TOLEDO, Ohio — Given the intensely polarized messaging accompanying our navigation of one of the most contentious election years in recent memory, it’s inevitable to find one’s media feeds clogged with news coverage, think pieces, and colorful commentary on the state of American politics. But for the internet generation, it’s also easy to forget an entire media sector to which an astonishing amount of funding is devoted: televised campaign advertising. While politicians make the jump, more or less gracefully, into social media–based campaigning, there is still a strong preference among campaign managers for television advertising — with particular attention devoted to inundating swing states that might make or break an election. Ohio is one such state, and that’s why I Approve This Message: Decoding Political Ads is an extremely timely and crucial exhibition for the Toledo Museum of Art — an institution that defines its role with respect to its audience somewhat uniquely.
“Our purpose is a little bit weird in the art museum world,” Associate Director Adam Levine told Hyperallergic. “It is art education. It is not a long litany of other things. Our focus is on teaching people from our collection, and the way we’re exercising that is to try and teach people how to see better. So the value proposition isn’t, ‘Come see great works of art’; it’s, ‘Come learn to see by engaging with great works of art.’” In Levine’s view, I Approve This Message fits that mission, despite presenting no actual works of art. Rather, the entire 7,000-square-foot exhibition hall has been dedicated to the granular dissection of the visual semiotics and rhetorical stylings of political advertising. Adopting a stance that is fastidiously apolitical, the show analyzes some of the most famous ads from Democratic and Republican candidates over the last 50-plus years.