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the artist-
voter diary 

by Larry Litt

Outside again, the fear and self-doubt of art hit me hard. Why am I doing this voter registration drive? Do I believe in the American electoral system? Do I love these candidates? Do I really believe in democracy? Or am I another art world networker willing to endure both the weather and humiliation for a shot at, at...what? How could I go back to the table in front of Ron Feldman's gallery now that I'd been rejected by him for the Campaign '96 exhibition? "You haven't been rejected," the incredibly wise and mature inner guide whispered into my puzzled mind, "it's just that your art work wasn't right for this show. Be positive or you'll lose it right here on the street." "But I am my artwork," I answered with my own wisdom and sincerity," it comes out of my mind and hands like a child out of the womb. If anything, that's who I am." "Then you better change your mind or you'll ruin it thinking about all the rejection you have yet to face. Galleries ain't maternity wards," she whispered back at me with a bit of a hiss. "You're right, I guess. But I feel it anyhow," I whimpered. "Forget it. You need a double espresso. That always perks you up," she advised sagely. So I closed the table and stashed it in the truck. I walked over to Space Untitled espresso bar, the Seoul food cafe on Greene Street. I bought a double and sat down at a wall table to think. Unable to focus on the future, I looked around at the other tables. I spotted a woman at the next table furiously drawing images from an open New York Times. Being a naturally curious person I leaned over to get a better peek. I was amazed. She was recreating portraits of campaigning politicians pictured in the papers. I pondered a conversation with her, but decided I'd had enough rejection for one day. Suddenly she turned and noticed me. She had a worried look, as if she wasn't doing her best work, I thought. "They look pretty good to me," I ventured an opening gambit. "Yes, of course they're good, but I still can't decide." "What can't you decide? Maybe I can help," I said. "I can't decide who to vote for. You just can't trust anything about politics anymore. The only thing I trust is myself. So I draw the candidates and whichever gives me the better image, the better feeling, the right flow, that's who I vote for." "That's a very personal decision." "That's the only kind I can make. I don't want to vote for someone who's going to disappoint me again. So I vote based on my own interpretations, through my drawings." "Do you always draw the winner?" "I can't tell you that. I'm sworn to secrecy." "What? Why not?" "Because my shrink said that pollsters would follow me around to discover who I voted for, so I shouldn't tell anyone the results of the drawings. Instead I sell them to magazines as illustrations. That's my business." "So you're really an illustrator?" "No, I'm a psychic visionary who has to make a living as an illustrator," she said. "Hmmm. Well, thanks for letting me see your work. I still say they're very good." "Goodness doesn't count with me, it's all feeling. I want to know what the candidates are really like, who they really are. It's the only way." I sat down to finish my now-cold espresso. Sitting next to me, I thought, is someone who has found a way, her personal way, to make decisions, to see through all the hype and spin. I have to do the same. But what do I really want to know, what would help me make the big choice? How do other people do it? For instance, how does Ron Feldman's Campaign '96 know which candidates are for the arts and freedom of expression? I reached in my pocket and pulled out a quarter. I went to the telephone next to the restrooms. I got Feldman's number from information and dialed. A female voice answered, "Ronald Feldman Fine Art." "This is an artist who wants to know how Mr. Feldman decides which candidates to give money to. I'm in a phone booth so I need the answer right away. Is that possible?" "Just a minute. I'll transfer you." In a matter of seconds I was talking to another female voice. "Can I help you?" I repeated my question. "We call candidates and ask them." "That's all?" "There's no other way. Except if they're incumbents, then there's their voting record. It's a public record, anyone can get it." "You mean I can just call and ask if they support the arts?" "Is there anything else I can do for you?" she asked in that ready to hang up tone. "No," I said meekly, "I have to get some more quarters. Thanks for the information." "Anytime." "Great. By the way, who am I talking to?" "Anyone who answers will refer you to the right person. Good-bye." Click and she was gone. Now the pieces were coming together. All I have to do is call the candidates, ask them their position on the arts, and if they give me a positive answer I'll give them one of my "Artists Are Voters, Too" paintings. Fortunately I had a copy of the League of Women Voters government directory for just such emergencies. Who's my congressman? What's his number? How should I phrase the question? I dialed the number of the congressman's district office. "Congressman N____'s office. Can I help you?" "Yes. I'm a voter in his district and I'd like to ask him a question." "About what." "About his position on the arts." "Please call his Advisor for Culture and the Arts at 212-___-____." "But I want to ask him personally." "Then send a letter, fax or e-mail and we'll send you a reply as soon as possible. Thank you." "But I want to give him something." "Please include that in the letter, fax or e-mail. Thank you." I could tell she wanted to get off the phone as soon as possible. "I will. Thank you." "Will that be all? Have I answered your question?" "Yes." "Then thank you. I have three calls on hold. Good-bye." "Yes. Good-bye." Click. I dial the cultural advisor's number. "This is the voice that goes with the number you've dialed. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Make sure it's complete with time, date, your name, phone, fax and e-mail numbers. Thank you. Oh, and wait for the beep, sometimes it's a long one." I waited a mini-eternity meditating on the need to memorize one's own communicating numbers for all occasions. After the beep I told the machine what it wanted to know. Suddenly the voice that goes with the machine spoke. "I'm sorry, but I have to screen all my calls. I'm in the arts too. I'm an actress. There are people out there trying to do horrible things to me. I have a stalker who saw me on a soap last year. He's been calling me ever since. Says he needs a nurse just like me to help him recover from his divorce and prevent his suicide. I keep telling him I'm an actress, not a nurse. I'm just very convincing." "25 cents more for three minutes," a mechanical voice said. I dropped another quarter in. "Anyway, I'm also Congressman N_____'s cultural advisor. Can I help you?" "I want to know what the Congressman has done for the arts." "Everything. He's the leading figure in arts causes. He's for funding the NEA and NEH. He's the head of the campaigns for intellectual freedom and copyright revision. He the main fighter against censorship," she ended on an upbeat note, "is that enough information for you to vote for him?" "It seems to be. But is there a contest? Is the other candidate against all the things the congressman is for?" "You'll have to find that out for yourself. I have no information on the opposition." "By the way, I'd like to give the congressman a small painting as a gift for his support," I said. "Is it a campaign contribution?" she asked. "If it is it has to be reported." "No, it's a reminder that artist are voters, too." "Does it come with a campaign contribution?" "I hadn't thought about that," I said. "If it doesn't have a campaign contribution you can give it to him after the election. Before the election we have to put a price on it and report it to the auditors. How much is it worth?" "Well, " I hmmmed, "If you bought it in a gallery I'd say $1,000." "Then it has to be donated by a PAC. Are you a PAC?" "No, I'm an artist trying to discover who to vote for." "Well. Vote for the congressman and give him the art afterwards," she said. "Saves everybody a lot of trouble." "Thanks for the advice. Good-bye." "And tell your friends what the congressman has done for the arts. He's the right man to vote for. Good-bye." How could the opposition be any better than that? Still, I had to know before I made up my mind, that's the American way. Question is, who's the opposition? I was out of quarters. The galleries and shops were closing. I left the espresso bar and went to my studio. At the downstairs landing I opened the mailbox. A bunch of stuff fell into my hands. I looked at my watch: six p.m. In the studio I stared at my little painting's boxes and checks. I fantasized them in the offices of powerful decision- makers. Influencing decisions in the Oval Office. In the Smithsonian's National Gallery. No, anything but that. The Hirshhorn, that's better. In the mail: openings, bills, museum calendars and an envelope that said OFFICIAL SURVEY ENCLOSED. I always like a survey, especially if they give you a few bucks for answering questions about which television shows you watch. Damned or damned lucky, I thought. It was from the Christian Voter Mobilization Campaign. The first paragraph said "I have reason to believe that you are a Christian who deeply cares about the future." Major error over there at Computers for Christianity. In the same envelope was a Christian Coalition of New York "State & Federal Legislative Scorecard." The candidates were rated on how they voted on specific issues, everything from abortion to balancing the budget, promoting homosexuality and drugs in schools, pornography on the Internet, welfare, outcome-based education (whatever that is), etc. The candidates were rated from 100 to 0. I looked for Congressman N_______ on this list. He scored 0. He hadn't voted even once with the Christian Coalition. I looked up Senator D'_________, he scored 73. Senator M________ scored, you guessed it: 0! I smacked my head with my palm. I got it! 0 means opposition. This survey is a message from whomever it is that creates paradoxes and loves to laugh at bizarre human politics. Could it be...? Of course! This voter guide should be read like a golf scorecard, ironically the official Republican game. Rules say the lower the score the better the player. After the senators and congresspeople, all New York's senators and assemblypeople were rated the same way on state issues. This was better than I ever could have expected. Real advice right from the source. Now get this! On the back cover of this scorecard they ask in huge type: Q. How do I know who to vote for in this year's elections? Guess what? If you want a free copy of this neat and easy to read contradiction, the Christian Coalition will send you their 1996 Voter Guide free, free, free. Don't let them talk you into a donation. Tell them you're a starving artist. Tell them you tithed your last penny to the church of the immaculate deception. Tell them you have to pay your online server or you'll be using the mails again. Besides, they have more money than god, donated by the televangelists themselves. The number for the Artist-Voter "reverse" voter's guide and scorecard (or the Christian Coalition's guide to whom not to vote for) is 1-800-705-4709. Write it down now if you can't figure out how to download this story. And when you call, tell them the Artist-Voter Diary from ArtNet sent you... Be sure to go to the Second Annual Election Vigil Party at Thread Waxing Space, 476 Broadway, 2nd floor, New York, N.Y. 10013, on Nov.5, 1996, from 8:30 p.m. until the election returns are in. Featuring refreshments, drinks, music and voter registration ! Sponsored by the Artist-Voter Project, Eleanor Heartney and Larry Litt, coordinates; ArtNet Worldwide; and Thread Waxing Space. For more info call (212) 966-9774. Larry Litt is a New York-based arts activist, writer and performer.