At the Aronson Galleries at the New School, a wall of pickle jars taped with black-and-white cutout portraits of twenty dictators lines the windowsill. A standard 8 ½ x 11 paper sign invites visitors to Pick Your Own Dick by placing a poker chip in a jar. Chairman Mao, a world-class “dick” whose Cultural Revolution starved and murdered millions of Chinese, and Turkish President Erdogan, an elected Muslim fundamentalist morphing into a military strongman, handily won opening night.
Romancing True Power: D20, the mischievous exhibition designed by Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss of NAO and conceived by Nina Khrushcheva, associate dean and professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School, cheekily invites public debate about the nature of and difference between types of dictatorship, taking special glee in thumbing its nose at ostentatious symbols of power. The exhibit was accompanied by a journal compiled by Khrushcheva with Yiqing Wang-Holborn and by a book of graphic novellas designed as a result of Weiss’s seminar on new ideologies at Columbia GSAPP, both profiling selected dictators and their trappings.
The co-curators selected twenty of the world’s biggest dictators—dicks for short, according to the lingua franca of the exhibition—considering them by various yardsticks and quantitative measures. It’s a pun that offers itself willingly and fluently throughout, and why not? Mark Halprin may have had to resign as an analyst at MSNBC in 2011 for disrespectfully characterizing President Obama’s as acting like “kind of a dick” after a press conference, but it’s good to know there’s still some humor left in academia.
In the exhibition space, celebratory tchotchkes and representative “dick kitsch” adorns a roomful of stacked white cubes Scotch-taped with information about each leader. On the gallery walls, informational print-outs graph in three dimensions the greatness or infamy each of the selected dictators, and a video collects scenes of the symbolic displays of power—choreographed military parades, building-scale posters, salutes–that are the trappings of authoritarianism. In the hallway, a hall of dictators designed by NAO composed of photocopied black-and-white sheets invites you to compare each dick’s stature—with the exception of Margaret Thatcher all of the prime examples chosen are men—and each is crowned by his dick palace.
Inflected by a distinctly Slavic black-humor, underlying Romancing True Power is an academically rigorous examination of the forms dictatorship takes relative to different systems of government. Most of the exemplars are conventionally accepted members of the group: President Vladimir Putin, a true dick by any standard, evinces a visible pleasure in flamboyant dissembling, willfully erratic behavior, and contempt for his opponents. Putin is joined as co-representative of Russia by his typological predecessor, Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Community Party of the Soviet Union, one of the great mass-murderers and political assassins of all time: another order of dick altogether. Vice President Dick Cheney, great fabricator of post 9-11 conspiracies and silencer of political opponents, is placed alongside another legendary Dick, President Nixon, known as Tricky Dick long before he was uncovered spying on Democratic opponents during the Watergate scandal and forced to resign.
Khrushcheva and Weiss selected the twenty dicks in a lively debate while developing the book and exhibition, and created appendixes listing second and third tier adherents of the club. The European fascists of the WWII era fall into this latter category, along with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, currently a leading proponent of the genocidal category; possibly they’re too intellectually obvious and uncomplicated to make the first cut. Apart from academic credentials Nina Khrushcheva had special access to this field: she is the great-granddaughter of Soviet First Secretary of the Community Party Nikita Khrushchev, an honorary third-tier dick notorious for taking his shoe off and banging it on the table for emphasis at the UN.
The twenty chosen “dicks,” the D20, are offered as a counterpoint to the G20, the leaders of the world’s 20 most industrialized countries who meet in Geneva each year to decide the fate of the international economy. The sole function of the twenty dicks, by contrast, seems to be to intimidate, harass, punish, dominate, silence, and display their true power. That is, their dickpower.
The beauty of the show at the New School is the opposite. It constructs a public display about dictatorship that is itself an open public debate. The opening night panel discussion with Bobby Ghosh, a CNN Global Affairs analyst, exposed that debate to public scrutiny. Its exhibits are all paper monuments created samizdat style, in the manner of the Soviet dissidents of old, who secretly distributed photocopies of books and political pamphlets as handmade productions that were no less important because of their improvised character. Both the exhibition and the hardcover journal, available as an online journal, with informative chapters such as “Dicks and their Love of Sports” and “Dicks and their Music,” repudiates abuse of power by making it the subject of debate, play, and mockery. Nothing is as worthy of ridicule as the exercise of dickpower.