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  • Writer's pictureMegan Arney Johnston

BEARING WITNESS: Turn Up the Turnout and Art Activism in 2020

Updated: Nov 1, 2020


Turn Up the Turnout and Art Activism in 2020

Megan Arney Johnston, October 27, 2020

In the United States, a partisan war is being fought over voting rights. According to the New York Times, as of October 28, over 300 lawsuits in 44 states have been filed over issues relating to pandemic voting. This fight underscores the most urgent struggle today: The right to vote and be represented in government is one of the most important universal human rights. There is no other basic right that defines emancipation, liberation, and citizenship better than the ability to ballot for what you believe. The issues that we are forced to address today—COVID, the environment, racism, sexism, and police brutality among other significant sociopolitical crises—highlight the importance of voting in the United States. In less than a week, Americans will be voting for offices from the president to city councils and school boards. As a curator and art historian, I have been thinking about how to respond in this context. What are artists and those of us in creative industries doing to promote the importance—and action—of voting this November? Arguably, never have the stakes been so high and, in response, we must act up.

Turn Up the Turnout is one such project of action. Commissioned as a grassroots, artist-based initiative, 22 artists, 17 of whom are BIPOC or LGBTQIA, have created works that encourage voting. Each artist was given a stipend of $250, and in turn, more than 40,000 artist-designed pins and stickers have been given away throughout the United States. Distributors include Native American outlets; Mead Art Museum, Amherst, MA; Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN; and Washington County Historic Courthouse, Stillwater, MN, among many others. The idea behind the non-partisan Turn Up the Turnout is to raise awareness about voting and encourage people to cast their ballot—a simple idea but one that is of utmost urgency. “Our hope is to use artists’ voices to create a positive, nation-wide social media movement encouraging civic engagement from all areas of our community,” explains Anne Labovitz, a Twin Cities-based artist and member of the volunteer Turn Up the Turnout steering committee. “We want to showcase our country’s diverse communities, and we’ve invited several artists representing many communities to help us do so.” Each sticker or pin features a work by an artist along with the hashtag #turnuptheturnout and the artist’s name. Public participation in the get-out-the-vote initiative is as simple as snapping a selfie or taking a picture of a free sticker or button and tagging it on social media with the hashtag #turnuptheturnout, and, if they choose, tagging the artist as well. Everyone posting an eligible picture will be entered to win one of four $500 Visa gift cards. Entries are being accepted now through November 1, 2020. Winners will be contacted on November 2, 2020 via the social media on which they posted their entry. Winners need to claim their prize within 24 hours or a new winner will be randomly selected from the other participants.

All but one of the artists in Turn Up the Turnout are from Minnesota. I find this particularly significant because the state has had a strong historical commitment to voting. In the 2008 presidential election, 77.8% of eligible Minnesotans voted—the highest percentage in any US state or territory. Yet our voting history is problematic, to say the least. As far back as 1849, the European settlers of the burgeoning Minnesota Territory, themselves only one or two generations away from immigrants to the United States, established a territorial government based on the votes of every free White male inhabitant above 21 years old. It would take many decades to achieve widespread suffrage not only in Minnesota but the United States. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, known as the Emancipation Amendments, of the mid-to-late 1800s gave all male persons born or naturalized in the US, including Black men, the right to vote for the first time. The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote in all elections (limited enfranchisement in school elections had been granted in 1875). The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, granting full US citizenship to Native Americans, however, did not guarantee voting rights. Asian immigrants also fought for their right to vote, which was granted in 1952. The important 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act reduced barriers to voting for people of color and gave the federal government powers to ensure state and local voting laws were not discriminatory. Yet even today, voting rights are under attack across the US, which portends an even more urgent need to galvanize the vote this November.

Looking back, we can see that strong sociopolitical art practices became more visible and prevalent in times of great social upheaval, such as the turn of the century, the world wars, and the 1960s. Today, with the rise of the extreme right, attacks on social programs, a wider-than-ever economic gap between the rich and poor, new heights of racism and sexism, and civil unrest, the need is equally great. Some have argued that socially engaged art is the new political art. But what’s important to know is that historically artists have always played a role in political activism and that there has been a long history of community arts, political art, and radical pedagogy. Generations of artists have responded to the specific sociopolitical and economic crisis of their time.

