Fellow 2012-13

Terri Weissman

Art History

This is What Democracy Looks Like: Freedom, Action and Revolutionary Dreams

The current way in which people experience politics with their eyes – especially through mass communication technologies like the television, computer, or smart phone – is typically overlooked in studies of democracy and theories of spectatorship, and in debates on public policy. During her Center appointment, Professor Weissman will continue her book-length examination of this area, This is What Democracy Looks Like: Freedom, Action and Revolutionary Dreams. She plans to complete the manuscript in 2013.

Broadly, Professor Weissman considers how certain seminal political events materialize into something that redefines what it means to be seen in public space and also potentially creates an empowered form of looking, an activated and politicized spectator, a citizen-spectator. She suggests that the link between live action and representation can serve as an essential ingredient in an event’s formation, establishing a necessary connection that becomes a model for future political expression.

The book’s chapters are structured around particular events (e.g., Earth Day,1990; the Battle in Seattle, 1999; May Day/A Day Without Immigrants, 2006; Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally, 2010) that share three characteristics. First, they all constituted moments when emergent political participants exercised a form of political power that in some way exceeded their own expectations of what might transpire at the event. Second, they corresponded to clear moments when individuals began to recognize themselves as visual objects to be seen by others, and when that being-seen-ness was deliberately exploited to communicate a critique of society and generate a new kind of political participant. Third, they generated an unusual amount of art production designed to function in a “high art” space such as a gallery or museum rather than in a popular one such as a news feed or blog.

The study of how individuals visually express their political selves – in moments of both mass discontent and mass jubilation – has relevance to art historians and cultural critics as well as political theorists. Ultimately, Professor Weissman suggests, the visual representation of political events by artists, participants, and even the mass media creates new political participants who are capable of transformative collective action.