‘Cain’t’ Take My Eyes Off You

Presidential elections are optimum hunting grounds for political artists. With candidates tripping up daily, opponents slandering one another, and important policy questions being answered in all the wrong ways, material for mockery and criticism abounds.

Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) didn’t miss out on his fair share of abuse back in the 2008 presidential election against Barack Obama. Calling home Austin, Texas, this work of wall graffiti features three smiling “McCain’ts” in a fashion which reflects a flag wavering in the breeze.

"MCCAIN'T" COULDN'T - John McCain received his fair share of mockery in the 2008 presidential election, including being tagged with the nickname "McCain't".

With his outdated ideas—much like his years—McCain was not the young and fresh-faced chap the Republicans needed. Support for policies similar to those of Bush didn’t throw much favor his way either.

In the race against Obama, “McCain’t”, despite the clever new campaign slogan, had no hope of being anything other than the little engine that couldn’t.

Vietnam Era Spawns Countless Protest Posters

With a vividly graphic design, this poster makes no qualms about protesting the Vietnam War. As turbulent sentiments arose from the American public concerning the purpose and justice of the Vietnam War, countless posters were created in political protest.

SPEAK OUT - This protest poster makes no qualms about objecting to American actions during the Vietnam War.

Interestingly, when the Vietnam War started, only a small percentage of the American population opposed it. Objections to the war came from people with left-wing political opinions who hoped for an National Liberation Front (NFL), or Viet Cong victory; pacifists who opposed all wars; and liberals who believed that the best way of stopping the spread of communism was by encouraging democratic governments rather than employing force.

The first march to Washington against the war took place in December, 1964. Only 25,000 people took part but it was still the largest anti-war demonstration in American history.

As the war continued, more and more Americans turned against it. People were particularly upset by the use of chemical weapons such as napalm and agent orange. In 1967, a group of distinguished academics under the leadership of Bertrand Russell set up the International War Crimes Tribunal. After interviewing many witnesses, they came to the conclusion that the United States was guilty of using weapons against the Vietnamese that were prohibited by international law. The United States armed forces were also found guilty of torturing captured prisoners and innocent civilians. U.S. behavior in Vietnam was even denounced as being comparable to Nazi atrocities committed in World War II.

The decision to introduce conscription for the war increased the level of protest, especially among young men. Students in particular began protesting at what they considered was an attack on people’s right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to fight for their country.

In 1965, David Miller publicly burnt his draft card and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. His actions inspired others and throughout America, Anti-Vietnam War groups organized meetings where large groups of young men burnt their draft cards.

Protest reached a peak point later in 1965 when the U.S. began its heavy bombing of North Vietnam. Anti-war marches, especially those organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), attracted an ever-widening base of support, culminating in 1968 after the successful Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese proved that the war’s end was still a long time coming.

Between 1963 and 1973, 9,118 men were prosecuted for refusing to be drafted into the army. The most famous of these (an interesting tidbit in my opinion) was Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion.

This poster, with its clearly agitated subjects calling out yells of dissent, perfectly captures the protest, instability, unrest, and tumult felt in America during this time period.

Bush Butchery Slaughters America

These two graffiti illustrations are not found together, but are in fact two separate pieces on different walls in different cities. I thought it appropriate to group them together, given the common butchery theme.

The first is designed in the spirit of a company logo with a name (Bush & Sons), a slogan (‘family butchers since 1989’) and a fitting icon (recently used butcher knife). Compared to the second piece of art, a stencil graffiti piece, it’s fairly mild in nature.

BUSH BUTCHERY - The first of these two commonly themed graffiti illustrations resembles a company logo.

Behold the not-so-mild work of art: George Bush sporting the American flag as an apron and looking all too ready to exact vengeance on his next victim. Notice the butcher knife in hand (also recently used), and if I’m not mistaken, what appears to be blood dripping from the side of his mouth. I can’t quite make out the words, but given the Jack-the-Ripper theme, I’m sure they’re not pleasantries.

BUTCHERING AMERICA - The second graffiti illustration has Bush wearing an American flag for an apron and holding a butcher knife, clearly symbolizing that he has butchered America. More accusatory than the first, it also employs a much more controversial graphic.

Obviously Bush has plenty of haters. Under his administration, a lot of controversial legislation and widely-disliked policies were enacted. Bush initiated the No Child Left Behind Act and pushed for socially conservative efforts like the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and faith-based welfare initiatives. He declared a War on Terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks and during his term, the U.S. invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. He pushed huge tax cuts, collectively known as the ‘Bush tax cuts,’ and was also confronted with an economic recession and massive immigration problems. A number of these policies, actions, and initiatives were strongly opposed by a large portion of the public, and by the end of his second term in 2008, Bush had lost a lot of his popularity and support and suffered through scathing criticisms.

