On Saturday night, Bernie Sanders visited an art gallery in the East Village. He laughed at himself as a Muppet, in Donny Miller‘s “Ernie Bernie” (2016), and took in other artworks that illustrate his campaign themes and lionize his face as a political icon.
After looking at all these depictions of himself at 312 Bowery, Sanders confessed to the crowd in his characteristic Brooklyn accent, “I gotta tell you, on a personal level, it is a little bit weird … these guys putting me up on the wall.” The room erupted in laughter. It was another flash of the down-to-earth humor and awkward humility that have endeared the candidate to young people and the far left in the US.
The art exhibition, The Art of a Political Revolution: Artists for Bernie Sanders 2016, has been touring the country as the primary season unfolds. Yes, this show is organized by an arm of the Sanders campaign. Nevertheless, it would be reductive to dismiss this art show as empty propaganda. What imagery of a candidate isn’t propaganda advancing a particular ideology? What’s valuable about exploring this show is the opportunity to understand Bernie Sanders’s meteoric rise through an artistic and pictorial lens. Images can cut to the chase, revealing a candidate’s appeal in ways words can’t.
These images celebrate Bernie Sanders’s improbable rise on the wave of a shared desire for revolution. But what do people mean by “revolution,” and what are the word’s origins?
The term revolution is an appropriation from Renaissance astronomy. Copernicus first popularized the word in his landmark text “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (1543), which famously argued the Earth was revolving around the sun, and not the other way around.
One hundred years later, as Hannah Arendt explains in her book On Revolution, England’s political intellectuals needed a new word to describe the events of 1660 when the English monarchy was restored. It hardly sounds revolutionary by today’s standards to bring back kings — though the leadership vacuum left in the wake of Oliver Cromwell‘s death in 1658 turned out to be more tyrannical than the aristocrats Cromwell and his allies deposed.
English intellectuals appropriated the astral term “revolution” to express how politics, like the stars, is cyclical. The English people watched their country swiftly cycle through political chapters of tyranny, oligarchy, democracy, and aristocracy. And revolution stuck as the right word to express one of these big shifts. Three hundred and fifty years later, revolution has taken on many more shades of meaning and lost its astronomical origins. Nevertheless, calls for revolution retain this belief that politics is cyclical and that a different mode would serve the people better. For Bernie Sanders, this means restoring the New Deal and the middle class, and cycling back to a more socialist and more equal nation. Isn’t it really the Franklin D. Roosevelt restoration?
Zoetica Ebb has created an image of Bernie Sanders amidst the stars. She explained in a written statement that “Bernie restored my faith in the existence of politicians who work for the good of someone other than themselves. With him, we can sort out our society, so that we can finally achieve humanity’s destiny — to ascend to the stars.” It’s unclear whether the artist was aware of the astronomical metaphors that underpin the etymology and metaphor of revolution. Either way, this image taps into the aspiration that Sanders will usher in a cyclical change that is destined to lift this country up.
Sanders benefits from the visual trope of the sagacious elderly man. Many artists play up his wrinkles and elderly features to suggest his wisdom. By re-appropriating art historical visual tropes, artists intimate with elderly features that Sanders is the benevolent celestial fatherly god of Renaissance art (Ebb), the patrician leader of Enlightenment portraiture (Dave Kloc), and the seasoned leftist leader of 20th-century socialist icons (Aaron Draplin).
Of course, the impulse to immediately ascribe wisdom to Sanders’s signs of old age comes down to one fact: he is an old, white man. Female candidates like Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, are penalized for aging, lest she appear like a witch. Imagine if Hillary stopped coloring her hair and went gray like Sanders. He undeniably benefits from a visual culture that values old men more than old women. While he didn’t ask for it, and deserves credit for his statements in support of women, this disparity becomes so glaringly apparent in the art that promotes him.
Greg Auerbach sums up the entire show with his work “We All Deserve a Future” (2016). Standing before the White House, a seasoned male activist holds up a sign spelling out those titular words. The work captures Sanders’s appeal as a revolutionary, activist, and sage. However you plan to vote or not vote tomorrow, it’s worth a visit today to 312 Bowery to illuminate the visual dynamics that are shaping tomorrow’s big vote in New York City.
The Art of a Political Revolution: Artists for Bernie Sanders 2016 is on view at 312 Bowery (312 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 18, 7pm.