The traditional definition of civic engagement is voter turnout. The traditional messaging about civic engagement is that it is a responsibility, duty, or even punishment (judges issue community service as punishment). The traditional image of civic engagement is that of angry activists picketing. The traditional model of civic engagement is that it is best left for not-for-profits.
I say, let’s break from tradition. Instead, I suggest that we view civic engagement as art.
And that’s how my Open Government Tour was framed. It may have been a 20,000 km motorcycle tour to introduce Open Government & Data, but it was art all the way. For example, I didn’t have a sponsor, I had a patron who commissioned me to create art. This patron gave me complete creative license and would only act as an enabler. This patron did not concern itself with “approvals” or “drafts,” instead they gave me the freedom to create unabated. This patron was Make Web Not War, an open source project by Microsoft Canada.
The tour also generated its own art, thanks to Jodi LeBlanc, the #OGT14 Charlottetown City Champion. Mandalas (which are used to focus the mind during a presentation) were introduced into the tour’s DNA and organically became the unofficial logo for the tour. And now I’ve created a video that attempts to use the mandala as a symbol for being open – a rant that can be found on YouTube called “We Are Open People.”
I should note that “civic engagement as art” isn’t a novel suggestion. One of Seth Godin’s driving principles is based on that very premise. But I was first introduced to this concept through a PBS documentary called The Medici: The Godfathers of the Renaissance. What the documentary shows is that just about every single nuance of the Renaissance was in some way influenced by the Medici family of Florence.
For example, Michaelangelo was raised by the Medici family. Galileo was the Medici children’s tutor. Machiavelli wrote The Prince to impress the Medici family. Martin Luther revolted against Pope Leo X, a Medici Pope, and triggered the Protestant Reformation. There’s very little about the Renaissance that the Medici family didn’t somehow touch or have influence over.
And that was because the Medici’s were avid patrons, including Botticelli, da Vinci, and Brunelleschi. They believed patronage was a better way of conveying a message. It showed benevolence and an appreciation for life and all things beautiful. This was public relations at its finest, or as it was known then, propaganda.
The Medici ruled Florence and accumulated power but as the adage goes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And much like another adage, “what goes up, must come down,” the Medici were eventually exiled from their own city.
The story from the documentary that I find particularly fascinating is how Michaelangelo’s David came to be. A giant marble block stood 35 years in a cathedral workshop waiting for a sculptor daring enough to take on its demanding challenge. Michaelangelo took that challenge, and after three years of gruelling work, his David was born. The original intention was for the sculpture to be placed on the roof of the cathedral. However, this is not what happened. James S. Saslow of the City University of New York explains why:
“Once the authorities had a look at Michaelangelo’s work, all agreed that this was such a monumental step forward that it would be a shame to place the sculpture atop the cathedral because nobody would ever see it. What they decided was that it ought to be placed outside the Town Hall. But context determines meaning. On a religious building it would’ve been be primarily understood as David the Prophet. In front of a public, governmental building, it became a symbol of the city itself.”
What Michaelangelo created was more than just a statue. “It is this amazing piece of Republican art that shows Florence slaying the Medici. That’s what David is all about,” says Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary, University of London.
Art is more than art. It holds transformative powers that can be exercised by anyone to convey a message. Only time will tell if I have been successful, but I certainly hope others also attempt to create civic engagement as art.