Anthony Papa: Art and Social Change

Unlocking the Power of Art to Counter Injustice

Anthony Papa via Counterpunch

The artist’s role as social commentator and activist has historically been engrained in our culture. Art and its creation as a response to social and political issues can become powerfully influential in raising public awareness that results in positive change.

Art as a social weapon has been around for a long time. Recall the great German expressionist painter Kathe Kollwitz, who created works of art that centered on themes such as poverty, unemployment and worker exploitation. Diego Rivera and the other Mexican muralists used their art as a tool for the oppressed against their oppressors. They expressed their opinions and got their message across to the literate and illiterate alike, and earned worldwide recognition. In April 1937, the world learned the shocking truth about the Nazi Luftwaffe’s bombing of Guernica, Spain – a civilian target; Pablo Picasso responded with his great anti-war painting, Guernica.

Few public policies have undermined fundamental human rights and civil liberties, social justice and public health for so long and to such an extent as America’s 35-year-long drug war. Today almost two and a half million people are behind bars because of this “war.” In 1988 while serving a 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, I discovered my talent as an artist. One night while sitting in my 6 x 9 cell I picked up a mirror and saw the face of individual that was to spend the most productive years of his life in a cage. I picked up a paintbrush, put color to canvas and painted the image I saw. About seven years later that piece, titled “15 to Life,” was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Two years later I was granted executive clemency by the governor of New York.On Wednesday, September 3rd, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) will host re:FORM (details at www.drugpolicyevent.org ) an art auction and cocktail party benefit at Cheim & Read gallery in New York. re:FORM will benefit DPA, the nation’s leading organization promoting alternatives to the drug war that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. re:FORM represents the second installment in a groundbreaking partnership between the art world and the drug policy reform movement, following DPA’s first successful event in 2005. DPA will use the occasion to honor three dear friends of the organization: Donald Baechler, Dr. Mathilde Krim and Fred Tomaselli.

Proceeds from the art exhibit and auction will benefit DPA and be used to respond to the destructive consequences of the war on drugs. The U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate in the world — one American adult out of every 100 is currently behind bars.

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