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June 8, 2010 

The wild-eyed protestors of the Tea Party movement have certainly taken a space at the center of American political consciousness, as commonplace as its forces might seem (the base of the movement is "Republican, white, male, married and older than 45," according to the New York Times). But to date, the Tea Party’s brushes with the art world have been rare and infelicitous. Most famously, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight had some fun with mad man of the airwaves Glenn Beck, pointing out that the logo for his right-wing, Tea Party-infused "9/12 Movement" was inspired by socialist and anarchist designs.

Still, the Tea Party gang is nothing if not entrepreneurial, and several of its more artistic members have made news with their schemes to flog their own artworks to this particular niche market. A press release from the Princeton, N.J.-based Meg Michael is a case in point.

Michael is pitching 16 x 20 in. prints of her still-life painting, featuring a teapot, cup and saucer placed on an orange tablecloth, to members of the Tea Party movement. "Professional quality copies of a recent still-life painting titled Tea Party are being offered to members of the new political movement for a variety of purposes," her release announces, helpfully listing what such purposes might be: "They may be used to encourage membership and party unity or simply hung in the office or home."

Michael’s press release notes that the work is "painted in a most conservative and traditional style," thereby being perfect for a conservative movement. Prints of Tea Party are available "at a special introductory discount" of $290 -- supposedly a bargain price, considering that the work "may well become a valuable investment in due time as a collector’s item," and has already garnered some media attention. Interested parties may mail a check to "Tea Party Art, Six Smalley Lane, Skillman, NJ 08558." (More of Michael’s work can be seen on the website of the Arts Council of Princeton.)

More typical in terms of the spirit behind the Tea Party movement -- unreasoning fury -- is the art promoted by Amy Marsh, who runs the website, apparently as a side project to her corporate printing business, Marsh Enterprises, located in Olathe, Kansas (she is also on Twitter at The website features free downloadable images to use at rallies.

Here you get the kinds of references that have become the Tea Party’s bread and butter: symbols suggestive of the American Revolution, like a coiled snake with the slogan "Don’t Tread on Me," as well as marginally more clever ideas, like an image of a pitcher of Kool-Aid and a tea bag, with the caption asking, "Which One Are You Drinking?" FreeSignArtwork’s gallery of protest photos features an image of bellicose Fox News pundit Sean Hannity -- a famous Tea Party supporter, who even had to apologize after faking evidence about the size of a Tea Party rally -- holding up an image of a Marsh graphic which declares, "Keep Your Hands Out of My Piggy Bank."

Easily the most unintentionally awesome icon of "Tea Party Art," however, has to be Sarah Para Bellum 2012, by the artist known as Dale, a Virginia-based cartoonist whose Norman Rockwell-meets-Mad Magazine work appears often at a website called All Right Magazine. Somewhere in between caricaturing the evils of "Diversity" and imagining Nancy Pelosi being brought to orgasm over a "Health Care Reform Bill: Pathway to Total Power," Dale found time to create a poster of a brawny Sarah Palin-as-Rosie the Riveter, with a shotgun across her lap and the words "Death Panel" on a BlackBerry clutched in her hand (a reference to her inability to function without written talking points, perhaps?).

You’d think that Sarah Para Bellum 2012 (available online for $13.95!) was some sort of satire, but it is the real deal. A detailed analysis of its iconography appeared last year on the liberal website Daily Kos, which even inspired a counterattack from Shotgun Life magazine -- thatís right, Shotgun Life magazine -- which sternly took the Daily Kos writer’s art criticism to task for misidentifying the weapon held in her lap ("not an over/under but a pump gun"). As to the meaning of the work: "Sarah Palin is trying to uphold the traditions of traditional America, which I think is something worth saving," Dale told Shotgun Life.

At the end of the day, however, the Tea Party movement doesn’t run on such odd hero worship alone (in fact, according to that Times poll, a plurality of Tea Party supporters don’t think Palin is qualified to be president). It runs on rage and fear. And the best art image to capture this is still one of the first: the "Obama as Joker" graphic created by a still-anonymous individual or political consulting firm, which soared into the spotlight last year.

The image has had a long afterlife. Georgia artist Andy Davis is best known for making realistic portrait sculpture of the likes of Hugh Hefner, Ray Charles and Truett Cathy, founder of the Chik-fil-A fast-food empire. However, he caught some headlines earlier this year for his sculptural renditions of the Obama Joker image. According to local news in Atlanta, Davis -- who describes himself as a "mainstream realist" and "a red-blooded American who loves my freedom" -- began as an Obama supporter, creating some 50 bronze busts of the president to sell for between $500 to $1,000. But then he became disillusioned by the president’s handling of the financial crisis and "felt his personal freedoms were threatened," and began to paint the Joker image over some miscast busts of Obama -- drawing a whole new audience.

A Davis Obama-Joker has have been used as part of a fundraiser for the Tea Party, bringing in "quite a bit of money," according to the artist. And its meaning? Davis strenuously rejects any racial overtones, saying instead that it symbolizes that "the state of politics in America has become somewhat of a joke." On that, you’ve got to agree with him.

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