Mark Vallen's Newsletter Nov. '04
Art Activism & Social Change
Artworks by Mark Vallen
A R T  F O R   A  C H A N G E


1) - THE BALLOT AND THE PALETTE... Mark Vallen's statement on the US presidential elections

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Mark Vallen - November 1st 2004

Many artists entered the new millennium after sleepwalking through the late 20th Century. With the terrifying events of Sept. 11, 2001, and all that followed, artists were confronted with circumstances that shocked them into wakefulness. However, their mute response has been at odds with the artist's historic role of observer, interpreter, prophet, and visionary communicator. Even after the earthshaking ordeals of the past few years, most artists are still creating risk-free artworks that recoil from serious examinations of social realities.

In the face of a sharpening and ever increasing global crisis, many in the artistic sphere have withdrawn from the world, preferring a headlong retreat into isolated artistic ghettos where pure aesthetics supposedly transcends everything else. Far too many artists espouse a "postmodern" abhorrence of social and political action, making it easy to dismiss the human condition while justifying inaction. Such thinking further diminishes the artist's ability to speak for his or her time. It's also a pronouncement that the artist cannot be a socially responsible citizen.

But there are stirrings in the artistic community that portend an approaching renaissance.

Democracy is about much more than punching a ballot once every four years, it is about how we live our lives each day. It is as much a cultural question as it is a political one (can the two really be separated?). Culture can be defined as the intellectual, material, and spiritual features of any given society, and the intricate web of lifestyles, traditions and myths that comprise culture are held together by artistic production. Art helps a people to define who they are, what they believe, and where they stand. However, there are choices to be made. Culture can be an authentic grass roots expression based on shared values, or a manufactured and homogenized contrivance imposed upon a population. A society that embraces the latter model may produce a political democracy with as much authenticity as its ersatz culture... dumbed down, hollow, and without substance.

Undoubtedly you have heard it said that the US presidential election of 2004 is the "most important election in decades." It is certainly a high stakes affair that will have an enormous impact on the nation and the world, but no matter who wins the election we face a critical state of affairs. It should come as no surprise that at no time during the political season has the subject of arts policy been mentioned. One must surmise this is because no one considers it a serious matter, but that has not always been the case.

In 1935 the US government created The Works Progress Administration (WPA), with the intent of providing relief to those Americans suffering through the Great Depression. The WPA employed over 8 million jobless Americans. A substantial portion of WPA funding went to painters, writers, actors, musicians, and directors, who were put to work on various projects that enriched the cultural heritage of the nation. A division of the WPA, The Federal Art Project, created over 5,000 jobs for artists. Those artists in turn produced over 225,000 public artworks for the American people ranging from glorious public murals and sculptures to over 2,000 posters publicizing art exhibits, theatrical and musical performances, travel and tourism, and health and safety programs.

The fact that no one can seriously advocate a WPA-like federal arts program in today's context illustrates just how far to the right the political landscape has shifted in the US. There are limitless billions of dollars available for endless war, but the treasury is nearly empty when it comes to funding the arts. The lesson of The Works Progress Administration is twofold: that artists can organize to secure inestimable victories if they have the will to win, but also that they need support and backing from the wider community. For a number of reasons today's artists have alienated themselves from the rest of society... with many simply ceasing to speak in a language that is commonly understood. That estrangement is reciprocated in the form of shrinking public support for art. The time has come for artists to abandon their ivory towers and reintegrate themselves into the fabric of daily community life.

In part the struggle of today's artist is to insure that everyone receive equal access to art and culture regardless of economic status, a healthy democracy demands this. Moreover, being that artistic endeavor represents one of the highest achievements and aspirations of humankind, we must work to ennoble society by giving the arts the highest priority. A social order that makes no such provisions is at best elitist and undemocratic and at worst, barbaric. Artists must create, support, and defend authentic culture while simultaneously resisting and contesting the mass produced and pre-packaged commodities that masquerade as "popular art."

Whatever the outcome of the 2004 presidential elections, the artistic project of expanding and deepening cultural democracy must continue unabated. In these chaotic times it is imperative that artists shake off their lethargy and meet the struggle head on.

Mark Vallen's ART FOR A CHANGE newsletter encourages and promotes the creation of artworks that envision a just, peaceful world. If you wish to be added or removed from the AFC mailing list, or if you'd rather receive text only versions of this mailing, send an e-mail request to
"Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of government we have yet evolved, and we may as well begin to ask ourselves whether we are ready to suffer, even perish for it, rather than readying ourselves to live in the lower existence of a monumental banana republic with a government always eager to cater to mega-corporations as they do their best to appropriate our thwarted dreams with their elephantiastical conceits."
Norman Mailer