Searching for Democracy: An Act of Civil Obedience

by Beth Grossman

in National Conference

Post image for Searching for Democracy: <i>An Act of Civil Obedience</i>

(Beth Grossman scribing at the New York Stock Exchange, © Beth Grossman 2013. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

I set up my easel at a public park bench and start scribing the United States Constitution with a quill pen on discarded moneybags. An American flag wraps my easel. I wear a three cornered revolutionary hat, Ben Franklin glasses and a vest. These props are my initial point of entry to engage pedestrians in Searching for Democracy: An Act of Civil Obedience, my current creative advocacy project. My intent is to encourage Americans to appreciate the rights we enjoy, consider our civic responsibilities and become thoughtful, active citizens.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the documents that unite all Americans. Democracy means “rule of the people,” yet the word itself does not appear in the Constitution. I am asking the public to help explore this incongruity with me while I scribe the United States Constitution with a quill pen on money bags from failed banks. With this public gesture, I call attention to the impact of financial interests on contemporary Constitutional interpretation. This is my personal “Act of Civil Obedience” and exercise of my First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

Three questions burn in my mind: Since we live in an economically stratified society, what does it mean to be governed by the “rule of the people?” What would it take for people to actively question the meaning of their inalienable rights and hold their government responsible for living up to them? And, how can I make a difference?

As a social practice artist for more than 25 years, I have designed situations for people to come together, listen, think and inspire action using a wide array of artistic genres to establish a relationship with the public and inspire social change. My first step involves encouraging civic engagement so concerned people will actively take responsibility to solve community and global issues by working together.

we the people

(Searching for Democracy, scribing with a quill pen, © Beth Grossman 2013)

As an artist, I am interested in iconic texts and often use typography and calligraphy as both visual and symbolic elements. I view the quill pen as a symbol of the revolution. Studying calligraphy as an artistic practice helps me contextualize this document in the historical times of the Framers. Printed broadsides of the Constitution were carried by couriers and posted in town squares, where colonists gathered to debate ideas that would become the foundation of this great nation.

While I could easily scribe the entire Constitution alone in my studio, it would not bring people together nor show the rich diversity of perspectives. Participants are involved on many levels even when they are just walking by or they can become engaged in conversation, interpretation and action. As I silently scribe, I am open to listen and respond and intentionally avoid forcing things to happen in our interactions. By framing this as an art project, I can bring people into the creative fold, involve them in my exploration and invite them to contribute their voices.

“Are you selling something?” pedestrians often pause to ask. “No, I am trying to make sure our democracy doesn’t get sold out.”

write your story with teens

(Beth Grossman with teen participants, who wrote what they cherished about the Constitution on printed tow-dollar bills.  Palm Springs, CA, © Beth Grossman 2013.)

Or they might question, “Did you really write that calligraphy with that feather pen?”  “Yes, I use the same writing tool used by our Founding Fathers.”

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the enormity of our government and struggle to find a point of entry to make our voices heard. I invite people to  pause to consider key questions, such as what is freedom? What are my personal responsibilities as an American Citizen? What would we like to see as the next Constitutional Amendment?

This is where artist-activists can creatively advocate for social change.

To build a common foundation, I initially pose a personal question. In Searching for Democracy, I asked: “What do you cherish about our Constitution?” The word cherish represents my sincere love of country separate from any political party affiliation.  It neither reveals my point of view nor puts anyone on the defensive. My intent is to open a space for people to think creatively, not to create political artwork that is dogmatic or rhetorical.

To document and continue our interactions, I ask participants to write a personal story about what they cherish in our Constitution on a printed two-dollar bill with a quill pen and sign it. I chose the two-dollar bill as an artistic icon because it is rich with symbolism, superstitions and connotations. There is often a pause as they consider how they want to represent themselves for my collection of stories.

write your story

(Beth Grossman asks participants to write personal stories about why they cherish the U.S. Constitution. Temecula, CA, © Beth Grossman 2013.)

