Lawrence City Commission elections are right around the corner and candidates have been pulling out all the stops to appeal to voters. This includes using all sorts of media from internet ads to yard signs and mass mailings, with one even appropriating a famous French painting to bolster their message.
For as long as there have been politics, politicians have understood and used the power of art and music to influence voters. These days it seems like every presidential candidate has a well-known and carefully chosen pop song playing at their events - just think of Bill Clinton and Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow).” And with visual art, Barack Obama got a real boost from Shepherd Fairey’s hugely popular “Hope” poster (although Fairey ran into copyright issues for the photo he based his poster on). Most candidates know not to use an artist’s work without their permission, some are uninformed, and a few figure they can get away with a little appropriation here and there and not get caught.
One of the best examples of this was Ronald Reagan’s co-opting of the Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the USA” during his 1984 campaign for president. Reagan not only didn’t have the musician’s permission, he didn’t understand the song’s meaning, which he took to be a patriotic cheer even though the lyrics clearly express the struggles of Vietnam veterans returning home to a broken system. More recently, Florida Senate candidate, Charlie Crist was sued for appropriating the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” and eventually had to make a public apology.
Even when artworks or songs can be licensed, most institutions and individual artists specifically prohibit the use of their work in political campaigns. The reason is clear - associating a work of art with a particular candidate or political platform implies that the artist or institution supports them.
This is why I was surprised last week to find in my mailbox a campaign postcard that appeared to be in clear violation of those prohibitions. On the front of the card is a reproduction of Georges Seurat’s beloved 1884 painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” Superimposed over the bottom of the image is the word ARTS, while a banner runs along the top of the card that reads “March 3 – Vote for Bob Schumm.” Turning the card over, the campaign message deals exclusively with Mr. Schumm’s support for the East 9th Street corridor project, but nowhere on the card is credit given to Seurat or the Art Institute of Chicago which owns the work.
It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the juxtaposition of Seurat’s painting with Schumm’s campaign message represents the candidate’s vision for the future of East 9th Street.
Setting aside the issues of licensing and copyright (which probably are applicable in this case), I’ve been considering what else this campaign ad is communicating to voters. Looking again at Seurat’s painting and then thinking about the neighborhood of East Lawrence, I wondered if this bucolic fantasy is really what proponents of the East 9th Street project envision, and if so, what that means for those of us who live and work there now.
In Seurat’s painting, Parisians (all of them white) lounge along a riverbank. Women hold parasols, men wear top hats, one couple has a pet monkey on a leash. They are still and apparently silent but for one trumpet player - playing the tune to “Road to Nowhere” perhaps? This may be an accurate representation of 1884 France, but East 9th Street in 2015? It’s an unusual choice. With so many great artists in Lawrence (let alone Kansas), it begs the question - why Mr. Schumm chose to appropriate this famous painting instead of using the work of a local artist for his campaign postcard.