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Obama as an art form

Barack Obama’s face is throwing me into an existential tailspin. I’m talking about those red, cream and blue art posters all over town. If you don’t know what I mean, take one look around a Trader Joe’s parking lot, paying special attention to the rear windows of Priuses or bio-diesel vehicles, and I guarantee that you’ll see one of these things on proud and ultra-hip display.

The posters, which depict a blocky, silk-screen-style image of Obama’s shoulders and face, exist in a few versions, bearing the words “Hope,” “Change” or “Progress.”

The creator is Shepard Fairey, an L.A.-based artist and marketing designer who became known (to some people at least) in the early 1990s when he made stickers portraying a stenciled image of professional wrestler Andre the Giant. Capturing a style that might be described as Bolshevik constructivism meets skate-punk graffiti art, the stickers, which included the words “Obey Giant” and which he slapped on every surface he could find, quickly ascended to the realm of underground art phenomenon. Fairey, who’s been arrested several times on charges of defacing billboards and other property, eventually parlayed the sticker enterprise into a not-so-underground T-shirt business.

Today, the concept of “obey” does double duty for Fairey as a business name as well as a sort of de facto free-ranging form of political protest. He sells his artwork through his own gallery as well as Obey Giant Art Inc. and licenses apparel though Obey Clothing. His website -- which sells stickers, posters and prints -- bills itself as an agent of “worldwide propaganda delivery.”

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The Obama poster has spread Fairey’s fame, but is the image good for the candidate? Like the photograph-turned-icon of Che Guevara -- which graces the T-shirts of countless hipsters who barely know who the guy is -- Fairey’s Obama poster is rooted in the graphic style of agitprop. There’s an unequivocal sense of idol worship about the image, a half-artsy, half-creepy genuflection that suggests the subject is (a) a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality; (b) a controversial American figure who’s been assassinated; or (c) one of those people from a Warhol silk-screen that you don’t recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way.

This cannot be the Obama campaign’s idea of good public relations, I find myself thinking as I stare at one of the ubiquitous Fairey posters while waiting for my soy chai latte. It’s just too bohemian and too vulnerable to misinterpretation, too much the visual equivalent of your parents smelling incense and thinking it must be pot.

As it turns out, the Obama folks think it works just fine. That even goes for the candidate, who wrote Fairey a letter in February that included the line, “I’m privileged to be a part of your artwork.” (A photograph of the letter appears on Fairey’s website.) At that time, Fairey had just one “Progress” version of the poster that, despite a run of only 350 copies, had gone viral on the Internet. (“Hope,” which was widely distributed as a poster and a sticker, came shortly thereafter.)

Then the Obama campaign asked Fairey to do another version using the word “Change” and showing the candidate’s face from a different angle (in Fairey’s own editions, Obama’s head is tilted; in the campaign’s version, his head is straight, a classic three-quarter portrait).

When I called Fairey to ask if he worried whether the proselytical style of his work -- not to mention his penchant for self-promotion -- would undermine Obama’s campaign, he emphatically said yes. He’d initially shown Obama’s likeness wearing a lapel pin that depicted the Andre the Giant graphic, he explained. But when the image began to get traction, he took it off, worried that that alone could be misinterpreted. (The original iteration is still sprinkled around the urban landscape like four-leaf clovers.)

“I didn’t want to hijack his awesomeness,” said Fairey, whose enthusiasm for Obama now extends to T-shirts, stickers and a 16-by-30-foot banner on the side of his office building in Echo Park. “As for the propaganda aesthetic, it has been called a communist poster. But people tend to categorize things in a lazy way. The Works Progress Administration that FDR set up used the same aesthetic. They just didn’t use the color red. I used red because I intentionally used a derivation of the typical USA political color palette.”

Fairey told me he thinks it’s solely his use of red that makes some people uneasy. I’m not so sure. He’s an artist; his adoption of propaganda tools -- the graphic style, the underground distribution, and, OK, the color red -- is at least in part ironic, a comment on political-machine communiques, a subversion of them. Although, let’s be honest, most people don’t look at the world through the meta-tinted glasses that this genre of art requires. They may get a whiff of critique, but what if they get a stronger whiff of something they can’t quite identify? And what if that confusion leads to some form of heebie-jeebies when it comes to Obama?

Still, the most radical aspect of this whole phenomenon is not the artwork itself but how it conveys Obama’s sharp divergence from the generic, easily digestible cultural coding that’s always been associated with getting elected. As Fairey says, Obama has “radical cachet.”

But if you like Obama and you’d like to see him elected president, it’s worth asking yourself exactly why none of the other candidates has dipped an ironic toe into agitprop, and whether their freedom from images that conjure mass idol worship, however archly, might not help them in the end.

On the other hand, have you seen Marc Jacobs’ Hillary Clinton T-shirt, which depicts a frighteningly perky Clinton in a pearl necklace and American flag pin? It’s all commodity. As a result, no one’s commenting. At least Obama knows a conversation piece when he sees one.

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meghandaum@latimescolumnists.com


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