Donald’s trunk

questions whether political art measures up in the age of social media

It’s an odd thing waking up to find Reddit, Twitter and your Facebook newsfeed all plastered with a naked Donald Trump – particularly when its most notable and defining feature is a tiny penis. Ilma Gore’s ‘Make America Great Again’ seems to have struck a chord online, with the simple irony of matching up one of Trump’s most self-congratulating and well travelled slogans with an underwhelming member (which probably touches a nerve for a man already severely paranoid about the size of his hands).

At the same time, while Gore has taken to social media in a bid to imply a degree of sophistication in her art, claiming her detractors “wouldn’t feel so intimidated by penis size if masculinity wasn’t rooted in oppressing women and femininity”, it’s hard to see this as more than a well-drawn dick joke. It’s also probably worth noting (if we’re treating her work as a complex statement) that the drawing shows her to be just as engaged in phallocentric discourse and outdated models of masculinity and gender as Trump and his followers are. There is, then, a flipside to this; social media has facilitated the spread of a broadly unheard of artist, and given a platform to her voice, but what it has promoted isn’t particularly nuanced or clever. The statement is satisfying but not particularly sophisticated. It’s the 2016, gentrified, middle class equivalent of spray-painting “Thatcher is a twat” on the side of a building: it’s a pretty good indicator of how a group of people feel, but doesn’t really say anything.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the kind of satirical political art that has been more widely spread in the past is any better. The penchant newspaper artists seem to hold for labelling the content of their cartoons rather than making them visually representative, for instance, is pretty uninspiring. At the other end of the spectrum are magazines like Charlie Hebdo who go for shock appeal rather than nuance. It’s a tricky balance; few of the mainstream papers could have afforded to offend their readers, whereas Charlie Hebdo owes its success pretty much exclusively to its ability to satisfy its readers’ desire for the inflammatory. Of all the print examples I can think of, Private Eye is the only publication to consistently get it right, and even they have mellowed somewhat in recent years.

The problem with the political art distributed via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit isn’t really anything to do with a generation whom Buzzfeed has taught that media should be quick and shallow, as is sometimes stated. It is more a problem of demand than anything else. For whatever reason people seem to prefer their political art simple and dictatorial. It isn’t clear whether this is born from a fear of having opinions complicated or challenged, or if drawing a Trump with a small dick is just a satisfying relief from the unsure world of political discussion.

It would be easy for me to sit and complain about consumers not wanting to be challenged and only seeking out things which immediately support their biases and mock the people whose views they dislike based on physical appearance and not discussion (you don’t even need to look at Trump’s penis to see that happening here, just look at his face). However, there is probably something to be said for light uncomplicated comic relief, as a reprieve from the more sinister implications of the views of someone like Trump.

The main difference that seems to have come with social media is variation. No longer limited by the logistics of published work, artists can be raised up or dropped in an instant (Illma Gore, for instance, has already faded from the limelight). While it is increasingly threatened (Facebook have already taken down ‘Make America Great Again’ and Trump is threatening to sue), the ability of the internet to stimulate discussion is unparalleled. That said, it is also pretty good at leaving voices which provide less immediate gratification in obscurity.

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