At dusk on a clear Saturday evening in West Hartford, Connecticut, Matthew Warshauer’s Halloween display lights up his front lawn unlike traditional outdoor holiday decor. Smiling jack-o-lanterns are nowhere to be found, and there is not a ghost or ghoul in sight. Cars slow to snap a picture. People walk by, stop, their mouths gape at his unusual, but powerful eight-foot display reminding the community of two 2020 horrors: police violence against people of color and the coronavirus.
A row of eight different panels lines Warshauer’s front lawn on North Main Street. One panel honorably showcases photos of victims who have suffered from police brutality, while another illustrates old runaway slave advertisements from local Connecticut newspapers. Empty Corona Extra and Premiere bottles protrude out of orange painted Styrofoam balls to represent the molecules of a virus that people are either afraid of or think is a hoax. Cobwebs, skulls, skeletons, and tombstones wrap around the whole display, reminding us just how scary the subjects are.
For nearly twenty years, Warshauer has been putting up political Halloween displays. Some of his past exhibits include: “The Trump Wall”, “Vietnam”, and “The Death of Democracy.” This year he wanted to bring attention to the black lives that were lost to police violence, and the story behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Warshauer, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, shines a spotlight on American history. “Notice, [the display] doesn’t actually say Black Lives Matter anywhere on it. It’s the origin of the story, it’s all the history and that’s what I do. The ‘am I not a man and a brother’ symbol is arguably the oldest abolitionist and the oldest Black Lives Matter symbol in the history of the world,” Warshauer explains from under the brim of his gray baseball cap.
“As a country, we have to wonder if increasing the use of art for social justice will create a greater investment in the Black community.
Public political art gets noticed. “The Halloween display rises above the white noise. I’ve gotten more attention than anything I’ve ever done academically.” Warshauer’s political Halloween display communicates to a wide audience. This year alone, his installation has been covered locally by NBC Connecticut, nationally by CNN, and even globally by Polish News UK London, just to name a few outlets.
Of course, there are those who do not prescribe to Warshauer’s politics. Almost every year he receives criticism or hate mail. One year, Warshauer got an email with the subject heading, “why pollute a fun festive holiday…with ugly negative politics?” This year’s display got him called a “narrow-minded individual.” Warshauer does not let his critics get to him. He looks at the negative opinions for the “ignorant sense of humor” that they are, and instead takes a lot of pride in how the displays have positively affected the community.
Political satire and artistic representation of history and politics have a long history. Why would anyone want to complicate art with politics? The answer is simple—to communicate a wider message. In our nation’s history, art has been used to bridge the cultural and political worlds. From the famous “I Want You” Uncle Sam poster produced in 1917 to recruit men for World War I, to the powerful “We Can Do It” poster created to persuade women of the 1940s to take wartime jobs. Art has the ability to connect people in a way that speeches and reportage most often do not have; communicating politics through art reaches a wide platform of people. Political art gets people to focus on “hot button” topics and motivates them to be more involved. Throughout the country, different forms of art are being created to communicate and advocate for political issues.
Mike Alewitz, professor emeritus of art at Central Connecticut State University, has produced an enormous amount of political works of art including, but not limited to, murals, posters, and banners all around the world. Alewitz has been involved in social activism for years, advocating for women’s rights, the working class and labor unions, and the equality for black lives in America. One of his most influential works of art, “Unity for Justice–Justice for Unity,” is a banner that depicts the same political, social, and cultural issue that Warshauer is illustrating, that black lives must be recognized. This banner was created back in 1991 after a black man, Shaun “Unity” Potts, was a victim to police brutality. Remarkably enough, the banner was torn down from an art exhibit in New Brunswick, New Jersey at Rutgers University, to be used as part of a protest. After the wrongful murder, about 125 people marched up to City Hall with the banner leading the way to demand justice.
“I tried to use art and cultural initiatives in a very political way to intervene into different social struggles,” Alewitz explains over the phone. Alewitz’s activism is not only meant to be seen, but it is meant to be understood. “It’s a deliberate use of art. I don’t just make general [pieces] against racism or war. I really try to use it in a very direct and specific kind of way.” Much like Warshauer, Alewtiz feels his art is reaching more people and helping to make a difference.
Public art has been a powerful tool for BLM activists. A mural spelling out “Black Lives Matter” was painted in Hartford, Connecticut back in July, located near the site of the state’s capitol building. The asphalt of Trinity street is covered in different pictures, phrases, and symbols that support the Black community. The location of the mural symbolizes its greater meaning; change needs to be made and in Connecticut this is where it should happen. The inspiration for this mural came from a similar installation painted just a month before in Washington, DC, on the street that leads to the White House. “There are people who are craving to be heard and to be seen and to have their humanity recognized,” explained the mayor of Washington, DC, Muriel Bowser, in a press conference. This form of art provides “the opportunity to send that message loud and clear.” Viewed from the sky, these murals are magnificent works of art. Up close, they are manifestos that scream unity.
Following the protests for racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, communities all over the country produced political art to support the BLM movement. Some focus on specific tragedies and demand justice for the victims of police violence. In Richmond, Virginia, Breonna Taylor’s photo is now projected across the Robert E. Lee statue along with the letters “BLM” at the top and the names of other victims of police violence at the bottom. “The transformation of that [statue], to me, felt like exactly what [political] art is,” Catherine Opie, professor of art at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times. Political art has proven that it works to its effect; it stands out and speaks volumes.
It is heartbreaking that not much has changed in the twenty-nine years since Alewitz’s Shaun “Unity” Potts banner was used to raise awareness about police violence. Warshauer and artists all across the country are creating art for social change. As a country, we have to wonder if increasing the use of art for social justice will create a greater investment in the Black community. 2020 seems to have been a watershed year for the movement. Activists hope it leads to real change in the future.
First Photo Credit: Matthew Warshauer
Amanda Fahy is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine