In anticipation of the January 1 transfer of power, Brazil’s far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro is moving out of the presidential palace in Brasília — and he’s taking his artwork with him.
The Bolsonaro era has been marked by campaign aesthetics and fan art that is considered by opponents to be tacky at best. Paintings featuring tooth gaps reminiscent of Mac DeMarco, a praying cat, and one very bloody Christ have caused alternate delight and despair online, sparking the slogan “A crise é estética,” meaning “The crisis is aesthetic.”
A video of movers removing a wooden statue of a motorcycle from the presidential palace has taken off on social media, opening the floodgates for online commentators to mock the Bolsonaro aesthetic and celebrate its impending conclusion.
The statue that spurred this online frenzy is called the “Harley Mito,” which makes reference to Bolsonaro’s nickname “The Myth” and was gifted to him by Adauto José Pereira, a supporter and woodworker from Santa Catarina. Along with the video, photos have circulated of a life-size wooden sculpture of the outgoing president and of a much-derided charcoal drawing featuring a disproportionate, distinctly cross-eyed Bolsonaro behind his wife and daughter.
Not even the official presidential portrait is safe from ridicule: when Bolsonaro’s son shared an image of famous pop artist Romero Britto’s unfinished portrait in 2020, Twitter users jumped to point out the president’s fuschia lips.
The gleeful backlash to the Bolsonaro aesthetic echoes the memeification of a Trump family portrait circulated in 2016, which featured a young Barron Trump sitting on a fake stuffed lion with his parents seated a safe social distance away. The Trump years were subject to the normalization of gaudy, patriotic fan art; the same is true of the Bolsonaro years in Brazil.
The aesthetic crisis reaches beyond fan art into the behavior of Bolsonaro and his loyalists in the meeting of their public and private lives. The Instagram page @acriseestética recently highlighted several Bolsonaro-themed weddings, as well as a deflating green and yellow penis balloon on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo. The balloon references another moment that makes Bolsonaro opponents groan (and that his most ardent supporters relish): The outgoing president led a group of supporters in chanting “imbrochável,” translating to “never limp,” during a September bicentennial celebration of Brazil’s independence in Brasília.
What many opponents consider gauche tributes to a defeated fascist shows that the divide about the president touches every aspect of cultural life. In a 2018 Vice article about the Bolsonaro-era “aesthetic crisis,” journalist Amanda Cavalcanti claimed that cringe-worthy collages featuring pixelated images and mismatched fonts are in fact a tool used by Bolsonaro and his allies to reject intellectualism and its pre-established, class-signifying aesthetic standards.
Bolsonaro’s tenure as president, which began in 2018, has been marked by extreme cuts to funding for arts and culture. One of his first actions as president was to dismantle the Ministry of Culture. Censorship and anti-culture rhetoric rose, resulting in a profoundly negative impact on artists and the creative sector.
The third inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the center-left former president who beat Bolsonaro by a fraction of a percentage point in October, signifies a new era for the arts in Brazil.
Lula has already promised to reestablish the Ministry of Culture that was dissolved under Bolsonaro, and named Bahian singer Margareth Menezes as the new Minister of Culture in anticipation of his new government. This is not the first time that Lula has named an artist from Bahia, Brazil’s most African-influenced state, to the role of Minister: During his first two terms, world-famous Bahian singer Gilberto Gil oversaw a major expansion of funding for diversity in the arts.
Artists are hopeful that the new administration will also work to restore the Rouanet Law, a federal tax incentive that provides funding for culture, that was drastically limited under Bolsonaro, including the reduction of artist caches by 93%.
Change is coming to Brazil’s cultural sector. But for the last week and a half of Bolsonaro’s presidency, the Internet can rejoice in or deplore the aesthetic crisis that is finally coming to an end.