04 August 2009

Socialism and the Politics of Street Artists

Some on the left are "greatly offended" that President Obama (well his visage, at any rate) has undergone a satirical skewering at the hands of a purported Los Angeles street artist (heretofore unnamed). UPDATE: LA Times's "Top of the Ticket" blog names Firas Alkhateeb (a fellow Chicagoan of BHO) as the artist behind the "Socialist" posters. Read the story here!

Freeway on-ramps and London street scenes since the '80's have been rife with political statements, almost all from left-leaning artists aimed exclusively at conservatives. Can you see them now in your mind's eye? Reagan, Thatcher, Oliver North, Cap Weinberger, Kissinger, Bush(es), all with withered scowl and some cheeky verbiage accompanying the blistering imagery. The well-worn bromide "Bush Lied and People Died" is a joke compared to how well artists like Robbie Conal, et.al., took the conservatives to task for their supposed crimes against humanity. One wasn't surprised to see Bush or Reagan routinely compared to Hitler or Pol-Pot. Funny, during this same time, these same artists were making millions of dollars off t-shirt sales glorifying Che Guevara or Mao or Fidel. These the same radicals or despots responsible for millions of deaths, assassinations, torture, and human right's violations in the name of the "people," yet it was Reagan (or Bush or Thatcher or later Tony Blair) who would become the devil incarnate. I wonder if any of these artists ever saw the "Contra Diction" in their positions. Doubtful.

It has often bothered me not a little that conservatives lacked the chutzpah to launch a good

street fight in this regard, but there's only one reason to give for this deafening artistic street silence: Conservatives are actually working, holding down some job. Even the "creative" types are too busy writing screenplays, producing musicals on Broadway or the West End, or making another episode of '24' to be bothered to venture onto the 101 fwy and slather up a slice of concrete wall with highly toxic glue to post a message of defiance into the ether for all north-bound traffic to read.

However, there is one bloke who has seen fit to answer this antebellum call (now that we're almost out of Iraq) of defying the deity that is our President; he has created a fairly inane piece of political mockery against the emperor's "new"
statist clothing. The typical leftist leadership knee-jerk their protestations, calling this street art "dangerous," "unsettling" and "troubling." They ask, "How dare he mock?!" Oh, he dare, and he deign. And, oh, btw, welcome to my little world of having a political figure you admire pilloried, taunted, and vilified vis-a-vis an oversize bit of "post-it" art.

I recently posted on FatScribe a piece about Shepard Fairey who created the "Obey the Giant" series of street art. Fairey was so good at conveying a visual message to a mass audience that he landed the coveted Obama campaign as a gig. He received the undying thanks from the DNC

(understatement) for his contribution to BHO's successful presidential run. I am greatly envious and would love to contribute to a presidential campaign in any form before my wonky days are through.

I jokingly said at the time that it wouldn't be long before we had "Obey the Obama" posters around town, but I guess the "socialism" poster will do for now. Admittedly, the sinister grin of the Joker is a bit over the top, but juxtaposed with the tidal wave of leftist guerrilla street art that's been flowing downhill since the early 80's, I think it tame in comparison.

My favorite street artist, though, pound for British pound, is Banksy, from the UK (Bristol). He is the most clever of the bunch. Where the 80's street artists were mostly mean-spirited, Banksy can be fairly characterized as a cheeky bloke who attempts to remain anonymous despite all of his rather public efforts. Regardless of your political home team, you have to admire this cat. I mean he just overwhelms you with cleverness and daring. He has the brazen gall to actually take his "art" and then hang it guerrilla style in some of the most revered

galleries in the art world, from New York to London (again, this is without permission). The "Withus Oragainstus" cockroach/fly thingy (right) was posted in a museum and lasted two days before staff realized it wasn't from the permanent collection. There are some great examples of this; I suggest a google search for other Banksy images to be as entertained as I have been over the years.

Of course he does the street art as well (see below, the cleaning maid sweeping all of our collective street trash under the rug -- sort of like Nancy Pelosi and her midnight legislative pork-laden sessions), but it's the supposed museum pieces that kill me. He did a recent piece (also below) with field workers, and one of them takes herself a smoke break and decides to watch you watching her. Fairly powerful stuff, if you think about it. But, that means you'd have to go to a

museum. We should all be treating ourselves to a museum this summer, even if just for a quick lunch break, or just as an affectation trying to impress someone. Some sort of culture will rub off on us if we at least show up. Someone said once that half of the battle to being successful is just showing up. So too with an examined life, half of the battle to being even slightly cultured is to show up at your local museum (btw, one of my all time faves is the Chrysler in Norfolk, Va.) and roll around in an exhibit of a dead language or two like your Cocker Spaniel rubbing his back on day-old dead squirrel in the backyard; sniff out a collection of Tiffany glass; or, sit a spell in front of Seurat's pointillism classic at the Art Institute of Chicago with your head notched sideways.