But does that warrant art like this? I don’t know. The focus of these pieces seems not so much an attack on policy or action, but on the man himself. There’s a clear message that HE butchered America (figuratively speaking, of course). But one man is not responsible for the state of America today, just as one man could never fix it.

For whatever reason, as Americans, we expect the President to fix everything. We vote based on who we think can change everything for the better. That’s naïve. The President is just another person like the rest of us, and therefore, all we can really expect of him is his best effort.

‘No Future’ Mural Is Short-Lived

Another piece of Banksy genius…

This mural, done in 2010, features a colorless and rather petulant looking child holding a red balloon which forms the ‘o’ in the phrase ‘NO FUTURE.’ It appeared on the side of a private home in an area of Southampton, England known for its lively nightlife and drinking culture. According to BBC News, the mural increased the worth of the privately owned house by 20,000 euro.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - One of Banksy's most short-lived works, the 'No Future' mural attracted a flurry of attention before it was whitewashed over by an unknown protester hours later.

In 2010, Banksy was still entirely a mystery to the English populace, but his works of politically-charged street art were popping up all over the country. Catching the artist at work proved fruitless, but as people tried to discover the man behind the spray can, it became somewhat of a game to rush to find Banksy’s latest painting.

When this mural was found, it drew the attention of BBC News, the press, the art elite, and pedestrian passerby. Only hours after it was discovered, however, the image of the child was painted over with whitewash and the words changed to “GRAFFITI HAS NO FUTURE.” It is still unknown who censored the graffiti.

As with all of Banksy’s art, the message is quite simple, succinct, and clever while the illustration carries the true message—one of social protest.

It’s a shame, however, that the work was ruined. It only proves all too well that the argument over whether graffiti is art or crime is a potent one. Banksy’s work has on several occasions been called egotistic, with critics saying that his outspoken messages and longstanding anonymity show he has an “I-can-get-away-with-it” attitude and a “look-what-I-can-do” demeanor.

I disagree. I don’t think Banksy is trying to get away with anything. I think, as with all street artists who have social and political messages, he’s trying to let people take away something.

‘The Bigger the Government, the Smaller the Citizen’

For the last six months, I’ve parked near a Toyota 4Runner with this bumper sticker. And for all six of those months, I scoffed at it.

A different medium of political art, this bumper sticker’s phrase was coined by Dennis Prager, an American conservative talk show host, columnist, and author. In his argument, Prager asserts that big government takes away liberty, individuality, and character from the citizen.

I mean, honestly: “The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.” It sounds like a conservative party tagline. Consequently, I labeled it (and the car’s driver) as being radically right-wing—someone who believes no government is the best government.

But today, after sticking by my conviction for this long, I decided to look into the phrase, and…maybe I jumped the gun a bit too much with my assumptions.

The phrase was coined by Dennis Prager, a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, columnist, and best-selling author who has been broadcasting shows five days a week from his Los Angeles base since 1982. He is noted for his conservative political and social views on almost every topic.

Prager filmed a five-minute explanation of his phrase (video available below), and unlike the majority of talk show hosts I’ve encountered—who are nothing less than frightening in their sense of self-righteousness and would rather YELL than talk—Prager is reasonable, calm, and actually possesses common sense.

He first asserts that America has always realized that its citizens needs to be “big, important, individual, autonomous, and strong.” It follows, then, that America’s success as a democracy is directly derived from granting its citizens the most power in society. Prager continues with the assertion that “the land of the free, the home of the brave” is impossible to achieve as the state gets bigger. A government which has too much power and control, Prager says, limits liberty and individuality and lessens the citizen’s importance.

A political graphic used in Prager’s video showing a big government diminishing the Statue of Liberty, and symbolically, citizens’ liberty.

Prager also makes a more dramatic argument that human character actually diminishes as the size of government increases. When a population depends on its state, Prager argues, citizens begin assuming that the government will take care of them and naturally begin neglecting to care for themselves. In other words, big government takes away citizens’ self-reliance and makes them dependent.

As a big government continues over time, its citizens gradually become more preoccupied with trivial things—Prager notes countless European strikes over vacation time—and become less concerned with work, which in turn hinders their character development.

The notion of citizens lacking character, Prager says, is not an ideal on which this country was founded.

I can’t say I entirely agree with all of Prager’s ideas because for some countries, the existence of a big government has proven to work quite well—take Switzerland, for example: perhaps the most peaceful country in the world, but under a very large and regulatory government.

I can, however, agree with the notion that ‘big government,’ which Prager means more in reference to regulatory powers of government than size of government, is not something cut-out for America. Our very independent ideals and historical notions of freedom and democracy by the people would make the achievement of such a state unlikely.