From as early as the mid 1800s, and even earlier, artists have been actively involved in politics. Romantic painters of the early 19th century, such as Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix, created work with powerful images that reflected liberal and populist views as well as grievances against their respective governments. This approach to art making continued into the mid- and late-19th century and included Realists (Daumier, Courbet), Impressionists (Pissarro), Situationists, and Dadists (Ernst), among others. Artists were also activists and freedom fighters. Some Italian Futurists, for example, enlisted in the Italian army during WWI to liberate Italy from Austro-Hungarian rule. And photography, particularly of the working class and of wars like the US Civil War (O’Sullivan), exposed the public to unjust working conditions, destruction, and death. During WWI and WWII, artists responded in similar ways, including Bolshevik artist Vladimir Tatlin, Mexican revolutionaries Deigo Rivera and Frida Kahlo, German Expressionists (Beckmann, Kollwitz, Dix, Kokoschka), and Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden. Margaret Bourke-White was the only western photographer to witness the German invasion of Russia and the first American WWII photographer—she documented the liberation of Auschwitz. There were social realists in the USSR and artists who worked in the US during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the Depression era. We can readily recall Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and his later Massacre in Korea (1950). Radical pedagogy also strongly influenced art and social politics, including the work of Jane Adams and John and Jane Dewey. By the 1960s and 70s, Fluxus and the Japanese Gutai were among political art movements alongside the more well-known Black art, Feminist art, and LGBTQIA art movements that were a direct response to the sociopolitical contexts of the day. Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed impacted the arts heavily. Even Pop Art was political, as shown in Andy Warhol’s Big Electric Chair and many of Robert Rauschenberg’s works. We also saw the rise of a strong second generation of Black artists like Jacob Lawrence in his Migration Series. The 1980s and 90s included feminist work by artists such as Barbara Kruger, Guerrilla Girls, and Judy Chicago with her famous Dinner Party. More recent work includes Dmitri Vrubel’s The Kiss and Banksy’s many works—Flower Thrower (2003) is one of my favorites. Museums and institutional critique also became more relevant in the early 1990s, and of note is Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum. These are just a fraction of the many examples of political art we could discuss.

Artists in Turn Up the Turnout are part of a broader creative response to the 2020 election by artists nationally. For example, Rice University presented a fantastic exhibition entitled “States of Mind: Art and American Democracy” with works by 30 artists. These included Aram Han Sifuentes’s Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can’t. Another contemporary example is the 50 State Initiative, a large-scale, artist-designed project that placed billboards in all 50 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. It was organized by Hank William Thomas and Eric Gottesman, founders of For Freedoms, a non-partisan platform for civic engagement, dialogue, and action. There are also thousands of artists who are making political art today about a plethora of sociopolitical ideas, too many to note here, but worth your time to research.

The artists represented in Turn Up the Turnout have created what I call activist artifacts, items that will live beyond 2020 not only as objects but also as images. The striking portrait images by Seitu Jones, Ta-coumba Aiken, Chris McDuffie, Ayub HajiOmar, Richard Moody, Ivy Vainio, Tou Yia Xiong, and Christopher Deanes recall the strong visual of Shepard Fairey’s HOPE image of Barack Obama in 2008. The more abstract imagery of Anne Labovitz, Tetsuya Yamada, Eyenga Bokamba, and Dyani White Hawk have a poignant urgency to them. The enigmatic, questioning works by Aaron Spangler, Anna Canfield, Chris Larson, Carly Jo, Teo Nguyen, Jim Denomie, Christopher Harrison, and Kazue Melissa Vang reflect the complexity of enfranchisement including ideas of the rural, Native rights, animal rights, and the environment. And the graphic immediacy of TAKARA’s and Eliesa Johnson’s work calls us to action. The images included in Turn Up the Turnout are, in a way, all portraits, portraying something more—a broadening of identity and the awareness of the other. The breadth of the works reflects an important aspect of voting: the need for a deepening and broadening of voices. The radical gesture of these artists and this initiative is urgent and timely. []

Noted Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar explains in his book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States that voting history is one of “both expansion and contradiction, of inclusion and exclusion, of shifts in direction and momentum at different places and at different times.” He also outlines the expansion of suffrage (voting) by key forces: frontier settlement, competitive political parties, the growth of cities and industry, the flourishing of democratic ideals and beliefs, and the activism of the disenfranchised.

Today, as shown in this essay, artists, curators, and art workers continue to consider and act upon Keyssar’s ideas: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, emancipatory action, truth, and the pursuit of happiness. Art as propaganda, a word that is art blasphemy, has always been an important part of any revolutionary movement. But if we consider the importance of propagating an idea, that is, the transmission of information and fact, then art as propaganda is a radical act today.

The artists from Turn Up the Turnout are part of the legacy of political art, of the propagation of ideas. They are, through their art, asking people to engage in the urgent and important act of voting. If voting is a reflection of freedom, these artists and other art activists like them, are bearing witness to this momentous time.

Megan Arney Johnston is an independent curator, museum specialist, and educator who utilizes socially engaged curatorial practices centered on fundamental questions about art and its display and mediation. Arney Johnston is a noted specialist in social engagement, having coined the phrase “slow curating” in 2011. She will be receiving her PhD in Museology and Curatorial Practice from the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland in 2020. Curatorial appointments include institutions in Europe and the United States, where she has produced more than 330 exhibitions over her 25-year career. She has written dozens of exhibition catalog essays and articles for academic journals in addition to presenting on social practice and radical museology at numerous international conferences. Her latest curatorial project is “Freedom, Independence & Citizenship: The History of Voting Rights in Minnesota” at the Washington County Historic Courthouse in Stillwater, MN. For more information, please see

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