Academic journal article The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online)

This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Art and the Wisconsin Uprising

Academic journal article The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online)

This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Art and the Wisconsin Uprising

Article excerpt

Art is indeed a weapon, and an especially powerful one in the midst of a peaceful movement. (Julie Gueraseva, 2012)

In February of 2011, an enormous popular political movement came to life in Wisconsin in response to a bill called "Act 10," which used a trumped up budget crisis to gut unions and strip funding from public schools. It was miraculous; the people (many of whom had previously seemed indifferent to political engagement, being preoccupied with the Green Bay Packers and Friday night fish fries) got up off their couches and barstools and took to the streets - in huge numbers, side by side. For many people who were engaged in the month-long occupation of the Capitol in Madison, the Wisconsin Uprising was their first foray into direct political action. For the artists who are the focus of this article, however, taking part in the Wisconsin Uprising seemed like a natural outgrowth of the many years of socially engaged artmaking done collectively and individually. It was like watching a small spark, carefully tended, burst into a wildfire.

Jesse Graves, Nicolas Lampert, Colin Matthes, Barbara Miner, and the Overpass Light Brigade (founded by Lane Hall and Lisa Moline) are all Milwaukee-based artists who make work that deals with a wide range of social justice issues including the environment, prison reform, the politics of schooling, racism, and poverty. Each has been engaged in social activism and art in diverse ways over the course of their careers. In this article, I offer a brief overview of the Wisconsin Uprising, from my perspective as a participant, followed by a discussion of the contributions of the artists involved in the protests in the context of their larger bodies of work. I close with an argument about why art matters in social justice movements and why art teachers have an obligation to include activist art in their curricula.

The Wisconsin Uprising: A Brief History

The Wisconsin Uprising was sparked by the introduction of "Act 10," also known as the "Budget Repair Bill." The budget in the state was actually in much better shape than it was in many others at the time, but newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker was out to make a name for himself and to pay back his wealthy political patrons by stripping unions of power and paving the way for more privatization of schools among other things (Miner, 2013). Walker coupled his announcement of Act 10 with news that he had put the National Guard on alert in the event that there were strikes or other forms of unrest. It was a grandstanding, politically self-promoting risk taken by a politician with national aspirations. Although he threatened his constituents with military force, Walker did not actually expect trouble. Act 10, which was supposedly created to address a fiscal crisis in a state that had no real crisis, was expected to smoothly pass through an assembly and senate that were both controlled by Republicans. No one counted on the peaceful, powerful energy created in the ensuing weeks.

At first we were stunned. Act 10 made clear Walker's goals to attack public schools and dismantle public worker unions. This was obviously aimed at ramping up the Right's long- range assault on the Commons, while annihilating the support unions have traditionally lent to Democrats in the state and across the country. The bill grew out of model legislation drawn up by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has been behind so much corporation friendly, anti-worker, and anti-democratic legislation in this country from publicly funding an increasingly privatized prison industry with so-called "Three Strikes" laws, to the "Stand Your Ground" laws that have recently been highlighted in the tragic yet predictable murder of Trayvon Martin.1

Wisconsin's union-busting bill was one of sixteen such bills introduced across the country, but Walker was the first to pull the trigger (Jerving, 2011). According to Miner:

Walker's first assault involved unprecedented legislation that eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers in Wisconsin- ironically, the first state to allow collective bargaining by public sector unions. …

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