What the poster — and another soon to appear at the Farragut West station — are about is the way we debate each other. Under the name the Chamomile Tea Party, Gates is on a crusade to bring civility back to political discourse through a form of art not known for its subtlety or objectivity: propaganda posters. Inspired by the way that propaganda united Americans during World War II, he has used that visual language to explore why people are so politically divided in the walk-up to this year’s election. Instead of war bonds and victory gardens, Gates is trying to promote honesty, moderation and civility.
“I think propaganda is very much a part of our lives now, but it’s couched in very different ways, very benign ways. . . . We really have to be even more aware of what messages mean,” he said. In World War II propaganda, he said, “the lines were so clear between right and wrong, between the Axis and the Allies. . . . The parameters of this discussion are much less black and white.”
Gates got the idea for the posters on July 3, 2010, while listening to NPR as he walked home from the Metro.
“They had a story about the nomination of Elena Kagan, and they said that all of the Republicans were going to vote against it based on party lines. All of a sudden, I got really upset,” said Gates. “Yes, she was liberal, but she wasn’t a raving liberal. And to count her out simply because of party affiliation, it became very clear to me that party politics was countering governance.”
Gates has been distributing his posters online for free ever since, and they’ve popped up in surprising places. He said he was particularly excited to see them at the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, presented on the National Mall by comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. But with the election drawing near, Gates wanted to get his message to a broader audience. It may have already reached you if your Red Line commute takes you to Gallery Place-Chinatown, where Gates has purchased advertising space to install one of his Chamomile Tea Party posters.
According to Cathy Asato of Metro’s media relations department, this is the first time an artist has purchased advertising space to showcase art.
Gates says he paid about $3,400 for the ad spaces and versions of the posters suitable for Metro’s back-lit display. He received a discount because he submitted the posters through his nonprofit, Art FBI (Artists for a Better Image), which works to combat stereotypes of artists. At his day job, Gates’s title is lead producer, new media initiatives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which makes him a federal employee. But because his political art doesn’t explicitly promote a candidate, it’s permissible under the Hatch Act, which governs the political activities of government workers.