WITH THE DEMOCRATS in '72, the closed convention and the myth of the alienated artist have become things of the past: replacing the Madison Avenue slogan writers, today's American artists have come out swinging with some rhetoric of their own. "McGovern for McGovernment," was only one exhortation displayed in the lyrical posters of Alexander Calder (a prominent American artist currently living in France) at last week's sale and auction of contemporary art in Boston's Parker 470 Gallery.
This event marked the first significant translation of the artists traditional political concerts into actual presidential campaigning. Artists as a group have now been welcomed to the political arena with as much vigor as women's groups.
"By in large the people who organized and worked in the Committee for Art for McGovern '72 were women," said Portia Harcus, one of the four women others of Parker 470 who made their gallery available for the September 29-30 sale and the October 2 evening auction. This barnlike annex of Harcus-Krakow's Newbury St. gallery provided an understated backdrop for the raising of $80,000 towards electing the McGovern-Shriver ticket.
Serving as Honorary Chairwoman was Joan Kennedy, who headed the list of noteworthies including professors John Kenneth Galbraith. James S. Ackerman, Fogg Director Daniel S. Robbins, former Brandeis Rose Art Gallery Director William Seitz, former Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Perry Rathbone, Boston's First Lady Kathy White, art patron Elma Lewis, and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Some of these sponsors donated works to be sold in the auction, like an antique instrument given by former President of Radcliffe Mary Bunting, while others helped publicize the event. But the real organization job rested with chairwoman collector Nataile Klebenov.
FINDING THE WORKS of art from artists and collectors was only part of her job. "A lot of artists' financial situation isn't really good, but they've contributed more than that. It's really taking from a community who couldn't afford it." Portia Harcus said. [Most artists donated their works but some set minimum prices with the total sum received going to support McGovern. A few asked for partial reimbursement, but never more than one-third of the sale price.]
Professor H. Stuart Hughes, who held a similar auction at the Unitarian Church in Cambridge which raised money for his 1962 senatorial campaign, commented. "Artists are unusually generous. They give paintings that would sell for thousands of dollars, and they're out that much money. You don't find citizens of many kinds giving that way."
Works donated by collectors and by the artists themselves for the auction represented such artists as Joan Miro whose child-like graphic form went for $450. George Rickey whose kinetic sculpture of coiled wires sold for $1100, and Richard Anuskiewicz whose optical color patterns of acrylic on board brought $2350. Harvard's artists were represented by Toshi Katayama's silkscreen from the Kyoto Series selling for $175 and a color polaroid of toys and toothbrush by photographer Fred Brink.
Politics is not a new concern of the artist, yet the organizational form that this social concern is taking is as unique as the appearance of 18-year-olds at national conventions. Only in the last few years have art sales and auctions for political candidates become powerful instruments for encouraging voter participation in elections and fund raising. There has been no significant study made of such political art groups as yet; nevertheless, what such fresh groupings seem to point out is new and larger trends of sociological thought, participation, and interaction.
From an historical perspective, politically-concerned art groups are not a new phenomenon. The guild system, begun in Italy in 1286 in the Umbrian village of Perugia, resulted from the first pressures for social and professional organization. Civic rights were dependent on membership in these guilds by 1293, and the guild was like a father watching over the education of his son: the guild supervised the artist's religion, educational apprenticeships, contracts and relationships to patrons, and even had the power of punishment. By the 1400s artists like Brunelleschi in Florence asserted freedom against the guilds.
The fine artist found his place slowly among the other liberal arts, moving away from his previous position among the crafts. With the collapse of guilds as the liaison between society and the artist, commercial problems began to plague the artists as did an uninformed public who expected the artist to participate under the same constraints as any other citizen. The help of the specialized art dealer did not enter the scene until the 16th century, and to this day, the artist is a ill struggling to beat the economic system. Unlike the writer who is granted royalties for his efforts, there is no commercial bonus for the fine artist. Teaching has been one of his few outlets, but this vocation has left little time for artistic creation.
