ONLY IN Times Square would a larger-than-life billboard ticking off the cost of the Iraq war ($135 billion and counting) appear above an even larger billboard proclaiming "Baby Phat defines diva," which seems to be selling running shoes, since that is the only thing the model is wearing. Commerce, art, and politics have collided even more fiercely than usual this week in New York City. Artists in particular have mobilized to greet the Republican National Convention with an exhilarating, and ostensibly nonpartisan, celebration of free expression.
The creative ferment is palpable. Artists from every conceivable medium are painting, singing, filming, and acting out their feelings about the state of American politics. Not since 1968 has so much overt political content animated the pubic realm. The New York Public Library is holding daily discussions on the US Constitution. The Experimental Party Disinformation Center, set up in a gallery off Fifth Avenue just steps from Tiffany's, shows darkly juxtaposed video clips of President Bush and John Kerry and urges visitors to "forsake this meanacing world by participating in a great political awakening that promises unfettered creativity."
Polemical plays such as "Guantanamo,' Sophocles's "Electra," a black comedy called "Voting for Godot,'' and Tony Kushner's latest, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy" -- also about threats to American democracy -- are probably not packing in as many Republican delegates as "Beauty and the Beast." Same with Spike Lee's film about black disenfranchisement in Florida in 2000, titled, succinctly: "We Was Robbed." There are community poems written on sidewalks and a human Monopoly game being played in Washington Square Park.
Not far from Madison Square Garden, "The War Room" covers all four walls of a small gallery space with black-and-white images of soldiers, witnesses, and victims. Painted by William T. Ayton, it recalls Picasso's Guernica, which Ayton says became his inspiration after a reproduction of the giant antiwar mural at the United Nations was covered up for a speech by Colin Powell last year. "It is an homage to Guernica, and to artistic freedom during wartime especially, and to the power of art to move us politically," said Diana Ayton-Shenker, the exhibit's curator and the artist's wife. A former human rights activist, Ayton-Shenker said, "I'm drawn to the power of art to move people, to go beyond dry rhetoric to the emotional level, which is where I believe real change happens."
There are no guarantees, of course, that being moved will translate into being motivated -- whether to vote or take other political action. But if the torrent of artistic expression this week is any indication, apathy has been blasted off the stage.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.