September 8–November 13, 2016
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 commencement speech at the University of Michigan, laid out his plan titled the Great Society. The main goal was to eliminate poverty and racial injustice through a series of domestic programs while focusing on improving America’s cities, landscape, and education system. This speech forecasted much of Johnson’s administration, which included originating programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, and food stamps as well as the signing of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In Untitled (the Great Society) I, LA-based artist Rodney McMillian recites LBJ’s entire speech, playing the role of the politician. He juxtaposes the past and present by investigating history and the performative aspects of politics. The artist found himself in agreement with many of Johnson’s ideas, and the speech continues to resonate as much in present-day as it did in 1964. While originally performed in 2006, the artwork feels timely a decade later, especially during the recent conflict-ridden years and a tumultuous election season. And while many of the milestones Johnson outlined have not been reached, the utopian ideas in the speech are not foreign. “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.”
In the video, Johnson via McMillian calls for help to end poverty and racial injustice and to enrich the souls of all Americans through education, labor, and leisure. At the end of the speech, Johnson and McMillian say, “We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will and your labor and your hearts if we are to build that kind of society.” McMillian’s work showcases how one should not interrogate history as fixed—many of these 50-year-old policies, actions, and ideas remain overlooked.