Still the artist's interest in his community has always been primary. In 1896 the famous Dreyfus case in France brought support from all the avant-garde artists of the time and caused Monet to sign a protest--the one overt political act of his life. George Orwell pointed out that when his works lacked political purpose they were lifeless. When great moral issues enter the world arena, artists react as a group as do other members of the community. In reaction to the Fascists in World War II, artists held shows of protest. The artist's subject matter has often changed in protest, and in contemporary society political awareness has been seen in exhibitions for peace. This awareness has also extended to projects like that to repair the damaged Italian flood areas, and now to national presidential campaigns.
"Peace mobilized artists more than any other issue, at least since World War II," H. Stuart Hughes said. The market for the arts has widened from the few Medici-rich-family commissions to the mass public, thus making possible fund raising in the form of auctions and sales. At a time when artists are regrouping to paint individual pictures, it seems reasonable to from groups to sell their works and support their beliefs.
It seems that McGovern's campaign approach has emphasized a recognition of new groups--or at of previously unrecognized groups. His awareness has extended not only to large groups or classes like the working class, but also to the smaller groups within these larger stratifications. Of course the measure of his tactics and socio-political awareness depends on the evidence he provides in November. Roger Sonnabend of the Committee for Art for McGovern '72 explained how one can measure the success of such an auction: "The most important measure is in November (the reason for this sale and auction). But also everybody should have a good time and a very exciting evening."
Another implication of the auction besides money was the strength of McGovern's interest in the arts through such programs as the National Endowment for the Arts. Andrew Hyde, present director of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Arts and commentator expert for the auction, said. Assuming this auction is successful, we can talk with reason about the power of supporting arts programs like the National Endowment. It is obvious and important that people here tonight are those who care about the arts in this context, especially those in New England who are concerned about support for the arts and about who is going to have an cat in supporting the arts.
Although Nixon has claimed to be a patron of the arts, figures for the amount given to the National Endowment for the Arts do not show significant increase. Hyde emphasized, "The National Endowment support is nowhere near where it should be. It should be $200 million, not $60 million. These are important demands."
Grants from the National Endowment favor the very practical. Support recently has been given to help artists put on shows and to provide funds for building museum collections. Harvard's Fogg Museum, for example, recently received a $10,000 grant to improve its photographic collection. Louis Cane, whom Hyde claims is the most serious McGovern fund raiser (especially in regard to the arts) in New England, said, "Europe gives far more to the arts, percentage-wise, than the U.S. Here it's pennies. McGovern's attitude toward the arts is one of great involvement and interest. The National Endowment is entirely approachable by institutions on the basis of merit. The good things that happen are because of the people in the Endowment. I feel very strongly that McGovern will appoint people who understand and do their jobs."
This art event was the biggest fund- raiser for the McGovern-Shriver ticket planned for Massachusetts.
Significantly, Boston is not the only city supporting the Democratic ticket by means of the arts. On September 21, the Sidney Janis Gallery together with the Pace Gallery in New York sponsored an art sale including a limited-edition portfolio of such pop artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Claus Oldenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. Such art-fund-raising sales will continue until the election--in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Milwaukee and L.A. Although that art-politic phenomenon is new for the 470 Gallery, cities like Los Angeles have sponsored promenades of the art galleries in order to elect congressmen. Individual galleries have been known to give time and space to other efforts including protest sales opposing propositions on unfair housing and nationwide activities in the arts opposing the war.
That these sales and auctions are a result of the liberal Democratic movement seems highly probable, although in September Nixon's supporters organized an art sale at the Republican Club of Massachusetts. Two out of the three artists were related to the late Christian A. Herter, past Massachusetts Governor and former U.S. Secretary of State. In other words the Republican tactic is not to encourage the artist's political involvement but to use the arts for political rhetoric. The Republicans have failed to see the potential of politicized artists' groups, but November will reveal the viability of any support for art groups