Milwaukee Artists Politically Apathetic?

A Curator’s Complaint by Peter Goldberg

Last Sunday, newpapers throughout the nation carried front page articles that the USA Patriot Act was being used to more broadly than the Bush administration had assured the nation and Congress it would be. Rather than targetting terrorism, it was being used in criminal investigations, an area in which time-tested standards had long protected countervailing privacy and liberty interests. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been barnstorming the nation to defend it and promote new changes proposed in Patriot II, although always behind closed door so as not to have to confront the press or the public. Members of Congress, both right and left, have expressed dismay at the shell game played by the Administration and the threats to citizens’ privacy and liberty. Cities all over America, though not Milwaukee, have passed ordinances refusing to cooperate with the federal authorities implementing the Act. Although something and someone must have driven Ashcroft behind closed doors, it certainly isn’t Milwaukee’s artist community who profess to warrant attention for their expressive talents. The Dossier Project was conceived to explore the implications of the developing security state and surveillance society for our democracy and to alert Milwaukeeans to this brave, new world. Although we have had submissions from various parts of the nation, the response from Milwaukee’s artistic community has been lackluster to dismal. I am disturbed at this for two reasons which I think are worthy of the Milwaukee artists’ consideration. First, I believe that even if political art is not an artist’s forte, there are times that the artistic community should be concerned as citizens rather than isolated artists and put forth an effort. These various governmental enactments and actions are aimed at thought and expression, the essence of the artistic vocation. We should not ignore the fact that artists have been targeted by prior governments, for example the McCarthy era blacklists and the Nixon enemy lists. That the Administration is using the act against other than purported terrorist conduct should be foreboding of the type of future abuses which could again reach disapproved art. Second, I believe that it would be in the arts community’s self-interest as artists to participate in this exhibition. The Journal-Sentinel recently ran a rather equivocal discussion of a conceptual art show during the last gallery night. The article noted how the art scene had blossomed after the opening of the Calatrava addition to the Art Museum, but now seemed to be on the wane again. This exhibition entails a topical subject accessible to a broader public than may ordinarily frequent the galleries and shows. It, furthermore, will be accompanied by other programming related to the security issues on the eve of the Wisconsin presidential primary when the issue will be hot in Milwaukee. This then is a chance to demonstrate that the arts community here can be a vital part of the intellectual scene in Milwaukee and frankly a chance to strut your stuff to different constituencies. I believe that visual artists often have the capacity to communicate ideas more powerfully and effectively than the print media. I also believe with that gift goes a responsibility. Nor is political art a small subset of the range of expressions not worthy of most artists: witness the Guernica by Picasso, who was so moved by the impending political storms of his time to paint perhaps the most iconic artwork of the last century. The Dossier Project is an opportunity for Milwaukee’s artists to join an important societal issue which affects them as citizens and artists. So please consider joining us in the Dossier Project. Information can be found at We are still accepting proposals by mail or e-mail.