Never did I think I would review an art exhibition without sharing a gallery with the work, but these are the times we’re in. FAU Galleries’ “Political Pandemonium,” the university’s third in an ongoing series of contemporary political agitprop, opened earlier this month in a virtual format only. And so I browsed the images on my computer, which, in this case, could have been a blessing in a crude disguise. Some of the pieces are so offensive, so despicable, so nauseating, that viewing them in person may have been too much for my fragile constitution.
I’m joking about the fragility, but only a little. Racist, sexist, ageist and xenophobic attacks have been a scourge in our politics for a long time, but their proliferation since the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008 is demonstrable across the hundreds of campaign slogans, stickers and apparel collected by curator Jane Caputi and her assistants.
The items constituting “Political Pandemonium” represent 2008 to the present day. Examples span both political extremes, and sometimes spread vitriol outside of the two-party system. But at the risk of trading in a false equivalency, the far right is represented here more than the far left, which I take not a bias on the curatorial team but an accurate ratio of their findings. Clearly, one side is engaging in more violent or abusive rhetoric than the other. But both spend too much time in the gutters of American politics, and both need to do better.
“Political Pandemonium” is divided into 25 e-galleries on its official website. If you surf them in order, the first pieces you see, under the lead gallery “The Divided States of America,” are stickers of the GOP elephant sodomizing the Democratic donkey, and vice versa—symbolism that is, to put it mildly, unhelpful. It’s also indicative of a sophomoric sensibility that pervades the other galleries, too, a retreat to juvenile homophobic tropes in lieu of an actual argument.
That’s because winning arguments is rarely the goal of the political arsonists behind pieces like the bumper sticker reading “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” or degrading attacks on Hillary Clinton’s appearance or Obama’s skin color, or the pernicious deployment of devil horns on Clinton, Biden and Trump alike. The worst of these broadsides go well beyond childish partisan blood sport and into the sort of hateful clarion calls that arguably shouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment. Even I was shocked at the sticker “All Lives Splatter,” depicting a car mowing down protestors, exactly the weapon used to murder Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017. I mention it here only with the hope that sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant.
The works generally span from the absolutely revolting to the flawed but insightful: One sign includes a quote cogently pondering an alternate reality in which Donald Trump’s statements and actions circa 2016 were attributed instead to a female candidate, and rightly making the point that such a candidate would be drummed off the political stage; it goes too far by dressing Donald Trump as a woman and playing off outmoded trans stereotypes.
Other pieces are simply too incoherent or self-referential to be effective; I have no idea what that one of Kamala Harris on a camel is trying to convey. Similarly it takes an abnormally concentrated effort to wrest a message out of a T-shirt with the dated lyric “Ice Ice Baby.” This presumably refers to the owner’s anti-immigration stance but mostly suggests he is a fan of an untalented ‘90s rapper and plagiarist.
There are some pieces that I frankly had no problem with. A patch reading “Settle For Biden” is inexplicably included under “Racism and Xenophobia.” The statement isn’t offensive; it’s the accurate reality of what millions of us are doing as we head to the polls. I also found the tagline “Biden: He Won’t Inject You With Bleach” to be not at all beyond the pale; it’s fair game, and good messaging. Then there’s the button showing Trump’s and Kim Jung Un’s penises facing off in front of nuclear warheads, a pretty effective, if uncouth, satire in the age-old tradition of the biting political cartoon.
But perhaps that’s my own bias and lizard brain taking over. I also felt a rush of righteous anger and adrenaline at the phrase “We are All Shitholers” alongside an image of the Statue of Liberty, even though it’s just as inflammatory as some of the works I despise. It means I was triggered, and that I fell for its seductive intention.
Mostly, though, I just felt sad for the country, even if these images are the bilious secretions of the loudest fringes of society—and even if 95 percent of Americans will never see these deplorable works in their everyday lives. The fact that they’re out there at all is a testament to how poisoned our discourse has come. I don’t see us righting this ship for years to come, regardless of next month’s election results.
The only outright positivity to come out of “Political Pandemonium” is contained in the final gallery, “Making and Remaking America,” which is filled with inclusive and inspiring slogans in favor of civic engagement—of voting, in other words. If these, too, become twisted for a political purpose, we know we’re in trouble.