celebrating people of color in the arts

the art of “the politics of fear”

In art, notable on July 21, 2008 at 10:16 pm


Last week, the New Yorker cover proved that to reveal how ludicrous right wing propaganda is, you don’t have to do anything except pile it on top of itself. But the satire did not stop there. In the tradition of the cleverest satire, the cover used “outrage” as a tool to play with our perceptions of who we think ourselves to be, and what we consider funny.

A few years ago on a gorgeous October morning in New York, I was walking down Crosby street and happened to pass by Housing Works Used Book Cafe. Glancing at their store window, I was shocked to find a copy of Ann Coulter’s book “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)” displayed proudly in this haven of progressive thought. What??? How could Housing Works Used Book Cafe want to sell Ann Coulter? What was the world coming to? I fumed inside. I wanted to throw up. Then I stepped back to look at the larger picture (literally) and found that Ann Coulter’s book was the centerpiece of an elaborate window display of horror novels and vampire erotica. Finally the penny dropped. The day was October 31st, Halloween in New York.

The New Yorker cover is that moment all over again for me. There are two different but parallel processes happening here – first there is the political point the cover/shop window is scoring. But, secondly, there is the joke on the viewer/reader. The joke is not just on those who are anti-Obama, the joke is also on you, and me, who are so serious and earnest about these elections, and quick to take offense. And that is okay! Why not laugh at myself? Why not laugh at how tightly wound-up this election has made all of us?

Many of us for whom art and social change are indivisible tend to turn polemical when politics is on the table. Let’s get over ourselves. A cartoon is not going to kill Obama, who has withstood a high blood-pressure primary with tenacity and charm and cunning strategy.

In many ways, Obama has raised the tenor of America’s national political discourse by opening up risky conversations and introducing an element of articulateness that has been sadly missing in the last eight years of Bushisms. Satire and poetry and irony and multi-layered speech are returning very, very slowly to American campaigns politics after years of ‘us versus them’ discourse. Let’s welcome this change with open arms. And let’s take our helping of art and social change with a side of humor.

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  1. How can a piece of art incite in me the fury born of racism at the same time as marvelling at the creative licence that all media must have in this important time? As an African American Obama supporter, I will admit that I was at first outraged when i saw this cover. After spouting to many friends and colleagues that “Yes its satire, but you just can’t do this!”, I finally realized that this is as over-the-top as it gets and that is exactly the point. I laugh now, but only because of the ridiculousness of assumption, presumption and truth. I also find myself wary, because satire isn’t for everyone and the power of this image swings both ways. Was this a helpful form of political discourse? The intellectuals will say yes, but the people in small-town USA will say they were right all along.

  2. First of all, I really dig your online mag. It’s, aesthetically, very beautiful to the eyes.
    As to your comments regarding the depiction of BO and his Wife, I guess I have to say as was pointed out on other web sites, when I see a similar depiction that is over the top on McCain and his wife as adulterers, pill popers, and the like, or Joe Leiberman as a typical moneygrubbing jewish person, banker and all… etc, … Hey everyone take a step back and look at the big picture. BTW, I think BO is a “typical politician” such as the group we’ve had to deal with in harlem for the last few decades, and as such, I’m not a fan of him anyway, despite him being a brotha and all.

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