Getting Political at Perlman

By Julia Johnston ’22

Latest exhibit at the Perlman Teaching Museum examines political engagement beyond the ballot box.Latest exhibit at the Perlman Teaching Museum examines political engagement beyond the ballot box. Photo: Jack Johnson ’21

During the vitriolic, hotly contested election season, participants in art history professor Ross Elfline’s “Art and Democracy” class worked with the Perlman Teaching Museum’s new director, Sara Cluggish, to create an exhibit that examines political engagement beyond the ballot box.

The premise of the course, Elfline says, is that “in our neoliberal age, democratic activity is on the wane, but aesthetic and activist practices are seeking to activate a renewed sense of what it means to live in common.”

To help students understand the various ways that art can prompt and even embody social change, Elfline divided his class into three groups: one was charged with producing original posters; one was put in charge of promotion; and another was asked to arrange (or curate) the exhibit, using Elfline’s syllabus as an organizational “spinal cord.”

To complement the students’ creative output, Cluggish sought out work from outside artists that reflects on “democratic action, the conflictual nature of the public sphere, utopian visions of a future democracy, and activism as art.” Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE, for example, features an inflatable shelter for homeless people, modeled after those the artist distributed to some 30 people looking for shelter in Boston and New York City. Love Podium, by Chicago-based artist Dan Peterman, is a participatory work in which two speakers are invited to face one another like Lincoln-Douglas debaters and read ideologically opposed texts.

“Creating exhibitions is so enjoyable to me because there are many different people who are responsible for building them and facilitating all the tiny decisions that are made along the way,” Cluggish says. “I love working with huge groups of people to crystalize a project toward its end point.”

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