Exploring democracy and citizenship through art

Nobody Around Here Calls Me Citizen
"Nobody Around Here Calls Me Citizen," painted by Robert Gwathmey in 1943, shows a tired black man next to the number two, implying he's a second class citizen. The lion in the corner, however, indicates his potential power.
Image courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum

Democracy and citizenship aren't words normally associated with great paintings. But throughout time artists have expressed their political ideas, and even inspired political movements, with their images, their songs and their words.

Photographer Paul Shambroom has spent years documenting power, from small town council meetings to nuclear missile silos. He says he sees a direct connection between his photographs and his role as a citizen.

"I view what I do as an artist as being someone who raises questions and puts a visual face on issues that's so compelling that people have to deal with it," says Shambroom.

Paul Shambroom's Meetings (detail)
Photographer Paul Shambroom looks at different sorts of power in America, capturing everything from small town meetings to nuclear missile silos. Shambroom sees his artistic explorations as a way for him to test the democratic process.
Image courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum

An upcoming exhibition of Shambroom's photographs is just one of several at the Weisman this year that deal with notions of the democratic process.

Weisman curator Diane Mullin says the theme was prompted both by this year's presidential election and by the Republican Party's decision to hold its national convention in St. Paul.

Mullin says the goal is to create a place where people can talk about issues and students can start thinking about their own responsibilities as citizens.

The Weisman Art Museum will be presenting an exhibition of photographs depicting Somali-American life later this year as part of its year long look at democracy and citizenship. Curator Diane Mullin says a key notion of democracy is representation, and so the museum is seeking to present art of communities that are typically underrepresented.
Image courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum

"Art can teach us or demonstrate things about democracy," says Mullin, "but art can also participate in democracy because artists are in very important ways contributors to discourse, and contributors to our society. So they can put forth proposals and propositions to make us think about things, to make us think about where we live, how we live."

The Weisman has pulled together several works of art from its permanent collection for its current exhibition titled "Who is a citizen? What is citizenship?"

Harry Boyte is the co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Boyte is no expert in the arts, but he is drawn to a painting of a tired black man next to the number two, titled "nobody around here calls me citizen."

Art and Democracy
Photographer Greta Pratt's portraits of Abraham Lincoln impersonators will be a part of a future Weisman exhibition titled "Old Weird America" in which modern artists examine how we see our nation and our history.
Image courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum

It was painted by Robert Gwathmey in 1943. Boyte says the artist took one person's predicament and made it a public issue.

"I think when art is really civically powerful, that is what it does," says Boyte. "It puts a public language to their private discontents, [helps them] to see them as shared, and capable of redress and action."

Katie Rodgers
Katie Rodgers is a junior at the University of Minnesota with a major in Art History. She says she believes everyone should take a part in the democratic process, even it it's a small part, and recognize that they do have some power.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Boyte says art, at its best, illuminates the world and has the power to both anger and inspire.

The Weisman hopes to illuminate the democratic process throughout the year. One exhibition will look at works from the New Deal Era of the 1930s and '40s, when art was created to unify American pride and values during the Great Depression.

Another will use modern art inspired by folk imagery to analyze how we see ourselves as a nation. Curator Diane Mullin says she is also looking forward to a show of photographs depicting Somali-American life.

"Democracy, after all, is about representation," says Mullin, "representing someone's voice, representing someone's position, having a seat at the table."

Katie Rodgers is a junior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in art history. She was one of several students who helped create public programs to go along with the Weisman's exhibitions. She says seeing Paul Shambroom's photographs makes her think about her own power as a citizen.

"Like in the meetings series, even though you see in a lot of them these kitschie American flag decorations, because they're you know in a junior high basement, or an elementary school basement, it's still extremely important that people care about their town," says Rodgers. "So no matter what your role is, I think you should be involved in some form. And I also think that you should recognize that you do have power, even if it's on a small scale."

The exhibition of Paul Shambroom's photographs opens at the Weisman Art Museum on Feb. 9. "Who is a citizen? What is citizenship?" runs through July.