Ask people who they think won a presidential debate and you’ll get a predictable response: the candidate they’re pulling for easily thrashed the other guy. With that in mind, the latest installment of artists Antoni Muntadas and Marshall Reese’s Political Advertisement will probably serve as a political Rorschach test for many viewers. Comprised of presidential-campaign ads from 1952 to the present, Political Advertisement VII offers no commentary or context for its chronological spots, tempting audiences to fill that editorial vacuum with their own biases. But if you can see past your party affiliation, this anthology offers a fascinating perspective — at once reassuring and disheartening — on our nation’s enduring election-year themes. No matter the era, the United States has faced outward threats and internal challenges, but listening to the repetition of buzzword solutions over the generations quickly starts to raise serious questions about how much the television age has corroded the country’s political discourse. Perhaps Political Advertisement’s most interesting revelation is that winning candidates’ ads are rarely more substantive or compelling than those of their opponents. Shockingly, Richard Nixon’s plainspoken 1960 promos have held up far better than John Kennedy’s razzle-dazzle ones, while Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide seems impossible to imagine after suffering through his dull primary ads. Since Muntadas and Reese don’t insert themselves into their program — save for a droll inclusion of a single Ralph Nader ad after a series of Bush and Gore spots from 2000 — Political Advertisement becomes the ultimate no-spin zone, reflecting back at us our susceptibility to charisma, persuasive marketing and hope-versus-fear emotional manipulation. To borrow some overused stump-speech rhetoric, these ads have never been about the candidate — they’re about the American people and what they want. (REDCAT; Tues., Oct. 21, 8:30 p.m. www.redcat.org.)
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