Art, Politics and Soul in New York

vicky-ward-election-night.jpgIf you weren’t in Times Square tonight, the only place to be was downtown in the West Village at Gavin Brown’s gallery for an installation by Jonathon Horowitz called Obama ’08.

Hundreds of artists, including Piotr Uklanski and Elizabeth Peyton along with collector Peter Brant, model Jessica Joffe and one of the Olsen twins crammed into a room surrounded by portraits of former Presidents lined up in chronological sequence. In the middle of the room hung two screens back to back; one showed Fox; the other showed CNN. CNN viewers sat on a blue carpet; Fox viewers on a red carpet.

We all kept hopping from one to another. During the early part of the evening, a cheer would go up as CNN showed a projection, meanwhile Fox speculated not reality, but a hypothetical scenario that no one understood. We laughed at the incongruity of the whole thing.

But also we were laughing because finally the dream was coming true. Even at the end we had to pinch ourselves. “Every day someone would stick a McCain sticker on the gallery door,” Horowitz told me. In the heart of the west village in New York, a liberal heartland, this felt like an ill omen.

When Obama’s victory was formally declared Horowitz mounted Obamas’s portrait on the wall next to George Bush’s – some ugly facts even artists cannot alter – and the red, white and blue balloons tied above both screens came down. It was time finally to breathe – and then scream.

It was the end of a day that had begun at 5am; I had been too anxious to sleep properly; Around 10 am I went to get my hair cut – and in the salon all any one could talk about – both clients and clientele – did you vote and did you vote today the right way?

Well, yes, America did.

Even Republicans of my acquaintance admitted this evening to me that once in that booth they changed sides for the first time in their lives. They couldn’t in good conscience do anything else.

And that’s the point. Conscience. Barack Obama may be dismissed by cynics as some sort of religious cult figure, but the unsappy truth is that Obama appealed to the good in all of us. And “good” is not an adjective we should be afraid of.

As I’ve said before, much of this race has felt like its been conducted in the noisy din of television shoutfests where there was no room for intelligent reflection. Obama was never a part of that. He has been calm, cool, inclusive of all of us.

He has asked us to be people we hoped we might be but wondered if we really could. Other countries – my own particularly – have found what ultimately boils down to a crisis of faith in ourselves difficult to believe. No one I spoke to in Britain today thought Obama would win with the wide margin he has. That’s because they don’t understand how demoralized, downtrodden and undignified we’ve felt here in America. They haven’t lived it.

Finally, today we had a chance to be the best we can be. And this does not mean we want to trample on other countries or show off wealth – it means we want to feel like valued contributors to Planet Earth again.

Obama’s victory has never been about race, it’s been about soul.

And that is why ever since I heard Obama talk in January in a dialect that was utterly different from anything we’d ever heard in the conventional political vocabulary I knew that he’d win. I’ve said it all along – and I’m proud to be proven right – not because it says anything about me – but because of what it says about all of us.

That we are, in the end, good people. And now we have a leader who believes in our potential. V

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