In any case, I’ll stop scoffing at the bumper sticker.

Watch the Dennis Prager video, “The Bigger the Government, the Smaller the Citizen”: 

To read some of Prager’s latest columns, click here.

Banksy Documentary Takes Inside Look at Street Art

I mentioned my newfound obsession with Banksy on Saturday. Let me just say: it has grown. That same night I watched a documentary produced by and featuring Banksy called “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Absolutely fabulous. Banksy is not only an artist; he’s a character. Having a naturally sarcastic way about him, his commentary adds wit and entertainment to the 86-minute-long look at some of the most famous images of political graffiti, protest graffiti, and street art.

Banksy produced the documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which takes an inside look at some of the most famous street artists in the world, along with many of their politically-charged works. Banksy is also a subject in the film.

Even more cool, viewers actually get to see three of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists—Banksy, Shephard Fairey, and Invader—at work. Given Banksy’s notoriously camera-shy reputation, the fact that he appears onscreen at all is remarkable.

The documentary begins when a Los Angeles based Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, gets the idea that he would like to film street artists in the process of creating their work. To gain access, he tells them he is making a documentary. In reality, he is only filming endless footage with no intention of making a cohesive movie. Unaware of this fact, many street artists from around the world agree to participate. As Thierry goes out with artists at night, he begins assisting them in creating their designs and even gains insider knowledge about the most sought-after locations for graffiti art.

The documentary also takes a look at Shepard Fairey's "Obey" campaign, and viewers will see him posting his graffiti in many locations.

After following Invader, Fairey, and other graffiti artists for a while, Thierry finally gains permission to tag along with Banksy, so long as he only films his hands working. In interview scenes, Banksy demands to be blacked out, and viewers never see his face. Banksy eventually convinces Thierry to use his footage to make a movie. After six months apart, Thierry returns to Banksy to show him the product of his work. At this point, Banksy realizes that Thierry is an amateur filmmaker at best, but still finds Thierry to be an interesting character—in an odd, yet appealing, way.

Banksy decides to take over the film process and uses Thierry’s footage along with additional material to make his own documentary about Thierry’s journey in this project. Since Thierry spent so much time involved in the process of street art, Banksy also suggests (rather offhandedly) that Thierry become a street artist himself. Not wanting to disappoint Banksy—whose suggestion Thierry takes very seriously—Thierry reinvents himself as street artist MBW, an acronym for “Mr. Brainwash.”

After being on the LA street art scene only a short while, Thierry throws everything into putting on a massive art show showcasing his work. However, as viewers will see, much of his ‘original’ work appears similar to other artists’. Despite the unoriginality, he gains fame and popularity, much to the other artists’ shock.

The film ends with my favorite line of the documentary, said by Banksy:

“I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”

Watch the trailer for the documentary here: 

Slews Of Protest Art At Parliament Square Peace Campaign

This image is only one in a slew to be found at the Parliament Square Peace Campaign in London, England.

An image of protest at the Parliament Square Peace Campaign in London, England.

Showing what are either U.S. or U.K. soldiers painting over a peace symbol, the image stands among the hundreds that protest the United States’ and United Kingdom’s actions toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Parliament Square Peace Campaign, which has for the last ten years been a 24/7, 365-day event, is one of the most famous symbols of the anti-war movement over the foreign policies of both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Begun on June 2, 2001 by English protester and peace campaigner Brian Haw, it has continued for 3913 days despite attempts by the British Parliament to shut down the operation. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (PASRA) of 2011 includes provisions intended to stop the loopholes in the earlier Serious Organized Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) of 2005, which was supposed to end Brian Haw’s campaign, but failed to do so.

PASRA went into effect on December 19, 2011. Letters of notice were sent to the Parliament Square Peace Campaign, but the group is contesting the legality of the act and its enforcement. Despite the increased pressure from U.K. police and rising political action from Parliament, the Peace Campaign is protected by an injunction preventing their eviction until March.

For ten years, Haw led the group of protestors, living for the entire period in a tent in a camp on Parliament Square. He passed away on June 18, 2011 following a surgery to remove cancer, and the protest movement has since been led by Barbara Tucker.

On Thursday, police seized tents at the camp and arrested Tucker for police obstruction. In spite of the setbacks, the campaign continued yesterday and continues today.

For the most up-to-date information on the Parliament Square Peace Campaign, or to view more images of protest on the square, view these recent news articles:

http://www.demotix.com/news/1007304/parliament-square-protests-continue-after-police-raid-london

http://www.demotix.com/news/1042660/london-parliament-square-peace-protests-no-war-iran

More information on Brian Haw can be found in these articles:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/21/world/europe/21haw.html

http://www.economist.com/node/18895032

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jun/20/brian-haw-protesting-to-end

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/8585399/Brian-Haw.html

‘E Pluribus Venom’

It’s an innocent enough looking poster. A little girl (let’s call her Polly), bow-intact, smelling a rose.

