The Importance of Art in Political Organizing
The arts are a fundamental part of a healthy, socially-just and sustainable community. Art can inspire, shock, heal and express emotion. It engages the senses and stimulates the mind. When art is seen as a core element of encouraging social action, its power moves from a source aesthetic appreciation to a strong political tool. Here are some suggestions for using the arts with your Democracy Matters work and some resources for further exploration.
What’s the goal?
The goal of using art is to symbolically express feelings, ideas and opinions, factual detail and depth are not crucial to the final product. You may not be able to paint a mural that details Fair Elections’ policy nuances, but you CAN paint a mural expressing a lack of equality in American Democracy.
How? (I can barely draw a stick figure)
If you aren’t artistically inclined, work with others that are. Build coalitions with the choir, the drama department, the photography club, etc. COOPERATE!
Why? Why? Why?
Everybody learns and understands information differently. While someone may be inspired to action when a canvasser comes to their door, some are inspired by song, some by a painting. You can reach a wider audience by incorporating the arts. Historically, political art has at times been censored to prevent collective citizen action—this means IT IS effective!
What to do?
Here are some event/campaign ideas.
Sock Puppet Shows
This is a great low-budget way to get your message out to a captive audience.
1) Work together with your group or others (drama, improv group, etc.) to write a few short and simple stories emphasizing just a couple points (i.e. corporate wealth influence is preventing good environmental policy).
2) Determine who are the “characters” of your stories.
3) Write a script for the story. (Use humor. Puppets like to be funny!)
4) Make a sock puppet for each character. Note: Keep things simple with your puppets. Very basic props/ “costumes” WILL suffice.
5) Practice and play with your puppets. Create a motion for the emotions/attitudes of your puppets. For example, if one puppet is representing a powerful special interest group, you can make this puppet look bigger/taller and imposing to emphasize their power.
6) Create your stage. (A decorated bottomless cardboard box could work fine).
7) Create any backdrops/scenery if you feel you need them. Keep it simple! Use images people will recognize. (For example the White House will easily represent a place of political power for people).
8) Practice! You will feel more confident with practice.
9) Choose your performance place and time. Spontaneous performances can draw some of the best audiences. Suggestion: Set-up in a high traffic area. Have one person call in an audience (much like the ringmaster of a circus—“come one, come all and see the famous Democracy Matters puppeteers present their masterpiece”).
10) Perform away AND have fun!
This activity can be a fun way to creatively advocate. The advocate creates a visual image to send to elected officials with a note asking them to support your cause. This is best done as an event, much like a poster-making party. This would be a great way to advocate for the Fair Elections Now Act.
1) Have your group members collect old magazines and other publications you don’t mind cutting up.
2) Give everyone an index card (or two or three!)
3) Provide a pre-written message typed-up on small pieces of paper for anyone feeling postcard message shy.
4) Have addresses of the targeted elected officials prepared.
5) Provide paste, scissors and tape.
6) Have participants decorate one side of their index-card and paste the message (or they can write their own) and address on the other side—just like a regular postcard.
7) Collect all of the postcards and mail!
Suggestion: Provide light refreshments, music. This can be a nice social way to engage your group members and others from your schools’ communities. Encourage broad participation!
Dramatizing the issue of money and politics is a great way to get people to pay attention. Put on a short skit. You don’t have to be professional actors to dress up as Fat Cat Billionaires (with funny names like Iona Senator or Hal E. Burton), Lobbyists, Politicians on the take, or Students and Homeless people trying to influence legislation (lower tuition; build low-income housing etc). Have fun – write your own skit!
EXAMPLE 1: POLITICAL AUCTION SCRIPT (change it to make it yours!)
AUCTIONEER: Ladies and gentlemen! Attention please! We will now be auctioning off the hot item of the evening! AMERICAN DEMOCRACY!!
Please welcome our most anticipated items of the evening, Senator Robin D. Poore and Representative Meg A. Bucks!
The politicians enter from the audience shaking people's hands, introducing themselves, waving.
We'll be starting tonight's bidding at $1 million! $1 million!
Politicians look worried as they look in their pockets and find them empty.
MEG A. BUCKS: Hey, Dow Chemical! How about you give me $1.4 million dollars, and I will look the other way when you dump 27 tons of lethal gases from a union carbonide pesticide factory, resulting in high levels of mercury in the waterways?
DOW CHEMICAL: It's a deal! Here is $1.4 million!
