The overwhelming popularity of our new president has generated a fervor for politics that this country hasn’t seen since the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the 60s. But while November 4 was an unprecedented democratic leap toward racial equality, another slice of the population was left awkwardly disenfranchised. Following Obama’s election, Proposition 8 (Prop 8 ) quietly passed in California. The entire proposed addition to the California Constitution is just 14 words: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
Legal experts and media talking heads are spinning over the new law, as no one can definitively outline yet what its legal implications will be. The constitutional change could retroactively annul the 18,000 same-sex marriages granted in California since the state approved the right for gays to marry in April of 2008. Others suggest that Prop 8 might be overturned because it’s an unconstitutional restriction of established legal rights.
Since it passed, local and national protests are organizing grass-roots style over the Internet, using organizational tactics comparable to the Obama campaign’s in terms of new media. Media pundits regularly credit one of the greatest strengths of the Obama campaign as the use of new media and the internet to engage and inspire American youth. In addition to his groundbreaking campaign funding, the viral spread of user-identified media information through Facebook, YouTube and similar new media outlets proved an extremely powerful —and free—campaign tool.
On November 9, approximately 500 protesters gathered in front of the Renaissance Hotel in Chicago to denounce Focus on the Family host James Dobson’s induction into the Radio Hall of Fame. Dobson had poured an incredible amount of money and the vast resources of his media empire toward the promotion of Prop 8, and is credited as a crucial figure in its passing. Only a week later, on November 15, a virally promoted national protest against Prop 8 in Chicago’s Federal Plaza drew a crowd of an estimated two to five thousand, organized on the web by Join the Impact (jointheimpact.wetpaint.com) and Chicago’s Gay Liberation Network (gayliberation.net). A million people around the country simultaneously protested in their cities.
This time in history is a critical opportunity for artists exploring issues of social awareness and participation to execute large-scale projects and performance pieces to a receptive audience. Singer Melissa Etheridge has already unwittingly spurred a tax-evasion movement after posting her reaction to Prop 8 on her blog: “Okay, so I am taking [Propostion 8] to mean I do not have to pay my state taxes because I am not a full citizen,” Etheridge writes. “I mean that would just be wrong, to make someone pay taxes and not give them the same rights, sounds sort of like that taxation without representation thing from the history books.” In response to Etheridge’s comment, blog posts, Facebook groups and forum threads suggesting organized tax-evasion as the key to winning various political battles have appeared across the Internet, and several speakers at the Chicago protest referenced the idea.
Artists would be wise to ride the coattails of the current social movements and experiment with their work to help shape that future in the arts. Shepard Fairey has already reached international fame with his Obama “Hope” print, but just think of what could happen with experimentation in less traditional media. The social climate and recent technological advancements have created a critical opportunity to establish what it means to be a media-savvy creative member of Generation Y by defining the new avant garde. What of a national performance piece addressing genocide in Darfur? Or a viral new media piece addressing immigration reform? A creative artistic spin with Web 2.0 resources piggybacking on issues of national attention could drive an entirely new artistic genre, while simultaneously creating progressive dialogue for the most critical contemporary social issues.