This is part of a new series on contemporary art as political commentary.
“Make Tacos Not War” — At the Blanton Museum, a neon sign created by Alejandro Diaz displays this message in glowing blue letters. On the adjacent wall, cardboard signs, a familiar symbol of homelessness, bear phrases such as “Happiness is Expensive,” and “Please don’t feed the Docents.” Created in 2007, Diaz’s work comments on tensions in South Texas that, twelve years later, are at the center of immigration debates. Diaz’s disarming humor and pop-culture appeal make his work more accessible than the intensely divisive political rhetoric that dominates the news.
The slogan in Diaz’s neon sign puts a humorous and uniquely Texan twist on the phrase “Make Love Not War,” created to protest the Vietnam War. His cardboard signs speak to a growing wealth gap and a history of poverty in the state, as well as to the function of art, museums, and galleries in South Texas communities. Despite their quirky, almost playful quality, the messages are not optimistic. They ironically point out the disconnect between cultural institutions and the communities they serve. Diaz embraces a “poor art” aesthetic, attaching himself to an art movement created in 1960s Italy to challenge power structures. Although Diaz’s work brings plenty of wit, his critique of the highbrow, elitist art world is undermined by his work’s inclusion in a traditional museum. While the Blanton is free to students, the majority of Austin residents would have to pay into the power structures Diaz exposes in order to view his work.
One of the most timely issues Diaz’s art touches upon, is the disenfranchisement of Mexican-Americans as polarization—based on race and economic status—increases. As the middle-class shrinks, immigrants are an easy group to blame for the economic woes faced by many Americans. Donald Trump’s political rhetoric is designed to raise tensions and distract from real solutions. He paints Mexican-Americans in Texas as a threat to job and border security. From his “bad hombre” comments to ICE detention centers, to the threat of declaring a national emergency, his hateful, vitriolic political gestures have moved the country further away from resolving tensions over immigration. As the epicenter of these debates, South Texas must balance a rich cultural heritage influenced by both sides of the border.
The slogans presented by Diaz’s signs are intentionally oversimplified. Like contemporary political slogans, they are memorable but convey little information. The neon sign plays with the idea of tacos as a stand-in for a distorted perception of Mexican-American identity manipulated to promote the policies of white politicians. The cardboard signs offer a way of looking at poverty without sentimentality and examining the connection between a lack of money and a lack of political power. Diaz’s work promotes visibility through gimmicks and does not take itself too seriously. The issues he addresses, however, are serious and need thoughtful approaches, not just election winning sound bytes.
Diaz’s work is in the Blanton Art Museum’s Words/Matter exhibition and will remain on view until May 26. Entry to the museum is free with a student ID.
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