On the 28th of March, 2014, Toothfish (in collaboration with noted New Zealand portrait painter Dojo Zen) premiered its latest poster on Facebook. The controversial image featured a painting of current New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key.
"At first glance it appears to be an example of Nazi Party propaganda from the 1930s. The dominant colours are the red, white and black of the swastika flag, and its human subject is decked out in the uniform of a Nazi storm trooper. On closer inspection, however, we discover that the symbol in the centre of the circle is not a swastika but a dollar sign. The monetary symbol is repeated on the storm trooper's armband and a red dollar sign is pinned to his chest. The storm trooper himself is, quite clearly, Key." (Chris Trotter Article - Dominion Post – 11 April 2014)
The poster quickly went viral with comments ranging from supportive . . .
“Perfect – Post them everywhere!” (Aaron Duncan)
“I want one!” (Aunty Waves)
“T-shirts? Right on the money!” (Lindsey Davidson)
“Hahaha – Brilliant!” (Bernard McBrearty)
. . . to extremely upset.
“Beneath contempt! This guy's not funny, he's sick!!! Will we see the leaders of the left publicly distance themselves from this type of scum.” (Francis Heke)
“Just when you think the far left can't sink any lower, they do it again. How sick can they get. I cannot truly express the level of my disgust without expletives.” (Ramsey Homer)
“The Bible tells us that we not blaspheme God or curse the rulers of our people. The artist needs a sound flogging in the public square at the least.” (Michael Forde)
The original painting (gouache on illustration board) by Dojo Zen. Sold to private buyer.
Toothfish originally intended to try and crowd fund a poster run in Wellington but a private donor came forward and the posters appeared on the streets in early April. Contrary to speculation on right-wing blog sites such as Whale Oil and Kiwi Blog this person was not Kim Dotcom. Over the next few days hundreds of thousands of words were written about the poster on both the net and in mainstream media. John Key himself had this to say about the posters:
“I think they are offensive to the Jewish community'' (Dominion Post - April 8)
Is the poster anti-Semitic? Certainly some people seemed to think so:
"My parents lived through the Nazi Occupation of Holland. I am one generation removed from the events that appear to have inspired this sick piece of so called satire. People who disagreed with the Nazi regime disappeared, entire villages of people were wiped out, people were exterminated simply because of their race or religion. How on earth is this comparable to the current government of this country?” (Bart 67)
“This is a new low. John Key's mother fled the Holocaust..I feel sick to my stomach looking at this.” (Roger Herbert)
“I really fail to understand how people seem to think this is some sort of slag off at Jews and atrocities of the holocaust, and that's the first thing they see? Some people need to harden up and read about history ....... it's about power money and the influence of the corporation on the world stage and buying the outcome and the vote and the rights, anyone that hasn't grasped that, and has slagged me off for my defence of this poster. . . ” ( Steve Tellurian)
Toothfish was upset some people felt the poster was anti-Semitic and tried to clarify some of its intentions with this statement on its website:
"The image suggests that the naked pursuit of money is akin to an extremist doctrine; one in which human lives and the environment are being sacrificed on the altar of expediency for the profit of our ruling elites.The poster is NOT saying John Key is a Nazi."
In his newspaper column, 'From the Left', Chris Trotter took issue with this comment:
“This latter disclaimer strikes me as just a little disingenuous. The poster only works because our eye processes its message much faster than our mind is able to decode its content. And what our eye sees is Key dressed as a Nazi. In an unintended way, the artist's resort to the iconography of Nazism is also a statement about the enormous difficulty in visually discussing the totalitarian nature of the neo-liberal ideology.” (Dominion Post – 11 April 2014)
Firstly exactly what is Neoliberalism? Wikipedia has this to say:
"Neoliberalism is the resurgence of ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism beginning in the 1970s and 1980s,whose advocates support extensive economic liberalization, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.
