The Unhappy Marriage (Opposite Marriage?) of Art and Politics In the Proposition 8 Debate

Prop(aganda) 8
A critical eye on the unhappy marriage (opposite marriage?) of art and politics in the Proposition 8 debate

When politics seduces art, the resulting offspring—propaganda—usually isn’t very pretty. Generally reductive in every way, it may give us something nice to look at—how couldn’t it, with art as its mother?—but it’s too muddled and too unaware of its own complexity to offer anything in return. Consider Proposition 8 and the plethora of media that jockeyed for position in your frontal lobe.

The bright-yellow or pale-blue Yes On 8 signs, with the tag line “Protect Marriage” prominently displayed next to four dark-blue bathroom-sign stick figures: a man, a boy, a girl and a woman (the female symbols wearing skirts, naturally). The two primary colors commonly associated with children—blue for boys, yellow for girls (now that pink has been poisoned by the gay)—reinforces the “one man, one woman” notion. Heterosexuals breed and homos don’t, and breeding is the reason for marriage, right? Note that the children are touching or attached to their same-sexed parent, hands raised to heaven. No sissies or tomboys in this family—Mom, Dad and God will make sure of that.

The bathroom-sign breeder icons of the Yes side
Beth Stirnaman
The bathroom-sign breeder icons of the Yes side
Protest signs of the times
Protest signs of the times

Those with a Freudian bent will appreciate the Protect Traditional Marriage Vote Yes on Prop. 8, with its delicate first three words italicized and swollen Incredible Hulk-green check mark, probing into T’s nether regions.

The dark-blue signs of the No On 8 side never mention gays or lesbians, leaving unstated who actually might be in need of a No vote—and evincing a squeamishness about gay people that actually reinforces the other side’s squeamishness about gay people. Its blue, white and red colors reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s election signs align themselves with a man who says he doesn’t agree with gay marriage or Prop. 8, sending decidedly mixed signals.

Shepard Fairey’s Defend Equality Love Unites poster brings to mind the Soviet Union’s fetish for workers, the muscled, clenched fist caught midair, suggesting the taking of power into our own hands. As opposed to having the hand open, begging for a civilized handout.

Since the fight over Prop. 8 was essentially a religious debate on one side, the strongest anti-8 signs to this old backslider used Jesus to great effect. With its simple black, white and red graphics, Who Would Jesus Hate? is the antithesis of Fred Phelps’ neon God Hates Fags billboards and even feels a bit more like art than propaganda because it asks a question instead of making a declarative statement.

I stumbled upon the Jesus Loves You and Shares Your Hatred of Homosexuals on Google and found it equally powerful and artistic: Christ carrying a bazooka on his shoulder, head down, a GLAAD office building aflame in the background. To me, it’s a sweet definition of irony, regardless of whether it’s intended to be ironic at all. It’s up to the viewer to decide if it’s a searing condemnation or a rallying cry for extremists to carry the cross of violence, changing the perception of a blackly humorous image into something less comforting. I have to say that I like the ambiguity of not knowing for certain.

No On H8! Liberty and Justice: The Ultimate in Same-Sex Marriage has the oxidized-copper Statue of Liberty planting a smooch on the lips of a scale-holding, blindfolded Justice. An homage to Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo V-J Day In Times Square, it’s a good image, but it looks more like lesbian cosplay—or Alex Ross’ Bush Vampire. Unless it’s a blatant attempt to reach out to heterosexual males or fans of True Blood for support, it’s not the message I’d want to get across.

For every person who sees the stray graphic online or a handmade sign at a protest, hundreds or thousands more will see a video or TV ad. The message: If you really want to affect public opinion, get your work up on YouTube.

Some released before the election:

On the “Yes” side, one short shows two less-than-bright gay dads trying to explain where babies come from to their daughter. It’s clever, but like the Yes On 8 signs, it’s also hung up on procreation, as if companionship or child-free sex (or marriages) has not occurred to them. Other videos shriek about God’s fiery judgement on California during the wildfires last fall or whip people into a frenzy with flat-out misstatements, but robtish’s meticulously researched, well-reasoned video Gay Marriage=Religious Freedom demolishes those pro-8 arguments in a clear, even-handed way. It’s so good you could send Prop. 8 types the link and demolish their arguments with a click.

Editor Ted B. Kissell tells me I have to mention the No On 8 PSA I co-directed with friend Greg Adkins, Love Poem. We probably didn’t change any minds, but we pissed off the right people, just based on what we read in the comments section.

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