The New "I Love New York" Poster (E Pluribus Unum)
New York Times art critic, James Farago, penned a piece of journalism about the poster that commemorates New York State's response to the first wave of Covid-19, that is indistinguishable from flaccid art criticism and an op-ed. The article title’s sub text reads: “The retro political artwork on “New York Tough” is peak Cuomo, summing up the state’s battle against the coronavirus. But is it art?”
Wouldn't the “is it art?” discussion be more appropriately reserved for controversial productions of art? Such as Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels”, an installation conceptualized, but not constructed by the artist. Or something like the banana that was taped to a wall that sold for $120,000? Or is the “is it art” question a paradox: once you get close enough to even the most seemingly insignificant creation, you can still observe the deep mysteries of the universe, as they taunt our feeble human consciousness. Consciousness becomes art, art becomes God and so forth. So the question "is it art?" then entertains the amateur existentialist, because everything is art, and the unanswerable question becomes "why isn't it art?". Or is viewing the poster that Andrew Cuomo (at least) conceptualized through the lens of art criticism, a short-circuited response to an illustration that requires something more than a reflexive editorial?
For me the poster is an acknowledgement of our shared historical experience.
We all sat on our couches, in our chairs, on the floor, some wrapped in blankets, others undoubtedly in the nude. Sipping on smoothies, crunching toast, guzzling coffee, biting our nails, fidgeting, clenching our fists, and holding our breath. Stuck in our houses, apartments, and rooms. Listening to ambulances, police cars, and helicopters race by outside and overhead. Afraid for ourselves, for those that we know, those that are in our lives, those that are older, those that are immune-compromised, the innumerable that we do not know and cannot know. Also afraid that those of us who are healthy, yet knowing our luck, would be the one that the virus would vengefully seek out and consume.
As our employers laid us off, and the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months, and while some of us did not have family or friends to call on and become closer to through this experience: we watched and listed to Andrew Cuomo and his team tell us that they were working on things, and that they were working for us. Some of us did not have anyone else to turn to except for Andrew Cuomo and his team.
We ordered masks from Amazon and random medical companies that sold the illusive .1micron filtering surgical masks. We bought gloves and used them when we pumped our gas. We bought the weirdly scented hand sanitizer and disinfectants that were over priced and left on the shelves. We kept our distance. We played it smart and close to our chests. We thought about the people that had exited our lives before the crisis, we wondered how they were, even though we knew that we would never see them again. We experienced a tragically artful layering of loss and aloneness. While the world was falling apart, the only thing that we could count on was Andrew Cuomo and his team’s daily briefings. We listened to Cuomo, and we survived.
So when the Governor of New York made a poster, in the style of 19th century campaign poster, that tells the story of what the state government did to save lives and manage the crisis, and provide guidance to other states throughout the nation, that poster comes under fire as smug, precipitated, and of general low fidelity.
Why is the celebration of the formulation of a working response to Covid-19, in the form of a retro-style political poster automatically mocked? If seen as an indication that the battle with Covid is over, then the poster can certainly be seen as short sighted, and ridiculous. But in his briefings, even as they have become less frequent, Cuomo has repeatedly stressed that our battle with Covid is not over, and our actions need to be proportioned accordingly, or that sole peak that we just climbed will extend and rise into a mountain range.
The poster is a life or death consequential statement that is not being made anywhere else in the country: this is how we managed the virus. Despite the low-hanging fruit of sensationalism, the poster is propaganda for the correct response to the Covid pandemic, not Andrew Cuomo’s ego.
How about we talk about the egoic propaganda poster for Donald Trump’s federal response to the pandemic: it is illustrated in over 135,000 graves.
Described by Farago as “a nightmarish vision of an island mountain, festooned with icons of death and decline, overlaid with text flying in every direction”, applying the lens of art criticism to a government made historical poster is like applying the lens of art criticism to a power point presentation.
Maybe Farago and I are asking two different questions. Farago asks “is it art?”, I ask “when can I order this thing, so I can frame it and remember this time when so many of us went through some of the most challenging times of our lives, and made it through because we had competent and present leadership.”