Mixed Message: The potency of this poster from the Toothfish agitprop collective lies in its symbolic confusion. At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s, only upon closer inspection do we understand that the image is a comment about National and Neoliberalism - not Nazism. Ironically, the Nazis were fierce critics of laissez-faire capitalism, an historical detail that further complicates the image.
THE POWER OF ART and its uncanny ability to evade the censors of our conscious mind is never more obvious than when it gate-crashes party politics. Poster art, in particular, possesses a special potency. In 1981, the year of the infamous Springbok Tour, the number of households in which the “It’s pronounced Apart-Hate.” poster could be found, proudly displayed, was astounding. Hard on the anti-apartheid movement’s heels came Nuclear-Free New Zealand posters. These were, if possible, even more ubiquitous.
Since the mid-80s, however, there’s been a dearth of truly great political posters. The West’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, unlike the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, passed us by without leaving very much in the way of enduring cultural markers. Certainly, the first few years of the twenty-first century have produced nothing to match the powerful posters of the twentieth.
Neoliberalism, and its cultural corollary, post-modernism, have created too arid an environment for genuinely affective posters. The collective passions from which political art draws its energy have long-since collapsed into a desiccated individualism out of which almost nothing grows with sufficient strength to prick our consciences.
For John Key, April is indeed the cruellest month, because the poster which began appearing on Wellington streets a few days ago cannot be easy for the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi barbarity to bear.
At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s. The dominant colours are the red, white and black of the swastika flag, and its human subject is decked out in the uniform of a Nazi stormtrooper. On closer inspection, however, we discover that the symbol in the centre of the circle is not a swastika but a dollar sign. The monetary symbol is repeated on the stormtrooper’s armband and a red dollar sign is pinned to his chest. The stormtrooper himself is, quite clearly, the National Party leader, John Key.
What impresses about this poster is its painterly qualities. Not for its creator the easy cut-and-paste of computer-generated graphic art. This is not a photo-shopped version of John Key but a striking portrait executed in gouache on a matte board. More than anything else, it is this painterliness that tricks our eyes into believing we are looking at something from the 1930s.
The work of an anonymous, environmentally-driven political collective calling itself “Toothfish”, the poster’s purpose is set forth on the outfit’s website:
“Let's be clear - the poster is talking about capitalism, control and the increasing privatization of government. The image suggests that the naked pursuit of money is akin to an extremist doctrine. One in which human lives and the environment are being sacrificed on the altar of expediency for the profit of our ruling elites.
“The poster is NOT saying John Key is a Nazi.”
This latter disclaimer strikes me as just a little disingenuous. The poster only works because our eye processes its message much faster than our mind is able to decode its content. And what our eye sees is John Key dressed as a Nazi.
In an unintended way, the artist’s resort to the iconography of Nazism is also a statement about the enormous difficulty in visually discussing the totalitarian nature of the neoliberal ideology.
The all-encompassing ambition of Neoliberalism marches under no banners, wears no symbols, swears fealty to no fuehrer, and needs no uniformed militia to enforce its will. Like Yahweh and Allah, the neoliberal deity forebears to be represented by anything other than words and numbers. Also like them, Neoliberalism is a jealous god who suffers no rivals. How does one represent in poster form an ideology that makes a desert – and calls it prosperity?
The poster’s final irony is that the Nazis, far from being its kindred spirits, would have fought Neoliberalism with as much vigour as the Toothfish collective. By this reading, John Key emerges not as the dollar sign’s political avatar, but in the uniform of one of its most aggressive historical opponents.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 April 2014.