Tosses a bundle of money to MEG A. BUCKS. There is a string attached to the money that runs from Dow Chemical's hand to the politicians.
Robin looks worried because she has no money
AUCTIONEER: And we also have Robin D. Poore! Do I hear 200 million?
WTO: I will give 200 million if he/she listens to me when I tell him/her to relax the clean air standards!
AUCTIONEER: THAT'S A DEAL!!
ROBIN D. POORE: Hey GE, how about you give me $100 million if I look the other way when you go over the emissions limit, or have chemical problems.
GE: Throw some military contracts in there and it's a deal!
ROBIN D. POORE: Military contracts, no problem, it's a deal!
GE tosses her a couple bundles of money with strings attached.
Bids while waving cash in the air:
AUCTIONEER: Hey corporations! WHAT DO YOU WANT? Let's hear some bids on these politicians! (Use examples from Exxon Mobile; Haliburton, etc. or other major corporations)
Democracy Matters Super Hero jump onto stage.(wear the DM banner like a cape!!)
SUPERHERO: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I am the Democracy Matters Super Hero, and I want Fully Financed Public Elections!
Superhero jumps in from off the stage and, like a tornado, pulls and knocks the strings out of the corporation's hands. (or can cut strings with a giant pair of scissors)
AUCTIONEER: Looking confused. What!? I don't want to give MY money to politicians.
SUPERHERO: But you pay for schools, firemen, roads? Why not invest in Democracy?? With only five dollars a year per person, we will have more politicians who care for OUR needs, not the needs of CORPORATIONS! We will have a government that cares about the things we care about, like the environment! We will have a more responsive government and fair playing field for everyone!
AUCIONEER: Wait, you mean I could run for office?
MEG A. BUCKS: And I could actually represent the interests of my constituents instead of these corporations?
People in the crowd stand up and say "And I could run for Mayor?" etc.
AUCTIONEER: FAIR AND CLEAN ELECTIONS SOLD to the People of the United States of America!
EVERYONE: Hey Hey! HO HO! Big Money has got to go! Hey Hey! HO HO! Big Money has got to go?
*for added appeal, Senators can wear "pins" and "buttons" with slogans that read FOR SALE
EXAMPLE 2: Improv Theater
Get one or more students to dress up as politicians in suits with fake money attached to the outside of their clothes (the more the better). In a high traffic area – ideal when you are also tabling. Each “politician” has a person with them with a DM button and/or sign saying “Fair Elections.” The politician approaches students asking for money (lots of it), but the DM person intervenes asking the student to sign a petition for Fair Elections (and explaining public financing) to keep politicians accountable to the people not the funders! (Thanks to Indiana University DM for this great idea!)
Here are some more artistic ideas! Check the Democracy Matters Website for more instructions and/or contact Megan at
Paper Mache Statues
Bed Sheet Banners
Crucial Elements for Success:
1) Keep it simple! You don’t need detailed or expensive materials to have a creative and effective work of art. Concentrate on and utilize the resources you have available. Be funny, outrageous, silly, provocative or all of the above! Video your performance and put it on YouTUBE!!
2) Be spontaneous! You don’t need to get permission to do a short performance in your dining hall or student center or to write and publish a zine. Surprises grab attention! While some projects (i.e. large installation paper mache art) might benefit from getting approval from the school, focus on what YOU CAN do and ACT.
3) Collaborate! Work with everyone in your group to see what your collective skills are and then reach out to the community. Don’t be afraid to approach other students or groups who have the skills you want. The more you work together and broaden your reach, the more people will hear your message.
Learn More: Resources to Explore
AH! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet
Art Threat http://artthreat.net
Social Justice Journal www.socialjusticejournal.org
Political Cartoons: www.politicalcartoons.com
Exit Art www.exitart.org
Shulman, R. (2000). The Power of Political Art: The 1930’s Literary Left Reconsidered. University of North Carolina Press, NC.
Shomari, Hashim A., (1995) From the Underground: Hip Hop Culture as an Agent of Change. N.Y. X-Factor Publications, Fanwood, N.J. & Mt. Vernon
Vanellen, M. (2004). Why All Art is Political. http://www.art-for-a-change.com/content/essays/political.htm
With the Bread & Puppet Theatre: An Interview with Peter Schumann. Helen Brown, Jane Seitz, Peter Schumann, Kelly Morris and Richard Schechner. TDR (1967-1968), Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter, 1968), pp. 62-73.