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ArtReview Oct. 2003

Democratic vistas

 

Contrary to popular belief, the spirit of political participation is still alive and well in America. Diane A Mullin rediscovers it in Paul Shambroom's photographs of local government meetings

 

We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions: for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated.

 

Pericles,Jrom Thucydides, after 490BC

 

The idea of democracy emerged in the city-state of Athens more than 2,000 years ago. The modern manifestation of that idea - mass democracy on the national scale - came into being as a result of the violent and revolutionary merging of Enlightenment ideals and political practice in the 18th century. Today, this modern democracy of the nation-state is in flux. Some commentators argue that contemporary democracy has, in fact, reached a crisis point. One key democratic fundamental in particular - representation - seems increasingly embattled as a concept, evidenced especially by the waning of individual participation due to both apathy and a distrust of government itself.

As Pericles notes of Athenian democracy, the individual is obligated to debate and determine the political reality of his people. Two millennia later, Lincoln would also define the nation state by personal participation and obligation. With the current crisis of representation and participation in mind, photographer Paul Shambroom visually investigates the actual workings of these fundamental democratic tenets in contemporary America. Shambroom's photographic images of local governmental meetings are glimpses of the less spectacular but perhaps more authentic workings of democracy. Each image is a documentation, analytic study, and making sacred of the everyday practice of democracy in the United States.

Sham broom's "Meetings" series consists of the photographs, related documentation of meeting minutes, and a computer terminal where viewers can access the artist's database of governmental meetings occurring on the day searched. Using this database, Sham broom looks for clusters of municipal meetings in small towns across the United States. After contacting chairs as a courtesy, he travels to the area and photographs individual proceedings. While there, he requests that minutes be sent to him, which he later displays with the images. As with much of his other work, Shambroom gives us a glimpse of the largely unseen machinery that quietly but persistently determines the way we live. In this series, the invisibility is particularly interesting, in that although each meeting is not the mass spectacle of the national election type, it is in fact public in the truest sense of the word. Each gathering is meant not as a secret tribunal or exercise of authoritarian power, but rather as a call for participation and debate: Pericles's "proper discussion", or Lincoln's government for, by, and of the people. Each meeting Shambroom documents is an example of democracy in practice.

Throughout the history of Western representation, images of power and its practice abound. In the West, large-scale oil paintings were most commonly enlisted as the purveyors of state ideals. Subjects of import, such as portraits of heads of state, religious imagery and history painting were most properly represented in this format. The great 19th-century painters of historical subjects Ingres in France, West in England, and Leutze in the United States - all presented their subjects on a grand scale and in theatrical settings and poses. For the "Meetings" photographs, Shambroom digitizes the images and prints them on large sheets of canvas. Because of this process, the finished works resemble paintings. In addition, as in the tradition of Western painting, Shambroom's photographs emphasize the inherent theatrical~ty of the events. According to Sham broom himself, the photographs reference painting as a token of respect for the people, the practice, and the very idea of democracy. While neither aggrandizing nor mocking the political event or its participants, Shambroom's images capture the workings of democracy in all its theatrical, yet mundane, detail.

Although representations of democratic ideals abound in the history of modern Western painting, the medium most closely tied to the idea of democracy is photography. The association of the medium with the idea stems from photography's history, technology, and subject matter. Photography was born and grew up with modern democracy. First invented in the 1820s in England and France, the new medium quickly became the vehicle for a modern representation of the emerging democratic states and their newly powerful middle classes. Once the purview of monarchs and aristocrats, the pictorial representation of the self became possible for the European and American middle classes in the 19th century because of the new technology of photography.

This alliance between political and pictorial representation came to its strongest fruition in the United States, where it found powerful supporters, including the poet Walt Whitman. According to Whitman, there was no better place for a grand, democratic cultural revolution to occur than in "these United States". Whitman even made the claim that "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem". In that statement, Whitman affirms the power of self–representation on the levels of politics and culture.

Each individual in Whitman's republic is a maker of reality for himself and all others. In her essay America Seen Through Photographs, Darkly, Susan Sontag argues that it was photographers who most earnestly and lastingly took up Whitman's call for a cultural revolution in which reality would demystify art and other artificial and non-democratic constructs. American photographers such as Matthew Brady, Edward Weston and Walker Evans immersed themselves in this demystification by capturing and elevating everyday American reality in their photographs of such subjects as soldiers, circus performers, street signs and subway passengers. This levelling, Sontag notes, was meant in Whitman's estimation to be the elevation of everyday life. The strategy of lifting up the mundane for the most-high purpose of "singing oneself", and thereby writing the nation's "greatest poem", can be seen as analogous to the very idea of democratic political participation. Sham broom's emphasis on the heroic and the mundane makes his "Meetings" series an example of such Whitman-esque celebration.

In Shambroom's pictures, the simple, actual event is revealed as a marvellous and beautiful enactment of

the highest democratic ideals of equality, dialogue and representation. They are pictures not just of rituals, but of the real-life practice of self and community empowerment.