What people cherish in the Constitution can vary widely by region and circumstance. A white woman from Concord, Massachusetts wrote, “Freedom of religion is important since America became a refuge for persecuted peoples.” In San Francisco, California, a white woman shared: “I like to say what I want to say when I want to say it.” One African American man who lost his young nephew to gun crossfire in Temecula, California stated, “The right to bear arms is my most cherished right.” While another African-American man from Temecula wrote, “Dissent is at the heart of American life. The freedom to discuss the affairs of our state freely is my most cherished right.

In Los Angeles, a naturalized citizen who was originally from India emphatically stated:  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” She confided in tears that in the middle of the night her father and brother were taken away by police and art still missing. The rest of the family escaped and later came to the United States. Another immigrant told me emotionally, “No American has ever asked me why I came to this country.” I also learned that some people carry a small copy of the Constitution in their pocket, purse or brief case, which inspired wonderful conversations.

The interactions are rarely predictable. While scribing at the New York Stock Exchange, a Haitian immigrant woman shared:  “I am an artist too!” and immediately began to sing,  “We can do it. Together we can do it.” Then a Wall Street stockbroker started yelling: “What do you know about the Constitution? You think you are an expert?!!!” I reassured myself that I wanted to meet people who challenged me and finally found an opening to ask: “What do you cherish about the Constitution?” He stopped his tirade as he realized that I wanted him to share his story. The Haitian woman and I listened intently to his daily difficulties working in finance. Eventually, he turned to the Haitian woman and asked about her business. She has a small house cleaning business, sends money home to Haiti to support her family and has many questions about banking. In the end the stock broker wrote on his two dollar bill, “I value Freedom of Speech because: 1. We grow as we exchange ideas. 2. We learn as we exchange ideas. 3. We have fun as we exchange ideas. 4. We interact with people when we exchange ideas. As a result, it is possible that we improve.”

This is exactly what this project was meant to do — connect people from diverse backgrounds to find common grounds around the Constitution.

money constitution

(The Preamble, Searching for Democracy. Ink on money bag, © Beth Grossman 2013)

I continue to search for democracy all around our great country and find it everywhere I go. I am motivated by the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

My art is about engaging people in conversations that have the potential to inspire further action. This process is reciprocal. I listen and learn from my participants in unexpected ways. Flexibility and improvisation help me discover new paths to encourage involvement in our dynamic democracy.

My project, Searching for Democracy, interrupts people in the course of their day and asks them to think, connect and participate. It has an effect on passersby, whether they participate or not. My creative advocacy project produces ripples of change.

Learning through explorations with others is one of the benefits of advocating creatively. I want to leave space for surprises to happen. There is no standard definition for what advocating creatively will look like or become. It is a process that can be difficult to quantify and produce data that funders may request.

Eventually, there will be a completed series of scribed money bags to exhibit. These art objects now represent hours of dialogue and stories. I intend to symbolically fill the money bags with the rich stories of participants. To reach a wider audience and elicit other forms of participation, I am also creating solo performances and writing about this work in catalogues, such as this. A longer version of this essay will be published in Advocating Creatively, edited by Natalie Millman at Columbia University’s School of Social Work.

beth with bags

(Photo: Beth Grossman scribing the Constitution on money bags from failed banks with a quill pen as a public street performance.  Temecula, California, © Beth Grossman 2013)

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Sharilyn Geistfeld, Suvan Geer and Sandra Mueller for our conversations and assistance with editing. I appreciate the Puffin Foundation for believing in my projects and providing important seed money.


Beth GrossmanBeth Grossman uses art and participatory performance as a creative force to stimulate conversation and focus attention on the environment, interpretation of history and civic engagement – all aimed at raising awareness, building community and encouraging public participation. Based in San Francisco, she has collaborated internationally with individuals, communities, corporations, non-profits and museums.  www.bethgrossman.com