“The people have the power, To redeem the work of fools, Upon the meek the graces shower, It’s decreed the people rule.” The anthem, “People Have the Power,” written in 1988 by Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith, has been sung around the world in hope, defiance, protest and support by choirs, on streets, and by Patti Smith at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now Smith recites it to accompany a video in which hands composed of the word “vote” flash and float across the screen.
They are among many hands reaching out from contemporary artists and arts organizations on planyourvote.org. Dozens of museums and more than sixty visual artists from all over the country have donated time, creativity and their artworks. Some are world famous, some may be a bit less so, but all are ardent in supporting the organization devoted to making sure that everyone who wants to vote can do so.
Art has long played an important role in politics. Names and faces gaze down from hieroglyphs. Roman rulers are immortalized in stone. In modern times, it’s not unusual for political messages to take the form of images on buttons, banners, posters and bumper stickers. What is unusual is for those images to be created by some of the most renowned and respected artists of the day.
Julie Mehretu is a contemporary painter who creates layered, energetic abstractions she’s referred to as “story maps of no location.” She’s the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant as well as a U.S. Medal of the Arts, and she’s among Time Magazine’s 2020 “100 Most Influential People.” The Whitney, The Met, and MoMA all own works by Mehretu. Now, I do too. It’s a small, square composition with enigmatic markings suspended above dusk-hued background, similar to pieces in her recent solo show at LACMA. I downloaded it for free and printed it.
Mehretu’s work, like all of the artist’s images, includes the text “planyourvote.org” to direct viewers to the website that contains links and information about registering to vote, finding polling places, requesting absentee ballots, and more. Planyourvote.org is a non-partisan public library of voting advocacy artworks, made available to all. In fact, the more, the better, they state. “Help connect and mobilize our communities by sharing widely with friends and family so everyone has a voting strategy and is vote ready,” the organization says, adding “Now, more than ever, it’s urgent to plan your vote.”
The works are available with just a click, and once you’ve got them, you can print, post, tweet, tweak, or transfer them to a tee shirt or coffee mug. It’s up to you what you want to do with the art. What the artists and organizations want is to get the word out and encourage and enable citizens to exercise their right to vote.
Jenny Holzer’s conceptual art delivers ideas through words. Her messages, often taken from other sources, have been carved in stone, emblazoned on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome, and recently projected onto Rockefeller Center. For this project she created a text that seems to roll endlessly forward, proclaiming “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” The Guerrilla Girls, Sanford Biggers, Laurie Simmons, Robert Longo, Calida Rawles, Robert Wilson, Wangechi Mutu, and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. are some of the artists who’ve contributed work; more are being added as the project continues.
With paintings, photographs, sculptures and drawings, portraits, poetry, video, music, and text, just about every form of art is included in an effort to make sure every voice is heard. In a divisive, difficult time, these artists have come together to make sure the people can also come together and choose. It’s all about democracy. In the final image of Patti Smith’s video, at the center, are the words “Vote. It’s in our hands.”