This print by Shepard Fairey warns against the dangers of blind obedience in society. It was part of a larger collection of Fairey's work, “E Pluribus Venom,” exhibited at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in 2007.

But look again. Don’t miss the four-letter word written at the bottom left and blended discreetly into the print of the background: “OBEY.” Now that adds a twist. Little Polly isn’t looking so innocent anymore.

At this point, I thought the poster was some kind of Communist-propaganda used in wartime. It might have been all the red, or the curiousness of the letters, or the planes flying above.

In any case, it’s not a communist-era poster, but it is propaganda. The poster is one of many in a collection called “E Pluribus Venom” by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, whose biggest claim-to-fame today is designing the “Hope” poster that appeared in the 2008 Obama campaign. This print, however, was exhibited in the summer of 2007 in a massive exhibition featuring his art at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

The title “E Pluribus Venom,” which translates “Out of many, poison,” is derived from “E Pluribus Unum,” (out of many, one) an early motto adopted by the U.S. Government which appears on U.S. currency. Much of Fairey’s work expresses concern over the loss of power and influence of the individual in society in favor of homogeny. Fairey theorizes that homogeny causes societal decline.

Fairey has created a larger “OBEY” campaign to emphasize the dangers of a society which becomes unaware of and complacent with its surroundings. The campaign criticizes blind nationalism and celebrates questioning the symbols and methods used by the American government.

This poster, with its clear message of blind obedience beginning at a young age (it’s no coincidence that Fairey’s subject is young) is a prime example of at least one of Fairey’s messages: a society merely “going through the motions” is a society unaware of its environment.

A society which merely “obeys” forgets why it is doing so.

For more on Shepard Fairey, read this article from The New York Times.

Graffiti: Art or Crime?

Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.”
― BanksyWall and Piece

The vandals to whom Bansky refers are graffiti artists. Banksy himself is one of the most popular and well known graffiti artists in the world. An England native, he is also a political activist and film director.  Many of his artistic works are done in a distinct stenciling technique and offer satirical commentary on current and controversial political and social issues.

I didn’t know a thing about Banksy before today, but I like what he has to say about graffiti.

Graffiti has a remarkably paradoxical attitude about it: spontaneous (but it MUST have been a bit planned, right?), carefree and intentional, complex and simple, artistic and activist.

But the most debatable quality about graffiti is more basic: is it an art or a crime?

The criminalizing of graffiti has long been a touchy topic among graffiti artists, who view their work as a form of artistic expression. Artists across the nation demonstrate their protest with works such as this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a long-standing question that has had law enforcement and artists up in arms for ages.

There’s no doubt that “graffiti” has ‘negative connotation’ all over it. Those opposed to graffiti view it as nothing more than cold vandalism. The lamenting property owner or neighborhood councilman calls it a crime, a public nuisance, a threat to personal livelihood, or an outright attack on quality of life.

But I think that’s too harsh. Graffiti is a legitimate form of art as well as the manifestation of a rich popular culture. It’s a fundamental part of street culture on top of that. Graffiti can be a positive outlet for artistic expression as well as medium for political commentary and protest. If done tastefully, it can really brighten up a neighborhood.

But the idea that graffiti is an underappreciated art form is not well-received by society’s boys in blue. There are wide variations in punishments for graffiti as well as a range of methods for calculating damages. Punishments may include fines, jail time, or community service, but these also differ according to whether the crime is prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony, which in turn depends on where the case is being tried or even by whom is doing the sentencing.

Another pertinent question: how to define graffiti? Depending on who is doing the interpreting, graffiti could be a political statement, an intricate drawing, a sticker, an etching, or an unrecognizable mosaic. My home state of Texas addresses what graffiti is and when it is a crime like this:

(a) A person commits an offense if, without the effective consent of the owner, the person intentionally or knowingly makes markings, including inscriptions, slogans, drawings, or paintings, on the tangible property of the owner with:

(1)  aerosol paint;

(2)  an indelible marker;  or

(3)  an etching or engraving device.

In Texas, graffiti is a crime which ranges from a Class B misdemeanor to a first-degree felony and up to a $10,000 fine depending on location and monetary amount of loss for the owner.

Other states have their own definitions and punishments. It would appear there is no agreement on the best way to criminalize graffiti, but nobody can read that Texas definition describing what graffiti is—and what supplies are used in its making—and come to the conclusion that it’s NOT art.

Here’s another Banksy quote on graffiti:

“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”

― BanksyBanging Your Head Against a Brick Wall