Fermynwoods Friday 34 – Art, Culture + Democracy

Art, Culture + Democracy was a 2017 Free Exchange discussion that took place in Thrapston, shortly after the 45th US presidential inauguration. This week’s Fermynwoods Friday post sees an American citizen and audience member reflect on the event and on the fragility of democracy.

Americans often feel we have a special relationship with freedom. We threw off the shackles of a foreign power and fought bravely for our freedom, sacrificing it all, even our lives, for the sake of that lofty ideal – or so the story goes. Inspired by the success we attribute to our own sacrifices – and conveniently ignoring other, less flattering factors – we have long aspired to bring that same Freedom Without Strings to other beleaguered nations … with admittedly varying success.

In Art, Culture + Democracy, artists Jessica Harby and Anna Brownsted, plus Fath Davis Ruffins [Curator at National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC] joining online, saw the discussion returned to St. James Church, Thrapston, the ancestral home of the Washington family, who shaped the formation of the new state and led its defense against a now foreign power. All three hailing from the United States, they brought refreshingly cosmopolitan yet reassuringly American perspectives on Democracy, Culture, and Art. Democracy, we were reminded, lends its participants great power through popular mandate, yet requires profound vulnerability – much like the art that brought us together. Democracy is subject to the vicissitudes of passion, thrown about by evolving values and the dictatorship of whim. In the center, we the governed called upon to cast our vote and share each other’s fate. It is easily corrupted, often misused, giving voice to the voiceless and power to the helpless and bringing meaning to our lives. Art, like democracy, gives a richness and depth to our experience and allows us the indulgence of meaning.

These contradictory effects were felt by none so keenly as the artists themselves. Democracy places individuals willingly in the hands of the public; Jessica’s referendum on statehood and citizenship placed her at the mercy of voters, whom she allowed to decide her future in the UK. Freedom allows individuals to pursue their own goals through their own means; Anna had made her own choice but was nevertheless at the mercy of a democracy to comply with her wishes. Democracy evens the field and gives all an equal voice; Fath herself was subject to the bloody and divisive battle for civil rights in the ostensibly United States in the 1960s and 1970s and subsequently became a scholar of its impact on American history and culture.

The discussion, echoing in halls familiar to Americans’ dearest founder, shared unique insight into the chaotic struggle for democracy and reminded viewers on both sides of the Atlantic of the delicate, intimate, fragile relationship we all have with democracy, freedom, and the art which gives them life.

Jacob Lombard

Art, Culture + Democracy - Washington Coat of Arms
Image: Washington Coat of Arms, St. James Church, Thrapston

Look out for more Fermynwoods Friday posts each week looking back on some of our favourite projects over the past 20 years of Fermynwoods Contemporary Art. For more on the artistic and ancestral connection between Thrapston and Washington please see Fermynwoods Friday #32, I Bring my Body to This Place, to Observe the Coming and Going of Life.