art saved me, if you will.”

Living with “roaches and rats” in the projects, she recalls watching Lear’s sitcom Good Times, about a family living in a public housing project in inner-city Chicago. “They were in the projects and the character JJ was an artist and he made paintings –that gave me hope about what my future could be, so the last thing I think about myself is an elitist. My family tells me I’m not all the time.

“I’ll definitely own being a humanitarian and wanting good for everyone – guilty of that for sure. ‘We can’t trust the artist because they are elitist. Their work sells for X dollars.’ All that’s about fear, which is how Trump is running this campaign and has run it in the past. We just gotta realise that, before fear, we’re all human.”

For Peterson, the political wake-up call came in 2017. A brawl erupted outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s diplomatic escort beat up protesters, leaving nine people injured and two under arrest.

“I thought, well, this is strange, this is something different with all this divisive language and hatred and everything going on in the public dialogue, getting people riled up with fear,” the 50-year-old says from Los Angeles. “It looked very similar to stuff I’d seen in history and that’s when I started getting scared.”

Peterson, too, regards Trump as a fundamental threat to democracy. He’s trying to destroy institutions and we’re becoming like a culture of grift. I’ve found within myself that I can be all right with a certain amount of grift in the world but, when it become all-encompassing, I just can’t deal with it any more.

“In terms of what’s going on, you can’t take this stuff seriously. This guy’s selling Bibles and NFTs – it’s just gotten crazy. We’re listening to super-technical arguments in the courts that that are just meant to be disruptive. Nothing is productive any more. It’s just a battle of fake ideas all day long.”

Peterson has faith in the power of the artist to effect change. “I see it as our job – not just visual artists but writers, musicians, painters – to tell some form of truth in the world and also express some form of ideals and also have some kind of vision reminding people of the past and also a hopeful image of the future.

“People feel disengaged and alienated, like they’re powerless nowadays, and maybe our role as artists is to say look, you guys actually do have some power here. In a world like where we can become overwhelmed with crisis, it’s our job to change it for the better if we want a better life.”