On a January morning every four years, hustling street vendors and hectoring protesters converge on the District’s downtown streets. Over the next few hours, they collaborate in packing the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor with every bit of cheesy inaugural merchandise and mass-produced protest art that their partisan targets could possibly drop a 10-spot on. This year, operating on the theory that art is politics and politics is art, the Washington City Paper snatched up just about everything these spectacle-makers were pushing, from buttons to postcards to T-shirts. For an expert opinion, we consulted Paul Von Blum, a UCLA professor and the author of The Critical Vision: A History of Social and Political Art in the U.S., who suggested that only a tiny percentage of political graphics from this year’s inaugural celebrations and protests will be evaluated by future scholars in the field. So we evaluate them here before they’re forgotten, rating their aesthetic and political effectiveness on a scale of zero to four American flags:
Even though übermasculine Bush graphics were the hot items of this past Inauguration Day, we still managed to find a souvenir salesman who was hawking a little something for the ladies: this pin honoring the past 24 years of women in the White House—minus Hillary, of course. By featuring dignified headshots of Nancy, Barbara, and Laura backdropped by the American flag, the pin’s designers were clearly shooting for feminine regality—a tone this tableau would’ve nailed had it not been for the slogan’s throaty italics: “America’s First Class First Ladies.” Verbal leering aside, though, “No one will see Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush and Laura Bush on a pin and become a Republican,” according to Von Blum. But even if you can’t convert anybody, you can at least wear this and cast a quiet vote for free trade: It was, naturally, “assembled in Mexico.” Because the democratic process could really use more unbridled eroticism, we give… [2 1/2 flags].
Worst. President. Ever? Not according to this Portrait of Courage pin, in which the resolute visage of George W. Bush quietly falls in line after Abraham Lincoln’s in the Mount Rushmore all-star lineup. After all, why should we wait for future generations to canonize our commander-in-chief alongside the greatest of the greats? Come to think of it, why should we even wait through a second term? “It’s bizarre,” says Von Blum. “But that’s what [political artists] do….There’s an attempt to link Bush with a broader tradition.” The pin’s designers, however, can’t take full credit for the Rushmore ruse: It was the White House’s marketing team, during the president’s Aug. 15, 2002, speech at the national park, that first framed Bush’s profile alongside those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. After deducting a point for lack of originality, we give this example of wearable wish fulfillment… [2 flags].
Pratt Institute–educated artist Shi-Zhe Yung here replaces the stars of the U.S. flag with major corporate logos—a succinct expression of the anti-capitalist themes Von Blum says have flourished since the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. “It’s about the increase in corporate control, and it’s now a major symbol of the liberal-left opposition,” he notes. The design, however, loses most of its man-the-barricades bite when you read the namby-pamby plea written on the back: “Dear Mr. President, Would you please find a way to put the stars back into the stars and stripes? A loyal citizen.” Even more unsettling is the fact that it’s addressed to “1600 Pennsylvania Drive NW.” Apparently, the folks at Adbusters, a left-leaning media group whose “aim is to topple existing power structures,” aren’t familiar with the world-famous drive—er, avenue—one of those structures calls home. For spoiling an eye-catching visual with some head-scratching verbiage, we bestow… [2 flags].
It was the younger, healthier-looking W pictured on this pin that first tipped us off that something was amiss. Then we noticed the date, rendered in tiny print near the bottom of the image: Jan. 20, 2001. Yup, the crafty career vendor posted on the south side of McPherson Square had sold us a 4-year-old inaugural pin, probably from his back stock. But we’re glad we didn’t hassle him for a trade-in: This wistful bit of memorabilia takes us back to a prewar, pre-9/11 era, when talk of constitutional liberties was largely relegated to law schools, and the economy had only just begun to sputter. Besides, we really like the roasted-chestnut color of Bush’s hair. [3 1/2 flags].
Welcome to Reagan Country. This particular badge zooms in on a cowboy-hat-wearing prez as he sits behind the wheel of what’s presumably a pickup truck, perhaps between rounds of hay-bailing in Crawford, Texas. “They’re basically linking Bush to the Reagan legacy,” says Von Blum. “I think it stems from all the hoopla surrounding Reagan’s death. There was enormous coverage when he died.” Even though the hat alone sends the message, the designers decided to adapt a state slogan to drive home the machismo: “Don’t MESS with DUBYA.” Unfortunately, they’ve opened themselves up to more than just aesthetic criticism: The president’s home state, whose trademark phrase “Don’t Mess With Texas” promotes trash-free roadways, has been sending cease-and-desist orders to merchandisers who filch the slogan. “We definitely want people to know it’s a litter-prevention message, it’s not a macho message,” Texas Department of Transportation official Doris Howdeshell told the Associated Press last year. For its boldly transgressive appropriation, we award… [3 flags].
Leave the hi-rez pics to the right-wingers—nothing says “grass-roots opposition campaign” like a low pixel count. Thanks to its lack of detail, the caricature of Bush on this $15 T lands somewhere between guileless child and surprised Cro-Magnon. But the cluttered background, with its oil rigs and dollar signs and lines of coke, should nudge you along in your interpretation. And the shirt’s back spells out the salacious potshots for good measure: “Cocaine Addict,” “AWOL, Draft Dodger,” “Crook,” “Lying Drunk Driver.” As a bonus, this bit of merch served as the perfect buy for inaugural protesters who’d rather see their money go to a real cause than into the pockets of some apolitical blue-collar vendor: Purchases helped support the Walden Three Project, which, according to its Web site, has developed “an engineering model of a super-efficient, car-free, sustainable city that uses extensive recycling, permaculture, and integrated, co-generation, pollution-free factories to manufacture most of what its citizens consume.” For having dreams as big as Vladimir Tatlin’s, we give this preshrunk-cotton beauty… [2 1/2 flags].
This bad boy rides nice and high, just how Grandpa likes it. Enterprising vendors lugged scores of these shrewdly simple caps on their backs on Inauguration Day morning. And Inauguration Day afternoon. And Inauguration Day evening. But who cares what the philistines think, right? Those few refined revelers who bothered to plunk down their money took home a cap that, intentionally or not, perfectly reflects the honoree’s down-home demeanor. The unadorned block lettering spells “W” better than any highfalutin cursive ever could, while the cherry-colored cotton provides a nice shout-out to Red America. And the convenience of a velcro strap just makes sense. But the utility doesn’t stop there: If you place a snippet of masking tape over the words “THE PRESIDENT,” come springtime you’ve got yourself a brand new Nationals cap. For its archetypally modernist merging of form and function—not to mention its sheer versatility—we give this one… [4 flags].