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Artwork Asks: 'Is Capitalism Working For You?'

This article is more than 11 years old.

If you're on Huntington Avenue Monday in front of the Massachusetts College of Art you might run into a big sign — nine-feet high — with illuminated letters that spell out: "Capitalism Works For Me - True/False."

Jamaica Plain artist Steve Lambert created it and wants you to cast your vote.

His vintage-style sign is part of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum's 2012 biennial, and now he's packing it up and displaying it around Boston in the days leading up to the income tax deadline. You could call it a "pop-up" pop art installation. I joined Lambert in his rental truck as he drove his sculpture over to Somerville this past Friday.

Climbing into the cab the 35-year-old artist turned the ignition key, smiled and asked, "So, do you know a good way to get to Davis Square?"

A Loaded Question

I did, and off we went. It was Lambert's first time transporting his enormous, red, white and blue sign to neighborhoods in the Boston area. It's been sitting outside the deCordova in Lincoln since January, greeting visitors and gathering "data." Last year he shared his provocative art piece with the people of Cleveland, Ohio.

"At first I thought I was going to get punched in the face."

Steve Lambert

"At first I thought I was going to get punched in the face," Lambert said with a little laugh. And he nodded that yes, he hoped it wouldn't happen in Davis Square, either.

It certainly helps that Lambert's loaded true/false question is delivered in a whimsical, intentionally disarming way. The sign's letters are a perky, fire truck red. They look like something you'd see in an amusement park, sports stadium — or maybe Las Vegas. Two scoreboards flank the piece's edges. They'll display the rising numbers for all to see. The voting station stands a few feet away. It's a metallic pedestal, about three feet high, with two big buttons that look like they're really fun to press.

"It's very simple and complicated at the same time," Lambert explained as we drove over the Charles River on the BU bridge. "Everyone wants there to be a third button — but there's just true and false."

Capitalism In The Spotlight

This forced "either/or" answer helps stir what is certainly a timely debate in this country, especially during tax season. The fact that it's an election year also aids Lambert's mission. He believes simply asking people to cast their vote draws them in because many of us want to be heard and counted.

He actually dreamed up the project last summer, just months before the Occupy movement took hold. The artist wanted to get people talking more openly about the ideals and realities that come with living in a capitalistic society — and it seems he was on to something in the zeitgeist.

"It's kind of amazing how things have changed in less then a year," he reflected, adding, "I wanted to do this because I thought this conversation was not really being had — and now it is."

Of course Lambert wants to keep it going. And he said it's been an interesting social experiment.

"There are a few categories of people," he described, "There are people who vote 'no' and just slam it down. Some people vote twice. I've seen guys with white hair and their polo shirt from their country club hit 'yes' and tell me, 'If you work hard in the country, it'll be fine.' Or you get people that vote 'yes' — and then apologize."

Lambert predicted a mixed bag of reactions for Davis Square.

We pulled up across from the Somerville Theater and were met by a team of installers. "We're four minutes early!" Lambert noted, clearly pleased. Time would be tight, he told me, and said he wanted the operation to work as smoothly as a pit crew at the Indianapolis 500.

It would take about an hour to gently unload and assemble the sculpture's pieces. Some time was spent deliberating how to position the sign beneath the morning sun. Bystanders observed the activity curiously — even warily — taking pictures with cameras and smartphones. Once every screw was tightened down, and the sculpture felt stable, Lambert connected some wires in the power box and was open for business.

Tallying The Votes

"So we're keeping score here about whether or not capitalism is working out for people in Davis Square," Lambert shouted out, kind of like a sideshow barker. His first voters were children — sisters Hannah and Sylvia Jenkins, ages 8 and 6. Their mother, 46-year-old Elizabeth Aureden, approached the podium and Lambert engaged the family.

"So, now you have to ask your mom, is she getting paid fairly?" the artist said. Aureden repeated the question back to herself, "Am I getting paid fairly? I sadly have to say I am getting paid fairly."

Then Lambert followed up with, "And you have health care?"

Again, Aureden restated his words, "Do I have health care? Yes, I have health care."

Lambert kept going, "And your retirement is set up?" "Yes," She replied.

"I work in retail, so if it wasn't for capitalism I wouldn't have a job — so for now it's probably true."

Eve Garrick

Then the artist asked the big question: "Is capitalism working for you?"

"I don't think it's working," Aureden said in answer, "but it's working for me. This is tricky — I think I'm going to click false," she finally decided.

Next up: a 20-something graphic design student named Eve Garrick.

"I work in retail," she said assuredly, "so if it wasn't for capitalism I wouldn't have a job — so for now it's probably true." Lambert asked Garrick a few more questions, before doing the same with a few more voters. A stay-at-home dad voted false. A public school teacher pressed the true button.

After choosing false, Manaf Elkoukabi, a young taxi driver from Morocco, echoed the Occupy movement.

"I find it works only for the rich people. You know? So the rich people get richer and the poor people get poorer, you know?"

Then — just like Lambert predicted — an apologist slipped in, pressed "true," thanked Lambert and ran off. I followed Joel McCoy, a 26-year-old who live in Quincy and works in Davis Square, for a little elaboration.

"Yea," he said sheepishly, "I feel a little conflicted about that." Then I asked him how he felt about Lambert's sculpture. "I saw it from the other side, actually — 'capitalism' spelled out in silhouette and spelled backwards," he recalled, "and I was wondering what it was. I was pleasantly surprised to see it was a poll getting some numbers down for it."

Sparking A Conversation

But in the end Lambert isn't actually interested in numbers. What the artist craves is dialogue. Lambert is also documenting his travels with the capitalism sign. He's taking video and ultimately wants to publish a book.

But if you're like me you might be wondering: does capitalism work for him?

"I mean I have my own opinions, and the way my own life has worked out, and my family's life," Lambert said, "you know my parents had a small business which failed after a while. My mom now is turning 72 and still has to work full time so she can keep health care because my dad is too sick to work. So for me, capitalism is not really working out that great."

But his capitalism sculpture is. The artist said it's booked through 2014. After two more stops in the Boston area this week the roving piece of art heads to Hartford — the insurance capital of the world — in May, then Santa Fe, San Diego, and beyond.

Steve Lambert's "Capitalism Works For Me — True/False" sign will be on Huntington Avenue at the Massachusetts College of Art Monday, April 9 from 10:30 until 2:30. Thursday, April 12 it will be parked at Newton North High School in Newtonville. On Saturday, April 7, it was in Boston's Hyde Square.

This program aired on April 9, 2012.

Andrea Shea Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.



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