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The Meaning of the Covid Street Art


There are more than two Americas. No matter what it feels like right now, there are. There are more than just the “vaccinated” and “unvaccinated,” more than just white supremacists and wokes, more than just Republicans and Democrats. 

The further you get from the cultural centers the clearer it becomes. The whole country’s a super-saturated shade of purple. It’s nothing like the schizophrenic red, blue binary represented in the media because it turns out—weirdly, improbably—that this kind of Manichaean thinking is a pretty awful way to understand a nation of 330 million people. 

Not that long ago, elite culture celebrated America’s inscrutability.  There was room for punk, irony, irreverence, poetry slams, bad taste, good sex, and mediocre ethics. There was room for hopeful immigrants, unapologetic imbeciles, and more Nobel Prize winners than any country on earth.

But for the last two years we’ve been under siege from technocratic puritans, prudes who insist on moralizing every appetite, zealots who turn every disagreement into a series of cosmic struggles—science vs ignorance, democracy vs fascism, truth vs lies, everyone vs white-heteronormative men. On CNN, at The New York Times, in The Washington Post, and especially on Twitter, it’s some version of the following.

America is punch-drunk. We’re one standing eight count away from a permanent slump. The one-two wham-o of Trump and Covid left us badly cut, bruised, and wobbly. 

The most learned pundits are talking about early retirement. 250 years is long enough.

It’s time to call it. We’re washed up, a failed experiment.

Jim Crow has returned. The unvaccinated are ruining our disease-free future, and global warming is going to melt your face off. 

Sure, there were a few highlights: WWII, MLK, maybe Abraham Lincoln. But beyond that, well, let’s just say the world won’t miss us…

If you’re on a mainstream media diet, this is the menu. This is what it smells and tastes like to live here. It’s a dour, sad, depressing affair. Everything is broken, everywhere, and it always has been.

Now, it goes without saying (though I will) that the other major media universe is no better. Fox and its smaller, stranger satellites is somehow more glum.

The election was definitely stolen. Hillary Clinton (grrr!) is going to run for President again. Meanwhile CRT is forcefully vaccinating your children, and the government wants to legalize postpartum abortion.

But here’s the thing. Most Americans don’t live in either universe. Most of us aren’t so easily classified. We’re nonbinary. We’re complicated. Strange. Mixed up. More skeptical and more trusting of those we elect to represent us.

For most of us, Obama was President, then Trump was President, and now Biden is President. And the quotient of racism didn’t change. 

Covid wasn’t here, and then Covid was here. And afterwards the public health officials who lived in pamphlets you threw away after picking up free condoms at the clinic were transubstantiated into infallible popes of all that’s righteous and holy.

And during all that symbolic upheaval, the country kept right on minting billionaires. The country kept right on cannibalizing its middle class. The country kept right on ignoring its creaking, cruel immigration system. The country kept right on green lighting our insane drug prices.

So you’ll forgive the people who don’t want to play a bit part in the weird, hyperventilating Covid reality show the media’s producing 24-7. You’ll understand when the art appearing on their streets takes an edge, bucktooths a lower lip, and throws you the bird.

That’s what’s been happening from DC to LA. Irreverent, adolescent, funny art popping up faster than it can be torn down.

A coherent series recently showed up in the NoMa area of DC. 

The posters look like a mashup of artist Gustav Klutsis’ Soviet-style propaganda and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. The first in the series is the funniest, and also the least sophisticated.

“Comply” is what Biden might look like if he stumbled out from one of his multi-million-dollar homes at 2 o’clock in the morning because you stole all his garden gnomes. The logo-accurate Osha mallet is a menacing bit of seriousness because mandates are a live and consequential political issue, but his face and the Cyrillic-styled “Comply” loaded with vaccines keeps anyone from taking this seriously.

“Good Kids Are Compliant Kids” is next up. It’s a little meaner, a little more pointed. With their beatific gaze turned upwards, and their no longer kosher cloth red masks, the kids are not definitely alright. Compliance is happiness, and vaccines are happiness, and happiness is good. 

It’s here that the religious flavor of the artist’s critique emerges most clearly in Biden’s ridiculous halo of syringes. Like all the posters, however, notice how his expression has a comic kink. It signals the tongue-and-cheek nature of the series.

The third poster takes a more sinister turn, “Mandate! Segregate! Subjugate!” This is closest in style to a malevolent and chaotic comic book villain—something out of Morrison’s “Outer Church,” or maybe Lucifer from DC Comics. This poster screams conspiracy. The tattered constitution, the masked hoards, the ghostly reproduction of Fauci in the shadows, is all standard fair. 

But then it races past the conspiracy towards absurdity. Mushroom clouds, the baroque, satanic throne, the plushy-sized Coronavirus. This poster is skewering the people who skewer the people who don’t toe the line. You think we’re conspiracy nuts? Fine. We’ll show you a conspiracy.

“Trust the Scientism” is the fourth, and final installment. Scientism carries a variety of meanings, and none of them are favorable. In this context, it’s the practice of substituting science and scientific rhetoric for religion and religious rhetoric. Within this ideological framework, “It’s science!” is roughly equivalent to “The Bible tells us…”

This is most commonly, and gratingly, exemplified by the phrase “follow the science,” which this poster parodies. Here we have Fauci dressed like a priest, or maybe Neo from the Matrix. Either way, his giant syringe looks like a Sesame Street prop, and the atomic energy symbol looks more like something from Pinky and the Brain than a nuclear test site. 

And again with the face. I can’t decide if the artist is going for Cecil Turtle of Looney Tunes fame, or a beady-eyed Mr. Bean. Whatever your preference, there’s nothing menacing about the figure. He’s closer to a low-budget YouTube production of 1984 than Orwell’s disturbing original.

But like all the other posters, the image is ironic. Multiple layers of signification throw the meanings back at you. Craft that aspires to art does this. It claims more than one thing at once. It’s not this or that. It’s this and that. The question is where are you going to stand.

We have a choice. We used to be able to talk about complex issues that had more than one solution. But now zealots and Marvel-eyed middle schoolers have fashioned a world in which this essential principle is subversive. 

That’s fine. It’s worth fighting for—choice, I mean. Liberty, “free-dumb,” whatever you want to call it. Liberty forces you to contend with more than two variables, it’s all questions and no answers. 

How many years do you think you have to live anyway? What weighs more at the end of your life, the days you saved or the days you spent? 

Why isn’t everyone in Florida dead?

How many people are scrambling to get into this country for a better life and what should we do about it?

Do you think the broken supply chain looked funny and small to Jeff Bezos when he looked out his rocket-man window?

Do you think maybe, just maybe, it’s a mistake to simplify every issue into a stupid middle-school binary?

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  • C. Travis Webb

    C. Travis Webb, PhD, is a former Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Interim Editor of the American Academy of Religion’s online book review forum, Reading Religion. He is founder of the CultureHum Foundation and editor of The American Age, the foundation's most direct attempt to influence American public discourse.

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