'The Real Mitt Romney' Is Funny, but Is It Art?

Yes. Hugh Atkin's political mash-up videos cleverly satirize not only politicians, but the state of public discourse.

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Hugh Atkin

Campaigns and elections rarely turn out cultural material that rises to the level of "art." Lawn signs jockey to outdo one another in terms of generic blandness. Speeches occasionally soar in their rhetorical ambition, but mostly serve up forgettable boilerplate. And despite the unholy sums of fundraising that Citizens United unleashed, the vast majority of TV advertising is both conceptually and stylistically predictable.

It is that absence of campaign art that makes Hugh Atkin's recent online mash-ups so shrewd. Art is, perhaps most simply, supposed to tell us something about the way we live now. Politics and journalism also deal with this question, but Atkin's impish output suggests just how badly they're failing us this time around.

Atkin, an Australian lawyer who apparently moonlights as viral hit-maker, had his first big YouTube smash some four years ago with "BarackRoll," a collection of Obama snippets, cut-and-pasted together like a kidnapper's ransom note, and overlaid onto the meme that birthed a thousand mislabeled hyperlinks: Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." More than seven million views later, the effect is still novel and silly—and little more than that.

Mash-ups are, however, capable of telling us much more. As the inheritor to a long tradition of bricolage in art, culture, and protest—from Marcel Duchamp to Girl Talk to Adbusters—mash-ups provide a grammar of irreverence for critiquing that which is mashed up. They're uniquely suited to an era of bullshit, serving as decoder rings, means of accountability, and exercises in resistance. The video editors at The Daily Show are masters of this craft, nightly skewering a kabob of press conference and cable news cuts and then simmering it under Jon Stewart's slow burn. This year, Atkin as well has delivered on the medium's artistic promise.

In March, he dropped a brilliant parody stitching Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" together with the sound-bite gaffes and curious character traits that Mitt Romney had, already by then, been reduced to: "I like being able to fire people;" "Corporations are people, my friend;" interstate canine travel; and so on.

The effect is, again, catchy, but this time also devastating as a lampoon of the candidate and the media shorthand shaping up around him. Most of all, "inauthenticity"—that quality by which we judge actors and yet also (tellingly) demand of our politicians—comes to the forefront, with Romney's jerky mash-up flow recalling a latter day Max Headroom. Four and a half million views later, the Obama campaign could have scarcely assembled a tidier compendium of oppo research.

Last week, however, Obama came in for the same treatment—this time with an overlay of his "You didn't build that" extract, synced to M.C. Hammer's "You Can't Touch This." Atkin here threads in a similar assortment of bloopers and sticking points from Obama's reel—"the private sector is doing just fine," clinging to guns, the birth certificate, and so on—and conservatives will surely delight in the catchy caricature just as liberals likely loved "The Real Mitt Romney."

But the net effect, when taken together, seems less a pair of compact attack ads against the president and his challenger as much a pitch-perfect meta-commentary on the state of politics and media in America today. Campaigns and news coverage are driven by two pressures that make for excellent show business and terrible governance: speed and style. Atkin's mash-ups savage our weakness for both.

Among political operatives, it is by now taken for granted that the news cycle has accelerated to an unmanageable velocity. Twitter is typically the representative villain for this trend, but taking the longer view, research had shown sound-bites already shrank from almost 50 seconds in 1968 to fewer than than 10 seconds by 1992.

In that context, a self-fulfilling circular logic takes shape: The more repetitive and reductive the message discipline, the more the press desperately seizes upon these unscripted flubs, which leads, in turn, to more reductive repetition. That brevity has long impoverished public debate, but when combined with increasingly breathless instantaneity, it makes governing effectively impossible: The stimulus was deemed a failure before it had a chance to work. The surge was deemed a failure before it had a chance to work. Setting aside the partisan merits for or against these policies, all parties need to acknowledge: These. Things. Take. Time.

Atkin's rat-tat-tat pastiche expertly satirizes our collective lack of political patience and our unfortunate willingness to evaluate candidates using the language of theater: performance, optics, choreography, and so on. As Neil Postman long ago warned, a culture that watches its politics through the lens of show business will never be a nation that elects its leaders based upon substance.

I suggested earlier that this collage assembly of Romney and Obama clips represented the video equivalent of a kidnapper's ransom note—words snipped out of context and fused together. But maybe it's not these candidates and their "brands" that are being held hostage by a digital culture jammer. Perhaps we are the captives here to a vacuous, breakneck spectacle divorced from facts, substance, and reality.