The Last Refuge...?

Unconditional love of country can be blinding. But artists find ways to express patriotism with eyes wide open.

There's a familiar set of ideas about what it means to love your country that have become the accepted norm. What being a patriot is supposed to look and sound like is deeply embedded in our culture, but what if there are patriots to be found outside the bounds of the standard narrative? Among the rebels, the activists, the artists?

Michael D'Antuono: It's a great country, but it's not perfect, and I want it to be great for everybody, not just a few.

Nina Chanel Abney: Artists get a little bit of more wiggle room, a free pass to be rebellious. It's okay for an artist to do that more so than someone else.

Nina Berman: I just want to help people to understand why things happen in the first place maybe as opposed to just accepting them.

Art is so, in fact, uniquely positioned for this task says Rogers Smith, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rogers Smith: People who are competing to hold political office often are too focused on their immediate objectives to have the kind of broader vision of an alternate future than can help inspire broad support and also provide guidance for what to achieve, so often they need the artists, the creators. Shelley said that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind because they offered a vision of what humanity could be that the more pragmatic, political types might eventually draw on and implement.

Michael D'Antuono: They're very honest, my paintings, and they challenge the morality of the status quo, so by shining a light on our problems that's the only way to fix them, and that's what I try to do. A lot of people consider me a iconoclast and an evil kind of guy, un-American, which is to me ironic.

AJC: Because you have the best interest of our country at heart? Really?

Michael D'Antuono: Absolutely. I don't hate America, I love America. What I don't like, and what I have a problem with are those who want to monopolize all the freedoms and opportunities that America gives.

But, what about what America takes? From 2003 to 2004, photojournalist Nina Berman focused her lens on the plight of young veterans, wounded in war and struggling to find a fresh start.

Nina Berman: Many soldiers that I met believed in the war effort, and I don't hold that against them. I never tried to convince them otherwise, I didn't do the project because I wanted to show look at these idiots, they bought some lie. It was nothing like that. They were all very complicated human beings, and I wanted to understand now that their war was over or whatever they imagined their life was gonna be, then what?

With her series Marine Wedding and Purple Hearts Nina Berman was one of the first to shine a spotlight on the traumas suffered by servicemen and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nina Berman: I think especially as a journalist what we're supposed to do is hold power accountable. That's one of the things that's really our mission, and photographically we have to do that in a way that uncovers things that are not seen or shows things that need to be seen in another way, in a way that makes an impression, that conveys an emotion, that creates compassion, or understanding, or revelation.

These were also among the goals of painter, Nina Chanel Abney in her 2015 series, Always A Winner.

Nina Chanel Abney: For that show, it was actually the most direct I've ever been with any of the work I've made just because I mean, you can't really obscure that. It is what it is, so I purposely want to be I guess more in your face about it instead of abstracting what was going on. It was no way to hide it, so I wanted to make the paintings very large and extremely confrontational.

AJC: How can it translate into change?

Nina Chanel Abney: I think if it can spark a conversation even just change an individual's perception that's how I feel like I could make a change, by using my work to get the viewer to feel compelled to do something.

AJC: It sounds like you're talking about duty, that there's almost an artist is almost duty bound to not sit there. They need to be the first people who get to say it because they have the most articulate voices a lot of the time.

Nina Chanel Abney: Well yeah, I feel like if you're not doing that I could just be in my studio making work for myself and never show anyone, but if you're going to put it out there for the public I feel like well, what are you doing it for?

Still, when change seems so elusive many artists do ask themselves why they do what they do. Michael D'Antuono believes that the change artists can bring about is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Michael D'Antuono: The struggle between the haves and the have nots have been going on since time began, and one painting or one movie isn't gonna do it. It's a constant battle. It's been from the beginning of time, and it's gonna keep on going, but there are forces, powerful forces working the other way, so art is a way where you can get a message across, and it gets into people's minds, and it will make a difference.

Rogers Smith: It as a recurrent feature particularly in American experience that people seeing themselves as patriots have criticized their government even rebelled against their government because they thought it wasn't living up to its true ideals, and that tradition that it can be a patriotic act to engage in civil disobedience, to go outside the law to bring the country to its higher ideals is a very deeply rooted American tradition ever since.

AJC: One man's traitor is another man's freedom fighter.

Rogers Smith: Absolutely. 

Nina Berman: You should care about the place you're living in and whether you want to identify yourself as an American or someone who lives in New York City, whatever it is, then you should care about the place you're living in and understand the history and understand the forces that are maybe keeping you down or keeping your friend down. That to me is, I think, a purposeful life. 

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