September 2, 2004
It didn’t occur to Arizona State University Art Museum director Marilyn Zeitlin that putting together an exhibit on political satire would force her to play politics. "I expected very little reaction, frankly," she said.
She was more concerned with putting together a future exhibit by conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim.
"I don’t know if that’s very good proof of my intelligence," she said, laughing. "I thought this was a show promoting voting."
Nevertheless, the university museum’s latest exhibition, "Democracy in America: Political Satire Then and Now" — which opened Tuesday and runs through Nov. 20 — finds Zeitlin dishing pol-worthy spin to the press, deflecting and correcting early criticism that the show was designed as little more than polemic against President Bush and his administration.
What the show is, she said, is an examination of the history of politics through satiric artworks. It was never meant to enter into the Bush vs. Kerry fray, even if it did coincide with a planned debate Oct. 13 between Bush and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry at ASU’s Gammage Auditorium.
Standing across from Alfred Quiroz’s "Bushwhacked" — a depiction of Bush surrounded by what the show’s literature calls "icons of his political and financial success," including an oil derrick, an image suggesting Yale’s secret Skull and Bones society and, below his head, glittery lines of cocaine — Zeitlin makes her case for an exhibition that has come to illustrate more about the politics surrounding art than the art surrounding politics:
• On why Bush is such a focus of the show: "Bush kind of lends himself to satirization of this kind.’’
• On whether the show and its more inflammatory pieces might affect the Gammage debate: "I think the debate is going to happen in such a vacuum . . . (the exhibition) won’t have any effect.’’
• On whether the show promotes a Democratic agenda: "We don’t want to tell people what to think. We just want them to think. It’d be a big improvement.’’
At issue is a series of articles published by a Phoenix alternative newspaper, first suggesting the show was never intended to promote balance, next reporting that Zeitlin and the rest of the show’s curators were pulling pieces from the show to appease nervous university administrators. But, Zeitlin says, the weekly’s writer was working from an outdated list of what were merely possible pieces for the show.
In addition, some of the artists and pieces cited by the weekly as removed from "Democracy in America" are — Zeitlin points around the room — in fact, in the exhibition.
"There was one piece we did pull, Ryan McNamara’s ‘Angry Americans,’ " she said, referring to a photographic collage of eight children affecting upset reactions. "But I can tell you that we did not take it out for its political content. Because, as far as I can tell, there is no political content.’’
Zeitlin admits to actively searching in July and August for pro-Bush artworks to add to the exhibit ("We were trying to do that from the beginning," she said). But for obvious reasons — works promoting an administration in power typically are seen more as propaganda than fine art — her choices were nil.
Instead, she sought out worthy anti-Kerry pieces. Those, too, were hard to come by, though Zeitlin says she was flooded with anti-Kerry art she calls "incredibly hateful, and frankly not very good."
One rather toothless anti-Kerry piece was included in the show from the start: Jim Budde’s "Kerry in Idaho," a ceramic teapot that toys with Kerry’s connection to the Heinz ketchup fortune through his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Zeitlin added a few political cartoons, some from Tribune editorial cartoonist Mike Ritter (who says he thinks his submitted pieces skewed less supportive of the president) and others from conservative illustrator Linda Eddy — though the roasting she gives Kerry (one piece reacts to Kerry’s stance on gay marriage by illustrating Michelangelo’s "The Creation of Adam" with Adam in a pink slip and pumps) could be considered too light and broad when compared to works like a nearby video installation: Michael Rich’s 2003 piece "S.O.S.," in which footage from one of President Bush’s televised evening addresses is manipulated to show him silently blinking the Morse code for help.
Lost in the discussion of politically balancing the exhibition are the show’s more neutral pieces, like folk art, examples of historic satire and even a Bill of Rights made of paper from American flags and denim.
For Zeitlin, the purpose of the show remains engaging attendees in thought and dialogue about the process of voting and the practice of politics in general. Though she’s learned her own lesson about the practice of politics, she says she’s happy with the exhibition as it stands. When asked about whether she would want Kerry and Bush to see the show, she pauses.
"It seems to me," she said, "if they can’t laugh at this stuff, they’re in pretty sorry shape."