So, now that I have one extra picture to get through, and not enough copy, I'll just share one thing with you real quick. Political satire has been around a looooooong time. The folks who hated Lincoln (and there were tons), used to caricature him as a baboon. Literally. The folks who walk around the White House today all in a tiff about this "socialism" poster which is about to go viral, are making much ado about nothing. But, that's usual SOP for the left. Highly sensitive about their own and insensitive about the other guy's gold standard. Just some food for thought.

Oh, one quick coda: just in case, I've included this clip (below) that runs through a bunch of Banksy's work. Enjoy.


Dumbwit Tellher ♥ said...

Your "food" did pervade my thoughts. I have to agree; guerrilla art is bipartisan. Every elected official is fair game. I know - but I am surprised that the O' Camp has taken such a stand on this. OK, I lean a little more left than the right. Maybe they thought he was going to skip that right of passage?! I will be googling Banksy, now I am intrigued. Thanks JGregg!

Dumbwit Tellher ♥ said...

Thanks for adding the video JG. It was great & am passing it along to my #1 son, the graphic artist. As a final project, he carried out a 'guerrilla' style undertaking which consisted of huge screen printed band-aids & randomly placed them around campus. He got an A but what came first was harsh words & action for removal by the Dean. His prof. was impressed that it caused controversy!
I don't know how you could not watch this and not smile? Thanks today for you encouraging comments - fuel for the fire. True?, maybe not so much, but inspiring, yes!
:D deb

JGregg said...

Deb -- All true. You are going to do great; and I'm sure you passed w/ flying colors. Thanks very much for your encouragement as well. We, and our fellow bloggers, are of a kindred breed aren't we? - Jg.

christian soldier said...

to quote you.."It has often bothered me not a little that conservatives lacked the chutzpah to launch a good street fight in this regard,...

It is time - isn't it--for us to use our artistic talents to counter attack...!!?

Anonymous said...

I like this Banksy character; but he's a liter bug of sorts. A scofflaw who should be stopped.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy political satire. It's especially entertaining when co-opting an image from popular culture. No less legitimate than Revolutionary War soldiers adding new lyrics to popular tunes.

Don't nobody tell ASCAP!

Dr. Dave said...

I love the Socialism image. It's absolutely appropriate on so many levels. The left's response? They can't take their own medicine. Remember the presidential seal with the crying baby passed around as "the official seal of the united states democratic party" during the Bush v. Gore court battle? It couldn't be more true.

christian soldier said...

RE: your comment at my site:
JG-the link gets me to links of the 'Painting' BMW-but- not even google could 'find' the BMW sculpture farm ad to which you referred ..
Any tips on alternate avenues that will help me find it?

Isabelle said...

It seems to me that not all the heads of state from the same political "family" are targeted by caricaturists: you mention Tony Blair as seen as the devil incarnate but at the time he was head of the Labour Party which is considered as center-left...

And don't you think that republicans are more often targeted because they are more often in office?

JGregg said...

Isabelle -- I wasn't thinking "party" as much as ideology in this particular piece. I agree that conservatives are the brunt of 90% of these political cartoonists and street artists, but I don't attribute it to time-in-office. American media (in the UK this is likely higher) votes about 88% of the time with liberal candidates.

Even today, non-office holder conservatives are lampooned by these same artists, so I feel it's more about ideology than available "material" for these artists. Mr. Blair, who is very much cut in the Bill Clinton uber-politician cloth, just happened to take a conservative stand on the War on Terror (a phrase now in disfavor by the Obama admin).

Thanks for your comments ... I'll check out your blog today!


Isabelle said...

Hi JGregg,
I don't write my own blog, I'm only a reader and an occasional commentator.
(I'm French btw, and my husband is American).

Clifton B said...


Excellent post. Your explanation for the Obama Joker poster is so much better than the tortured explainations from the media that, surprise, leads to racism. Plus, by God, I learned something about political street art!

JGregg said...

Clifton (Another Black Conservative is in the house!) B -- thx for the visit, sir. Appreciate your compliments and, yes, I'll be visiting on over on your side of the Web later today!


In New York Paris Tomorrow said...

soup cons of sarcasm, not a whit

adore your take and linking them together

I get way too breathless about art .. the goodness of some of the lot of urban artists is boggling. Swoon and Banksy have done work for the downtrodden in Palestine, in Chiapas, many places. Revok and Sabre work with kids teaching art and how to legally obtain permission and the math of the materials.

Banksy boy kindly gave free Mondays at MOCA during the last month of the Art In The Street Show.

LOVE your writing and the subject. Had a very good Banksy and am sad to say was forced to sell. Do not want to ever do that again.

When are we doing a Sunday 11am Laemmle?????