"Toothfish is not an Anti-Semite and it did not call the Prime Minister a Nazi. It merely compared him to one. For a number of good historical reasons the Nazis are the most potent symbol of any kind of extremist /exclusive regime (and yes - Toothfish had heard of Godwins Law before it produced the poster!!!). Neo-liberlaism is an extremist and poisonous way of looking at the world and it has been a complete disaster for the environment. We will fight it to the end." (Toothfish)
This brings us to the question – Is it ever alright to compare a person (especially someone with a Jewish heritage) to a Nazi. Some people thought not:
“John Key is nothing like Adolf Hitter (sic) u ignorant idiot. I hope you die you freak.” (David Blanchard)
Others saw it as a fair comment and and perhaps even as a test of our democratic right to freedom of speech. Right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater, ruefully admitted as much in his Whale Oil blog-site:
“I celebrate the fact that we live in a country where this is legal. I don’t think it is clever, but I support people’s rights to put their money together and express their own views of the world by communicating this way." (Whale Oil - April 3rd)
'Mr's Random' had this to say:
"Most artists will tell you that when they create something they put a part of themselves into it. It's a very personal thing. This artist wouldn't have taken the commission if he wasn't comfortable with the project. We are free to slam the artist if we don't like what he created, just as he was free to create it.”
Some National Party supporters were quick to link the poster to the Green-left and pigeonhole them all as 'Green Taliban' extremists :
“Just when you think the far left can't sink any lower, they do it again. How sick can they get.” (Bad Cat)
Toothfish is not affiliated with any particular group or party and challenges anyone to prove it is. The right-wing are always going to smear the left as extremists. It's what they do.
One of the main reasons the poster succeeded in stirring up so much debate was because it was an excellent painted portrait by a talented professional artist.
“What impresses about this poster is its painterly qualities. Not for its creator the easy cut-and-paste of computer-generated graphic art. This is not a photo-shopped version of Key but a striking portrait executed in gouache on a matte board. More than anything else, it is this painterliness that tricks our eyes into believing we are looking at something from the 1930s.”(Chris Trotter in 'from the Left – Dominion newspaper – April 11, 2014)
Even the Right couldn't deny its qualities:
“As someone who knows quite a bit about painting programs, believe me it would take a serious amount of time either way.There is no 'turn Key into a Nazi, wearing a uniform' with a one or two clicks app.” (Ratmuncher)
"I have to say, take away the Nazi overtones and it's a nice portrait.” (Pete)
“Does he receive art funding or is he self-supporting? Either way he is a creepy little man. As for his John Key picture he should be shot.” (Gaynor)
Whale-Oil's parody of the poster featuring a poorly rendered Kim Dotcom.
The final issue raised by the poster's detractors is that Toothfish is a hypocrite for raising funds by donations and selling posters.
“Does anybody else see the hypocrisy in asking for money so you can publish more copies of a poster depicting somebody you're pillorying for his supposed love of money.” (Youknowitmakessense)
"I laughed all the way to the bank!" (Toothfish)
But why did Toothfish do this poster? What's it about? Perhaps Barry Thomas has the answer:
'The Toothfish poster was only ever a picture. It upset the Prime Minister (and his cronies) because it successfully highlighted the things which he and his ravening ilk care most about , i.e. his money and control. It is the preserve of every democratic nation to uphold the central tenets of 'freedom of speech and expression'. Art, cartooning and all forms of lampooning all test the boundaries of people's beliefs. Key's mates' attacking the poster only shows us how desperate they are to rub out dissent. If we allow this slippery, right wing oligarchy to remain in power we will seethe steady growth in the gap between the rich and the poor'; increased environmental destruction; land and state assets sold to the highest bidder; increased surveillance of all our lives and an ever increasing allegiance to others' foreign policy dictates giving foreign corporations the power to march onto our shores and change our laws at will. Along with all this we will see a greater erosion of public freedoms and the erosion of our ability to express ourselves without fear of arrest. What is at stake here are our core Kiwi beliefs.....the things that make us what we are... a base egalitarianism, a future where we can all contribute and live comfortably and sustainably.'
The Key poster up in Wellington (April 2014) Image stolen from the Whale Oil Blog