This recent street art (pictures below) by the street artist “WhIsBe” in New York City is charged with provocative imagery and is a striking piece of commentary on corporate brands and the military. The artwork is a mash-up of the McDonald’s corporation’s red-headed clown mascot Ronald McDonald and its branding with fascist militaristic images (Hitler moustache, Nazi salute and uniform). This is one of the more exciting, fresher pieces of street art we’ve seen in a long time in terms of its aesthetics and bold, critical political-corporate commentary. It also seems ripe for controversy and a catalyst for some debate about what is and isn’t “art” and what is and isn’t offensive. If this wheat-paste street artwork is still up, you can find it on a wall on Thompson Street between Spring and Broome streets in SoHo.
It’s important to note art history has a long track record of artwork and artists being misunderstood and controversial. Or, to be more precise, of artists and their artwork being interpreted in multiple, vastly different ways by its audience. Especially public art and street art, which lacks the institutional context of the museum or gallery and the curatorial background that context provides to viewer. Street art imposes itself on the landscape and thus the audience. (Whereas viewing art at a museum or gallery is by and large an exercise in the audience opting in to the experience.)
WhisBe’s mash-up of military imagery and a global corporate brand to create the “McDictator” is a way of vividly, boldly taking well-known visual references and using these to make a powerful, critical and thought-provoking comment on a specific brand and corporation: McDonald’s. That’s one read. Another read is that it’s a comment on the dangers of fascism and totalitarianism, especially when these are promoted behind a cheery, charming and otherwise harmless-looking disguise (a happy clown). And yet another reading of this is that dictators are clowns, intellectually and emotionally-stunted buffoons seeking attention while recklessly operating the levers of power.
There is no explicit use of Nazi symbols in the artwork, but the figure’s pose is with little doubt derived from an archival photo of a Nazi solider (possibly Hitler) and the infamous salute, and anybody familiar with 20th Century history will recognize it as such. Instead of a swastika on the armband, there is McDonald’s globaly ubiquitous Golden Arches logo. While some of the symbolic imagery is offensive in and of itself, it would be a misreading to think the artwork is condoning or trying to paint a positive face on the evils of fascism or Nazism and its horrors.
The imagery is a piece of visual shorthand. When this visual grammar is re-configured, re-contextualized, juxtaposed and mashed up with the McDonald’s imagery, it’s making an entirely different artistic statement than, say, if someone were to put up unadulterated photos of Hitler himself or images of Nazi swastikas.
But like all art — in all its forms — it is the individual in the audience to make of the art what they will, to derive what meaning there may be in the work, and arrive at some understanding of it after critical thought.
See more examples of WhisBe’s street art on Global Graphica.