Art is often a social catalyst. Dictators have long known this — nearly every regime of recent memory has begun by repressing artists. Stalin held Shostakovich’s family hostage; China imprisoned Ai Weiwei; the Taliban stones poets. Art is powerful because it’s designed to cause an emotional reaction. And thus, when artists take a stand, they have immense social power. A new exhibit in the Helen E. Copeland Gallery on campus is designed to not only take action, but make its viewers take action as well. The exhibit opened on Sept. 26 and is called “Right to Decide.”
“Right to Decide” is a series of posters by international artists. The MSU showing is powered by Posters Without Borders, a recurring exhibition focused on social and political issues. Posters Without Borders was started by designers Eric Boelts, Antonio Castro H. and Erin Wright after a conference in Mexico City. Each artist was also an activist, and together they decided to form an exhibit about social issues. The original exhibit was about immigration; “Right to Decide” focuses on voting rights.
The exhibit’s opening featured a lineup of impressive speakers. The evening began with an introduction by Vaughan Judge, the director of the School of Art. Judge discussed the power of art as a catalyst, and the basic human desire: happiness. President Waded Cruzado took the floor next. She turned the topic from art to politics — discussing the power of voting, she called to mind the goal of public education. Linda McCullough, Montana’s Secretary of State, also spoke. Like Cruzado, she urged students to get out and vote. Amara Reese-Hansell, a field fellow from Forward Montana and organizer Eric Boelts rounded out the opening speeches. Addressing the power of voting, Boelts said, “Think about what is happening in your world, and how you can change that.”
That inspiring sentiment was echoed in the posters. There were over 25 countries represented with posters from 62 artists, and the countries ranged from Bosnia to Iran to Zimbabwe to Thailand. Viewers can see diverse attitudes reflected in the works. Many were hopeful, with messages about the power of decision; one design was a just cloudy hand with one finger stretched upward. Others were angry protests on corruption, such as a brand-sponsored congressman, or a chopped-off thumb with the words, “Who Votes Doesn’t Decide Anything: Who Counts the Votes Decides Everything.” And many others were calls to action — one bore the phrase, “Let Tyranny Reign: Don’t Vote.” Every one, though, carried a passionate and honest message.
Overall, the exhibit is somewhat bewildering. Impassioned messages are thrown at the viewer, and each one is radically different than its fellows. With the approaching election, this is more true than ever for our society. In the opening remarks, Boelts showed historic propaganda posters, and reminded the viewers of the raw effectiveness of art and design. And yet, despite all the seemingly contradictory messages, viewing the exhibit makes one thing clear. Votes are powerful, and free elections are necessary to freedom.
The medium of posters makes for powerful expressions — the stark designs are compelling and immediate, and to see world attitudes reflected in a selection of art is a unique experience. From Middle Eastern protest to American apathy, all the problems of elections are laid bare. Likewise, the graphic nature of the posters forces the mind to interpret — this, in turn, leads to important questions. Are our elections fair and equal? Are our votes mattering? Am I working toward a better world? For art to cause such questions is powerful. The “Right to Decide” exhibit is not only fantastic design displayed — it is a call to action, and a statement to every person who sees it.