Jeff Gates is one of the good things about Facebook. I may never have (virtually) met him or seen his work if not for social media. I filter out a lot of digital intrusions (good and bad), but Gates’ entreaties intrigued me, especially his graphic political representations and writings (you can read and see more here).
His biography reads as a testament to the First Amendment on one hand, and a continuum of political commentary on the other. In the late 1980s, he founded Artists for a Better Image (ArtFBI) to study stereotypes of contemporary artists. Many other personal yet public-facing initiatives followed. His interest in the social ramifications of the World Wide Web took him to join the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where he was lead producer of New Media Initiatives for 22 years before retiring in 2018.
Gates continues to use “new” media (indeed, all media) to speak truth to power (or at least find a balance between the good, bad and ugly in contemporary politics). He recently finished his “Republican Faces Series,” which gave me the excuse to learn a bit more about his motivations.
What have you got against these people to be so graphically vicious?
Vicious is such a strong word with a narrow connotation. Yes, I’m angry at those who manipulate our cultural zeitgeist for their own aspirations. And these six, in various ways, clearly do that. To govern effectively, we need people who listen to each other, especially those from different parts of the political spectrum. The representatives pictured here aren’t interested in that. The Republican Party isn’t interested, either. In January 2022, when Mitch McConnell was asked what the GOP plan would be if they regained control of Congress, he said, “That is a very good question, and I’ll let you know when we take it back.” Who would invest in any company that refused to reveal its plans and stand behind them? Their prime interest is power and control. This is the hubris of the Republican Party.
Graphically, each image comes from a public photograph. I will often alter their faces just enough to emphasize the emotions and attitudes that they’re already conveying. If we’re going to use the word “vicious,” it’s these people’s rhetoric and actions that are vicious. As a visual critic, I’m just pointing it out.
So, who are your betes noir?
Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert and Paul Gosar deserve to be taken to task for their lack of civility, their unwillingness to compromise for the betterment of Americans’ lives, their lies, their belief in conspiracy theories, and their desire to disrupt our institutions instead of helping their constituents. As the leader of House Republicans, Kevin McCarthy is ultimately responsible for their behavior. The purpose of our government is to solve problems we must address if we are to survive and flourish. It’s not a place for personal vendettas or manufactured cultural wedge issues.
You seem to be following in the footsteps of John Heartfield, who made acerbic anti-Nazi montages. Who or what inspires your work?
My earlier images were remixes of 20th-century propaganda posters. And I’ve always been an ardent observer of advertising. I’m interested in how to “sell” an idea. Both forms use images and text in very economical ways, which increase their impact.
You once cited even deeper philosophical inspirations …
Western and Eastern philosophies show us two different ways we deal with power and anger. Think of the West’s boxing versus the East’s martial arts. In boxing, it’s who hits hardest and longest: direct power against power. In martial arts, one uses their opponent’s energy against them—taking the oncoming force and redirecting it. I’m more of a martial arts guy in my interactions with others. I grew up in a house where whoever yelled the loudest won. Later in my life, I learned to disable my father’s way of working by redirecting his anger. It was fascinating and compelling.
But in my work as a visual political critic, I have no direct dialogue or real-world relationship with the people in these images. And to be honest, if I found myself face-to-face with any of them, I’m not sure what I would or could say to make them change their minds. (I once encountered John Ashcroft, Attorney General under George W. Bush, as I walked to a meeting in DC. He was so close, I could touch him. I knew what I wanted to say.) I understand the limits of my power. These images are what I can tell them. I’m redirecting their power to give voice to my opinion.
Georg Grosz, among other banned graphic commentators of old, was brought to trial for his “sacrilegious” work. Do you foresee a day when these images might be considered libelous?
In the litigious world we live in, people claiming libel often use it to silence others. So, to answer your question, of course it’s possible. Is it probable? I doubt it. First, this is a commentary about government officials. The First Amendment protects my right to comment on their behavior unless I am inciting violence, which I’m not. Pictures of Matt Gaetz et al. are not images of Mohammed. There are no religious or social edicts against visually depicting Congresspeople.
To be libelous means to defame. Merriam-Webster defines defamation as “communicating false statements about a person that injure that person’s reputation.” There is nothing false about these images (or the essay I’ve written which accompanies them, in which I either quote them or describe behavior that has already been documented). Any defamation of their character is self-inflicted.
Do you do these images as a psychological release, or to inflict pain on your political enemies?
If we’re lucky, we find ways of dealing with stress, gaslighting, and oppositional views, whether public or private. Yes, I do them for myself. It’s a way of countering the powerlessness I feel these days. But I am not a political powerbroker. The success of my work as a critic is getting it out into the public sphere where people can react to it and even use it (this is why I offer all my digital images as free downloads). That’s always hard. So thank you for taking an interest in them.
I would love for the people depicted in these images to see and react to them. But I hold no illusions. They won’t inflict any pain on people so self-absorbed. If anything, they feed on criticism, often using it to raise funds. I’d love for my work to become visual op-eds. That’s what they really are. We treat political cartoons that way. But, so far, I haven’t been able to convince any media outlet to see these images as such.
In other words, what good is polemical, satiric, and acerbic art, anyway?
Ah, the big question: What’s art good for? I could write a book. Art that comments on social, cultural and political events has a long history. Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Pablo Picasso, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson, to more contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei, Banksy, Nan Goldin and Kara Walker, to name just a few. All have documented their times in their work. As we refine our history to include previously obscure events or marginalized people and their experiences, art has a way of creating and enhancing these expanded worldviews.
This is what’s at stake in our present cultural and political debate. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tells us we generalize conservatives and liberals in specific ways. Conservatives feel more at ease with tradition, what they’re familiar with, and what is safe and dependable. In contrast, liberals are more open to new experiences and ideas, novelty and diversity. Politically, this translates into the idea that “closed” individuals are more conservative, while “open” individuals are more liberal. But it isn’t that clear-cut. There’s a difference between “left” and “liberal” and between “right” and “conservative.”
Many see my work as part of the left critique. But I find some things very illiberal about the left. This isn’t an issue of “bothsidesism.” The GOP is much more destructive. It keeps churning out cultural wedge issues, such as teaching critical race theory or the mere mention of LGBTQ+ in our K-12 schools. And they ban important books that tell a more realistic history of the American experience. Republicans’ propaganda—that the Democrats are making race personal, making Whites feel responsible for our past racism—is a canard. What Democrats are saying is that racism is systematic: Our present reflects our past. And that past is not an illusion.
You’ve focused on the Republicans in Congress. It may seem obvious, but can you explain your political position?
I’ve described my position as not being on the political spectrum but outside it, observing and commenting on it. I consider myself a humanist and value and learn from the wide breadth of others’ stories. My work is really about commenting on the ridged mindset of the Republican Party. I can work with conservatives who value order and tradition. But I can’t accept Republicans who live their lives in constant opposition. Race replacement theory is manipulative and attempts to lock history into a narrow paradigm.
And there’s money to be made in this type of rhetoric. As I mentioned, politicians use oppositional politics to raise funds. But media outlets also use them to bring in added revenue and viewers. As we know now, Facebook and other social media outlets encourage our anger. The more clicks, the more revenue. None of this is good for the country or the human spirit, just for the powers that be. Visual commentary reflects and comments on these destructive currents in our culture. And, like the work of John Heartfield, George Grosz and others, art that questions the status quo becomes part of the documentation of these times. I reject our status quo, and my art reflects this.
To quote the sixth-century Buddhist Sent-ts’an, “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.” Whether visual or written, art attempts to keep our history elastic. We can fill it with as much lived experience as we want.