Propaganda kitsch in the Baltimore Police Department's graphic design
By By Rebekah Kirkman
Jun 12, 2015 | 3:42 PM
Whether or not they know it, the Baltimore Police Department has been teetering toward a net art aesthetic on social media lately. To say that we're "into it" might be too strong, but our curiosity was piqued by images posted on Twitter and Instagram on National Doughnut Day, June 5. The images show police officers serving up doughnuts and coffee at the Our Daily Bread shelter. The photo by itself would've conveyed the message, but the designer decided to push it to a near-ridiculous level. The photo apparently wasn't cute enough, so they added a yellow feathered Photoshop glow effect and a border of colorful doughnuts. But the doughnuts (even the one that looks like a basketball) against the black background and the blocky BPD logo communicate a vague creepiness instead.
This image, and others BPD posts regularly, could be described as "naive kitsch"—kitsch that doesn't know it's kitsch. In his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," art critic Clement Greenberg compares and contrasts the titular phenomena, arguing that although both the avant-garde and kitsch are part of the capitalist structure, kitsch is slightly more insidious because it's so easily consumed by the general public. It can be used more easily to persuade, to market. Avant-garde art marked the emergence of art about art; if you paint a landscape, then you're actually making a painting about landscape paintings, rather than just making a painting about a real landscape that you observed. Kitsch, on the other hand, as Greenberg says, "is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time."
That you don't have to "think" about kitsch means you don't need to spend time with it, and that rings true for the images BPD posts. Passively scrolling through our feed, we pause on a collage of dogs and cats in winter clothes in snowy scenes with a caption reminding us to keep our pets warm this season—a gentle reminder, because they care. In another, we see a photo of a house at night with a shadowy figure in front of it, with an officer Photoshopped in front of that, whose wide eyes stare at us. "SECURE YOUR HOME" the text at the top reads. Maybe it's accidental and BPD doesn't have great graphic designers, so the images send mixed messages, but this image clearly implies that you should secure your home with a BPD officer. That's obviously a literal reading of it, but the image's metaphorical message doesn't come through. The text posted with the image reads, vaguely, "The 1st line of defense in protecting your home from a burglary is to secure your doors & windows #BurglaryPrevention."
So if this is kitsch—and maybe it's not naive after all—what are the Baltimore Police trying to "sell" us? Through their social media presence, the images they disseminate attempt to placate us, to convince us of their trustworthiness, of their dedication to safety and community and caring.
Earlier in April, they posted something to honor a fallen hero—K9 Cash, a nice little yellow labrador. With a heavenly beam of light shining on K9 Cash, and a superimposed close-up of the dog subtly faded into the top left corner, this one finds itself somewhere in between the aesthetics of Romantic painting (a la John Constable), Thomas Kinkade (RIP), and, especially with the close-up, Tim and Eric.
The "Full House"-opening-scene-lookin' one, from December 2013, an attempt to brand the "#ASaferBaltimore" campaign, caused many to complain about it and critique it on Twitter, as The Sun noted. "Am I hating or does the #ASaferBaltimore logo looks like something I made on my Compaq Presario in 2002?" tweeted @jtanxx. Lt. Eric Kowalczyk of the media relations unit told The Sun it was designed in house, so no extra taxpayer money went into commissioning it out.
When I came across that image, I realized I had actually seen it at Open Space's Publications and Multiples Fair this past spring. This group that calls itself "Ocular Media Group" was selling these absurd parody movie posters and advertisements, and in this case, they used that logo and a couple quick cut-and-paste stock image moves to announce BPD's "commencement of the Inner Harbor Tube Patrol program." On its bland, template-built website, Ocular Media Group offers its mission statement (full of humorously vague, empty ad/marketing copy) and its history, featuring brief paragraphs under each header of "Humble Beginnings," "Hubris," "Recovery," "Triumph," and "The Future." The project is funny because we know that it's art—it's not trying that hard to trick us.
But the BPD is arguably trying to trick us with its extra-sweet flowery imagery. The department promotes itself in the most positive ways, of course: officers helping people, posing with children and neighborhood folks. If one of the problems between the people and the police is that the police are out of touch and don't understand the people they are supposed to protect, then it would seem that any visible attempts to mend that are a step in the right direction. There's something to be said about their earnestness, though we should still be skeptical of it, especially with the Freddie Gray case looming ahead. They have to maintain their image. BPD's Twitter and Instagram archive, surely, would only show the good stuff that makes the department appear trustworthy and caring. That's how they market and brand themselves for us. It's like a soft form of propaganda kitsch.
A few days after we posted this original story on CP's arts blog, BPD tweeted a picture displaying more of their Photoshop abilities, in which the Doughnut Day picture (doughnut border and all) is superimposed and stretched onto a sheet of paper fed through an old typewriter. They also said "We always look 4 new ways to share safety info/good work by Ofc's. Sorry @city_paper our technology isn't the best :(" It was funny, respectably snarky, and though naturally it didn't actually address what we were talking about regarding propaganda and kitsch (how could it?), it showed, at least, that whoever's running this aspect of BPD's social media presence is paying attention.