George Zimmerman’s Dog Whistle Art

It’s hard to tell from online images, but the new painting by the accused (and acquitted) killer of Trayvon Martin looks to be a blue-tinged, monochromatic picture of a wind-ruffled American flag, with some text about God and Liberty overlaid on it. Raw Story and other sources report that George Zimmerman,  has offered over EBay a work billed as his first painting. Bidding has reached  $99,000 according to a page on EBay that shows what several news sources say is Zimmerman’s art.

George Zimmerman (AP Photo/Joe Burbank)
George Zimmerman (AP Photo/Joe Burbank)

The painting uses text from the pledge of allegiance and its one clever gesture is to place the words “One Nation” beneath the word “God,” leaving out “under” to create a visual pun. The words “Liberty and Justice” are placed on a third line underneath the first two. The flag looks like a painted version of a photograph and isn’t terribly well rendered, though it is clearly recognizable as a flag.

Using text overlay in painting is a venerable tradition back to the Renaissance and earlier, when the word of God is sometimes rendered as text coming from the mouth of an angel or other divine figure. In the last century, text appears in many forms, on newspaper clippings collaged into works by Picasso, as the sole subject of art in works by Jenny Holzer or Mel Bochner, and as an overlay in poster art and contemporary political images.

In most cases the use of text in an image suggests some kind of irony, dissonance or tension between what is depicted and what the words say: The classic example is Magritte’s 1928-29 “The Treachery of Images,” in which the words  “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” are rendered below the image of a pipe. The text—which claims “this is not a pipe”—is both paradoxical and literally true. A painted pipe is not, in fact, a real pipe.

In this putative Zimmerman work, the text and the image are in complete alignment. Text reinforces the essentially patriotic image. But read in the context of Zimmerman’s life, and the support he has drawn from a spectrum of generally right-wing groups—gun owners, supporters of “stand your ground” laws which may encourage vigilantism, and from people who take a distinctly racial or racist view of contemporary American society—and the text/image alignment becomes at least symptomatic of something else.

This isn’t simply a patriotic image, it’s an image about allegiance. Bidding on it, buying it, sending money to Zimmerman, is an act of allegiance to something for which Zimmerman now claims to stand. And what is that? Is it old-fashioned American values, such as liberty and justice? Or is it embedded in the image’s monochromatic coloring? A black-and-white view of the world?

For the creator of this image, its power is enhanced by leaving that question open. But the fact of its creation and the apparent interest it has attracted from people willing to pay serious money for it, suggests how powerful our culture of allegiances is today. This isn’t a painting about America. It’s a painting that uses American iconography to parse America into a very particular sense of Americanness, based on grievance, isolation and an injured sense of American pride.

Even its claim of “one nation,” seems to be exactly the opposite of the social impact–the game of its creation, sale, circulation and discussion–the painting creates. If Zimmerman was a better painter, he might have rendered a dog whistle, with the words: This is not a dog whistle.

 

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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