Sign Language

Occupy the RNC? What’s Behind Tampa’s Homemade Signs

Blake Gopnik on why the DIY vibe in Tampa’s signs may not be legit.

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“HEALTH CARE IS A HUMAN RIGHT,” “END CORPORATE WELFARE NOW,” “WALL $TREET = OUT OF CONTROL $GREED$”, reads one set of messages, put out at last year’s occupation of New York’s Zuccotti Park.

“Hispanics for Mitt,” “WE [heart] Ann,” “WE BUILT IT,” reads another, at this week’s Republican National Convention. Not much in common between them—except maybe to an art critic’s eyes. Both movements, eager to strike the same grassroots notes, are relying on one visual device: Hand-lettered signs that imply authenticity and honest emotion, just as crudeness has in art for the last 200 years.

You expect such scrawls from the Occupiers. When I stopped by Zuccotti last year, unfolded boxes scribbled with Sharpies were the order of the day. Some protesters told me it was about saving money, even though today’s copy shops can deliver a slick sign for the cost of a cappuccino. Others admitted there were aesthetics involved. One demonstrator, holding a sign magic-markered with the words “Solution: Simple! BUST UP the BIG BANKS,” told me that posters like hers “just draw more attention and show more effort. Anyone can just print one out.” That was close to the official Occupy view. “What we’re trying to emphasize is that normal people making their own signs can get the message across better than a bunch of perfectly made signs” is what I was told by the movement’s press team, who’d dismantled the “official” sign-making station they’d started out with. (They’d noticed that union-hosted marches, with rows of identical signs, hadn’t fared well with the press.)

Occupy’s thinking seems echoed at the RNC. Images from Florida show plenty of standard, pre-printed, red-white-and-blue campaign posters, on-message in every way. Their crisp, Times Roman style sells Republican values of discipline, order, and worldly success—the printed equivalent of a regimental necktie. But among them we can spot others that look DIY: a knot of hand-lettered “We Built It” signs, held by cheering Mitt Romney fans; a forest of Ann-hearting scrawls, on view at his wife’s speech.

At the well-funded RNC, that hand lettering can’t be about saving money. Instead, it sends a message—an almost Zuccottian message—that the American people are talking, direct from the heart, and that their enthusiasm doesn’t leave time for fussing with printers. Those signs are so crude, the reasoning goes, that they can only have sprung from an irrepressible emotional urge.

That equation of crudeness with authenticity has a long pedigree in our culture. It was there in ancient Rome, in the fake-rural poetry favored by urban elites. It erupts again with the birth of the Romantic movement, around 1800, when audiences learned to love the countrified directness of Robert Burns’s verse and the inspired simplicity of William Blake’s pictures. But it really takes off in the 20th century, when the Picassos and Matisses of this world could find inspiration—and unfaked emotion—in the untutored art of children and the mentally ill. Some of modern art’s most sophisticated statements depended on avoiding all trace of sophistication.

Which brings us back to Occupy and the RNC. Occupy bought into the Romantic ethos big time, by actually promoting every kind of wild and wooly, inchoate expression, including signs no fifth grader could be proud of. Images from the RNC, however, suggest that we’re looking at a much more studied, coordinated form of expression—more Matisse than Grandma Moses—that may be trickling down from on high rather than welling up from below. The scrawls promoting Ann Romney are all in the same tones of red and blue, on the same all-white paper, with always the same heart motif—which derives, let’s remember, from one of the more successful ad campaigns of all time. (Its origins are on Madison Avenue, that is, not Skid Row or even Main Street.) Can we really imagine that the spontaneous emotions of so many Ann fans could have poured out so much in lockstep? The convention’s identikit “We Built It” signs, done in broad magic marker, feel like unplugged cover versions of the printed posters all around them. You can almost see a backroom full of party activists, their white shirts stained red and blue, churning them out assembly-line style. (Beast columnist Matt Latimer says that’s how such posters get made, as he’s witnessed at conventions past.)

I wonder, though, if the hunger for the hand-lettered may not have grown sharper in recent years, with so much of the world now coming to us through screens. We think we’re looking at Zuccotti Park, but most often we’re just peering at some dancing liquid crystals. We imagine that we’ve seen the Republican National Convention, where really we’ve been watching the glossy front end of our high-tech infrastructure. Today, we’re so constantly in contact with a manufactured surface that we respond doubly well to anything that’s funky. Pixels can seem just a touch less remote, when they’re bringing us the mark of the hand.