Debate

The Artists Changing America, One Billboard at a Time

For Freedoms is an artists’ collective whose aim is to stir up political debate. How do its controversial images on attention-grabbing billboards change hearts and minds?

Courtesy For Freedoms

The billboard reads “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”—although it wasn’t erected by Donald J. Trump.

The words are superimposed over an image from Sunday, March 7, 1965. In the photograph, uniformed state troopers armed with guns, clubs, and gas masks bear down on black demonstrators attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of voting rights. The day is now known as Bloody Sunday.

Is the billboard a sardonic criticism of Trump’s infamous slogan, or rather brazen public advocacy for white supremacy?

The residents of Pearl, Mississippi, where the billboard was displayed in 2016, believed the latter. The state’s governor even decried it as “reprehensible.” They attempted to take it down.

The billboard, however, was actually the product of an artists’ group called For Freedoms, many members of which are people of color. It was meant, they say, to start a conversation lacking in American politics today.

Their campaign pre-dated and echoed the impact of the controversial Oscar-winning movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which Frances McDormand's character—whose daughter had been raped and murdered—bought three billboards that read simply, “Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Now, ahead of this year’s midterm elections, For Freedoms is attempting to bring billboards to all 50 states in the country (along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico) in what they are calling their “50 State Initiative.” Partnering with Kickstarter, the group is seeking to raise $3,000 in funding for every billboard. So far, they have raised over $123,000, and secured funding for 23 states. The fundraiser ends Tuesday, July 3, at 11:59pm EST.

I don’t think locking up babies in cages is a partisan issue; I don’t think molesting women is a partisan issue; I don’t think having a democracy is a partisan issue.
Hank Willis Thomas, For Freedoms co-founder

With over 175 affiliated artists, the group has erected billboards, hosted town hall meetings, and staged exhibitions throughout the country to encourage dialogue across what they believe to be artificial political binaries.

Hank Willis Thomas, who founded For Freedoms along with fellow artist Eric Gottesman, is quick to specify that the group is neither partisan nor nonpartisan, but rather “anti-partisan.”

The polarization of American politics, they say, is the unhealthy result of malignant posturing on Capitol Hill, and serves only to distract from the practical problems the country currently faces. “One of the things that we, as For Freedoms believe—and I certainly believe—is that we are not as far away from each other as we think we are,” explained Gottesman.

As political arguments spill over into physical violence and debates over “civility” in public discourse occupy the collective consciousness, the belief in everyone’s universal equality has perhaps become an unfortunately radical one.

“I don’t think locking up babies in cages is a partisan issue; I don’t think molesting women is a partisan issue; I don’t think having a democracy is a partisan issue,” said Thomas.

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On Jan. 6, 1941—almost a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor—President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a State of the Union address that would later become known as his “Four Freedoms” speech.

With Nazi power growing in Europe and many Americans still psychically reeling from World War I, he faced the challenge of convincing U.S. citizens of the need for the country’s involvement overseas, and did so by painting a verbal portrait of its best self.

America, he said, was a country that fought and stood for: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — “everywhere in the world.”

On Jan. 20, 2017—76 years after Roosevelt’s speech—Donald Trump assumed the presidency. Many believed his ascendance was a coup for America’s conservative “silent majority.”

Others saw it as a decidedly anti-democratic abandonment of those principles that our former president had so proudly proclaimed as uniquely the country’s own—or at least a transformation of his global exhortation, freedom “everywhere in the world,” into something more akin to just freedom “for some.”

In January 2016—only one year prior, and when Trump was still a candidate—the “Four Freedoms” underwent another transformation, and this one perhaps more peculiar (or at least unexpected) than the rest: into the world’s first artist-run super PAC, “For Freedoms.”

We realized that when you call something art it allows people to think about things creatively that they’re already doing and already know.
Hank Willis Thomas

Artists, the group maintains, are uniquely and professionally disposed to intellectual uncertainty, which make them valuable conduits for the questioning of long-held belief.

“We realized that when you call something art,” Thomas explained, “it allows people to think about things creatively that they’re already doing and already know.” In politics, said Gottesman, “you have to stand firmly on one side or another of an issue, as if there were no intricacies or nuances.”

For Freedoms artist Paula Crown described a telling moment at one of the group’s town halls.

When discussing gun violence, she recounted, one audience member testily defended his Second Amendment right and explained his desire to stockpile as many weapons as he could, seemingly hoping to get a rise out of the group.

Thomas responded calmly, explaining that, while he understood the man’s right, his cousin had lost his life to gun violence in the years prior, and asked realistically what the country can do about it.

The man stayed for an hour after, talking with the town hall’s participants. “Hank had created this moment where this guy opened and thought and reflected, and instead of casting aspersions and being impulsive, talked to Hank and talked to all of us,” Crown said.

It sounds so simple: a town hall discussion. But the context here is key. “The medium for our project is the campaign, the media, the tools of political campaigns, the political schedule, organizational structures: all these are kind of our materials and our mediums,” said Gottesman.

Art changes the frame of reference.

“A political system has set up opposition, but through art we seek to unite,” said For Freedoms collaborator and organizer Tanya Selvaratnam, who, with artist Laurie Anderson and producer Laura Michalchyshyn co-founded an associated artists’ group called The Federation. “We’re not attempting to get everyone to see things the same way; we’re trying to get them to listen to each other.”

Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” look different to everyone that pictures them. In 1943, for example, Norman Rockwell painted his own versions, the most famous, perhaps, being his “Freedom From Want.”

In the painting—now an archetype embedded in the American consciousness and pop culture—a family sits in an airy dining room, huddled closely together as the matriarch places a hefty turkey in the middle of the table.

A man in the bottom righthand corner, his head cropped by the frame, looks directly at the viewer, as if the scene were a divinely composed family snapshot.

The painting, while visually beautiful, has not aged well. The family depicted is, noticeably, of the WASP variety. Their smiles turn somewhat sinister when it is remembered that their joy and “freedom from want” exist in spite of what was happening at the time: Jim Crow and Japanese internment.

“Freedom From Want” exists as a specter over For Freedoms-affiliated artist Carrie Mae Weems’ acclaimed The Kitchen Table Series, which reimagines the black domestic sphere in the 1990s and exemplifies by way of art the mutability of Roosevelt’s American tenets.

Another example is the controversy over the billboard in Pearl. Thomas and Gottesman explained that the group’s desire was not simply to spark controversy with a politically charged image, but rather to inspire “civic engagement” with an artwork that can be read in multiple ways.

When I suggested that For Freedoms’ politics lean left, they pointed to what happened in Pearl as proof positive that what to some are seemingly liberal artworks may to others be seemingly conservative.

Nevertheless, they learned from the controversy that they too must be involved in the conversation that results from the group’s works, and as part of the 50 State Initiative also hope to host town halls and exhibitions alongside each billboard.

“Art is a nonverbal communication,” said For Freedoms artist Kambui Olujimi. “Same thing with music. No one can tell you what b-flat means. When you look at any number of art mediums, there are themes. Someone can tell you, in that same analogy, what the frequency of b-flat is, or what the compounds for a painting or sculpture are. But they can never quantify that. So it’s a conversation that, even now as it’s received and understood and is impactful, is constantly open and keeps possibilities moving through you as a viewer.”

For Freedoms has set up a temporary headquarters in New York City’s Meatpacking District, at a gallery called Fort Gansevoort, and will be there through the midterm elections. Although the group has resigned its status as a super PAC (which are usually partisan) and is instead seeking recognition as a nonprofit, on the day I visit, they remind me of a scrappy campaign for a third-party candidate.

A long folding table is set up in the space’s angular foyer, at which sits the 50 State Initiative’s administrative team along with a few artists, all on their phones taking part in a “telethon” to raise money for the billboards.

“As a citizen of the U.S. and a citizen who cares about civic dialogue… it’s our responsibility to make sure all the states are funded,” said Patton Hindle, Kickstarter’s director of arts. It’s a truism that art is political—but never before has it been this political.

Good art—politically charged art—should transcend museum and gallery walls.
Zoë Buckman, For Freedoms artist

On the wall are lawn signs designed by the group, which read “Freedom of…” and “Freedom from…,” and have space for people to write their own answers. One says “Freedom from bigotry.” Another has a drawing of what appears to be a naked woman’s pelvis under the words “Freedom of…”

Elsewhere are works by Paula Crown, the space’s inaugural artist, such as a large sculpture of a golf ball, and an enclosed atrium full of inflatable black balls: commentary, she explains, on the nature of political “blackballing.”

“Good art—politically charged art—should transcend museum and gallery walls. We shouldn’t be continually preaching to the 0.0001 percent who likely are in agreement with the artist anyway. So I strongly believe in the power of public arts for political reasons,” said For Freedoms artist Zoë Buckman.

I don’t care who you vote for, just fucking vote. This is what everyone needs to be doing right now.
Zoë Buckman

Buckman designed a billboard that was displayed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2016. It reads “GRAB ’EM BY THE BALLOTS.” The words are superimposed over a pink gym locker room: reference to Trump's infamous Access Hollywood tape, and the “locker room talk” apologism that followed.

“That piece was a real call to action to vote,” she said. “I don’t care who you vote for, just fucking vote. This is what everyone needs to be doing right now. My messaging was in it subtly, hopefully, but my intention with that was that it was bipartisan.”

Because the artists in the group all act with a certain degree of autonomy, some works, it seems, have more of a political bent than others.

Still, Thomas explained that “we were really interested in trying to reconsider the role of artists as civic leaders and art spaces as civic spaces. We feel like For Freedoms is a model that can open the door for viewing art as a form of civic engagement.”

The 50 State Initiative is “not based on talking heads in a studio broadcasting to the entire world, it’s based on conversations that relate to a specific community, which may be global issues, or may be something that’s happening in that community,” said Gottesman.

The fundamental belief underwriting the project, of course, is that art is not simply ornamental, elitist, or a waste of time, but that it can inspire new ways of looking at old problems.

The two-party system, For Freedoms contends, is broken. When the definition of Democrat is “not Republican,” and the definition of Republican is “not Democrat,” then what truly can be achieved beyond needless argument?  

Thomas reasoned: “How do we start to breathe creative thinking and creative action into civic life? It’s not that Eric and I think we’re the best artists, or that we even know the best artists, but we do know that creativity might just save humanity.”