Part of Roger Brown's iconic 'Circus Banner' series, Government Smokescreen draws influence from the self-taught folk art tradition of hand-painted advertisements for circuses, freak shows, and other roadside attractions. Rather than focusing its lens on the bodies of curious performers, daredevils, and exotic animals, Brown's take on the circus banner would look at the odd extremities of contemporary life, such as hypocritical social standards, political scandals, and avant garde aesthetic trends. Here, Brown skewers the relationship between government and economy. Against a blazing yellow scroll, '$AVING$ AND LOAN' floats above a bank, stretched between its columns a massive American flag soon to be set alight by torch, held by the small silhouetted figures at its base. The stinger text, 'COVER UP' no doubt points to the piece's overall title, Government Smokescreen, speaking to the ambiguous machinations relating federal entanglement with the matter.
The savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s (commonly dubbed the S&L crisis) was the failure of 1,043 out of the 3,234 savings and loan associations (S&Ls) in the United States from 1986 to 1995. An S&L or 'thrift' is a financial institution that accepts savings deposits and makes mortgage, car and other personal loans to individual members (a cooperative venture known in the United Kingdom as a building society). The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) closed or otherwise resolved 296 institutions from 1986 to 1989, whereupon the newly established Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) took up these responsibilities. The RTC closed or otherwise resolved 747 institutions from 1989 to 1995 with an estimated book value between $402 and $407 billion. In 1996, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated the total cost to be $160 billion, including $132.1 billion taken from taxpayers. Brown's concern with the happenings, painted here in 1990, was clearly ahead of its time in addressing the enormity of the issue.
A flag-burning in 1990 was a protest against the lack of government transparency, and turned into a major national conversation about the legality of the action. Congressional meetings about the legality of the action were criticized by the Orlando Sentinel, among other papers, at the time, as being a 'smokescreen' to distract from the actual purpose of the conversation: the financial crisis being protested.