Poster Children

Edward Kienholz's The Non-War Memorial (1970).Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art

During the past 150 years, artists have regularly challenged power: Modern art emerged, after all, from revolutionary traditions. Artists made posters to rally rebels, lampoon officialdom, and propose new and better worlds. Last week, George Bush and the Republican National Convention staked out New York City—the capital of the American art world—and presented to the eye a large, inviting, and even outlandish target. More than 200,000 protesters, by some accounts, marched up Seventh Avenue. And yet apart from a few pro forma group shows, surprisingly little of note emerged from the traditional art world. What doesn’t happen is sometimes significant. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: “Why didn’t the art world bark?”

The issue is not one of creating great or even good political art. It would be unreasonable to expect that result, which, in any case, is usually the bitter fruit of more difficult, socially fraught periods than our own. (Such work also transcends the politics of its making: Human barbarity, not only one Fascist crime, is the subject of Guernica.) But it was entirely reasonable to expect vituperative satire, bold posters, visual screeds, and a few brilliantly telling gestures or “actions.” That’s traditional. That’s what’s supposed to happen during periods of protest and turmoil. Where were the captivating posters plastered on city walls? Who caricatured Bush and Cheney with unforgettable nastiness?

Great posters were still important in America during the turbulent sixties, and they remained serious business throughout the twentieth century in authoritarian and totalitarian societies. Today, poster-making seems to be a dying genre. Part of the reason is that there is no graphic style at the moment that lends itself to poster-making, certainly nothing approaching what the artists of revolutionary Russia or Germany could call upon; the visual vocabulary of Art Nouveau or the Bauhaus—even the flowing, hallucinatory style of the bell-bottom sixties—could deliver a message in a bright, bold, and distinctive manner. The more important reason for the decline, however, is that the politically minded no longer think, instinctively, of communicating through posters. Posters now appear quaintly old-fashioned, something to be collected rather than made.

“Few Bush- or Iraq-inspired works can compare, for sheer anger, with what emerged from the Vietnam era.”

On Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, a contemporary-poster show called A More Perfect Union went up last week at Max Fish. The show honored poster-making in one wonderful respect: Posters have never been a museum art, and Max Fish is a lively bar filled with twentysomethings rather than an old dead repository. But the posters themselves appeared homemade and amateurish, as if they’d been thrown together by college friends having a few beers and free-associating about “Why I personally don’t like Bush.” (A typical example was a handwritten scrawl announcing DUMP DUMB BUSH.) No desperate urgency on display. No rifle-shot clarity. They looked more like T-shirts than like posters; in fact, the T-shirt may be our culture’s version of the poster. At The Freedom Salon, a show at Deitch Projects, Dread Scott exhibited a work called Boom (2001) that had some of the graphic pizzazz of earlier posters. Against a yellowed New York Times front page announcing STOCKS RALLY ON RECORD VOLUME, the artist added a red smear containing an image of people holding guns.

The official art of insult seemed strangely muted. Over the decades, many artists and cartoonists have created wicked caricatures of the smug and powerful. The last truly memorable instance was probably Philip Guston’s Poor Richard, in which he transformed Nixon’s face and jowls into male genitals, creating a portrait of the president that lived up to the immortal nickname Tricky Dick. Perhaps President Bush’s face is too bland, too much like a Texas mall on Tuesday, to inspire flights of caricatural glee. Even the name Bush seems a measly thing, inviting easy but low-energy jokes about “shrub” or “Busch” beer. (Axis of Eve, a coalition of woman activists, is selling panties with phrases like EXPOSE BUSH on them.) Only the president’s way of talking seems to have truly captured the imagination, and that does not, of course, lend itself to still pictures. At the Vanbrunt Gallery, in a group show called amBUSH!, Jeff Greenspan installed a curtained voting booth in which viewers see video clips of the president stripped of his voice. Only his facial expressions remain. He looks like a particularly intelligent chimpanzee who wants a banana. Kerry would probably look no better under those circumstances.

Few Bush- or Iraq-inspired works can compare, for sheer political anger, with what emerged from the Vietnam era. A small show at the Whitney Museum of American Art called Memorials of War includes Edward Kienholz’s The Non-War Memorial (1970), in which soldiers’ uniforms packed with sand lie scattered on the floor in the jangled poses of death. Kienholz did not kid around. Chris Burden does kid around, but in a way that captures the nightmarish regression of war. His America’s Darker Moments (1994) turns Hiroshima, My Lai, Kent State, and other horrors into toy-soldier set pieces. The Vietnam echo currently reverberating through American culture suggests another important reason artists are having trouble making powerful work attacking the current administration. Kerry is so obviously not JFK; Iraq is so obviously not Vietnam. The present seems only an echo of the past.

Today’s most successful political art, while aimed at the Bush administration, also attacks political culture as a whole. The Freedom of Expression National Monument, an enormous red megaphone made by Laurie Hawkinson, Erika Rothenberg, and John Malpede and placed in Foley Square, is a deft and provocative parody of today’s political conversation. Ordinary people are invited to shout or whisper their views into the megaphone, but they cannot, of course, expect anybody much to listen. (Power depends on who controls the amplification.) At the Luxe Gallery, the guerrilla gadfly Randall M. Packer—the self-proclaimed secretary of the U.S. Department of Art & Technology—set up the Experimental Party DisInformation Center. A group of artists created a darkened environment of blinking screens and babbling sounds that is something like an anarchist’s version of a convention television studio.

The red megaphone and the Experimental Party DisInformation Center are not, strictly speaking, works of traditional visual art. They share much with film, theater, Dada, and the Internet. And it’s in those areas that the most energetic and imaginative political protest will be found in the future. A filmmaker like Michael Moore is not really, for example, a maker of documentaries. He’s a human T-shirt, a contemporary poster-maker, one who uses the devices of art to rally the masses. Politics today is too abstract for the old handmade arts. Both the Republican and the Democratic conventions are works of theater, performed for cameras inside guarded forts, where even spontaneity is carefully scripted. To confront this strange situation, an actor and a camera become the weapons of choice.

Poster Children