Commentary Magazine


The Art of Obama Worship

Of all the images hurled forth by the last presidential election, none will live longer than Shepard Fairey’s poster of a red, white, and blue Barack Obama, gazing significantly into the distance, resting atop the single word Hope. It had already been embossed into the national consciousness as the definitive image of Obama even before it was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and appeared as the cover of Time’s “Person of the Year” issue. His poignant mien seemed to encapsulate all his personality and promise, an expression that was at once solemn, pensive, yearning, and ever so slightly sorrowful. With good reason the critic Peter Schjeldahl termed it “the most efficacious American political illustration since ‘Uncle Sam Wants You.’”

Campaign posters are discarded like yesterday’s newspaper the morning after an election, but not in the case of Obama. If anything, the demand for posters bearing his image has only grown. A recent New York Times front-page story highlighted the trend of amateur artists’ trying their hand at painting the new president. In one three-month period, 787 Obama paintings were auctioned on eBay, showing the new president in every possible pose, and a few impossible ones: standing commandingly before the White House, cradling a basketball and wearing a Washington Wizards uniform, gamely wrestling a bear on Wall Street, even flying naked on the back of a unicorn.

What is striking about these paintings is not their quality, about which the less said the better, but their consistent tone. They belong to that class of objects known as “devotional art.” Such objects are not only intended as votive offerings, to serve as the focus of veneration; the actual process of making them is itself an act of piety, a consideration that all but places them outside the realm of aesthetic judgment.

Obama is hardly the first president whose physical likeness has been the subject of devotional art. Yet the others who achieved this status did so only after they had accomplished something great, like Washington, or had been martyred, like Kennedy, or in the case of Lincoln, both. Obama’s iconic status is of a different nature, an artifact not of his presidency but his identity—a youthful man of mixed race and remarkable attractiveness upon whom the greatest of expectations have come to rest. This means that the role played by art, and by artists, has been different in Obama’s campaign and presidency from any other in American history.

Whether this development is good for American politics or for American art is another matter.

The Politicization of Art

A political campaign, like any social conflict, is fought in the realm of ideas and images. In an exceptionally well-run campaign, there is harmonious resonance between the ideas a candidate puts forth and the visual rhetoric surrounding him. Posters, leaflets, advertisements, even the precise form of bunting and flags—all collectively serve as the tangible embodiment of a platform. But the shaping of this imagery is usually relegated to advertising specialists and the graphic artists they employ, not to visual artists. In fact, for much of the 20th century, most advanced modern artists remained deliberately aloof from partisan politics. The subordination of art to ideology in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany served to discredit political art as “kitsch” (in Clement Greenberg’s memorable formulation), while the rise of abstraction brought prestige to art that had no other content beyond its own formal properties. Such was the attitude known as formalism. This is not to say that formalist artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko lacked political convictions; they had them in abundance, but they did not make their art an instrument of a partisan agenda.

This moratorium on political art collapsed, like so much else, during the Vietnam War. Many of the fashionable art movements of the next generation found their inspiration and creative energy in political causes. Environmentalism helped bring about Earth Art, with its sculptural interventions into the landscape; feminism inspired the feminist art that flared up in the mid-1970s; shortly thereafter came the AIDS epidemic, which formed the central subject of much performance art during the next decade. As these movements flourished, they helped dislodge the traditional hierarchy that accorded pride of place among the arts to painting and sculpture.

The newly prestigious fields tended to be conceptual, installation, or performance art (particularly the last). It was there that career-making gambits might be made. With no historical pedigree to rest on, these new media were more likely to justify themselves by their engagement with the present. And by their open-ended nature and reliance on words (anathema in formalist art), they were eminently suited for the making of political statements.

And so the politicization of art climaxed in the so-called art wars of the late 1980s, with a huge populist backlash against government funding of self–consciously transgressive art designed to offend religious and culturally conservative sensibilities. But as the political content of art rose, it became increasingly difficult to see what aesthetic residue remained. A distinct weariness toward strident political art soon arose and was expressed in the universally bad press earned by the Whitney Museum’s controversial 1990 Biennale, the most important modern-art exhibit in the United States and one intended to represent the very latest in art-world fashion. Its most notorious feature was the button given to each visitor at the entrance, featuring an innocuous word or phrase, such as imagine or to be. Only every hundredth or so button spelled out the complete phrase: I can’t imagine wanting to be white.

Such humorless stridency had already lost its novelty, and during the following years contemporary art drifted toward less confrontational fare. For one thing, the Clinton presidency made for a less satisfying target for leftist artists than Nixon’s or Reagan’s. The artist celebrities of the era, such as Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney, won fame not for their consciousness-raising but for their giddily apolitical spectacles. And so the trend might have continued were it not for the 2000 election, or more properly speaking, 9/11.

Given all the concern in the art community about confronting urgent sociopolitical problems, from the status of women to the fate of the environment, it was distinctly chary about responding to the terrorist attacks of that day. Surely it was not for lack of visual material; September 11 was rife with enough imagery to prompt a dozen Goyas to make new Disasters of War. But this was not to be. The tremulous rage that performance artists had routinely aimed at Jesse Helms or Reagan was nowhere to be found. Nor was there any noteworthy attempt to humanize the victims, perhaps out of fear that it might dehumanize their killers.

Only one artist hazarded a monumental work on the attacks: Eric Fischl, whose bronze sculpture Tumbling Woman was installed in Rockefeller Center a year later. Its subject was the most heartrending sight of 9/11, the multitude of victims driven by the flames to leap from the World Trade Center towers, their private agony played out on the world’s most public stage. And yet Fischl worked assiduously to remove any sense of poignancy or dignity from the figure, showing her landing ridiculously on her head, with all the bathos of an unsightly spill in the tub. Thus the one significant monumental artistic response to 9/11 ended in dehumanizing the victims. (Following an explosion of outrage in a city still raw from the event, the statue was whisked away within days.)

Most other post-9/11 art suffered from the same moral incoherence. Typical was Ron English, the artist famous for his illegal billboards that parodied corporate advertisements. In 2002 he managed to sneak a billboard into New York City, with the message “Jihad Is Over! (If you want it),” a play on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s celebrated “War Is Over” ad in the New York Times. The billboard was baffling to New Yorkers, who presumably felt the sign would be more properly placed in Kabul or Tehran than on East 14th Street.

This is not to say that 9/11 did not call forth a volcano of moral rage among artists—only that this rage found no outlet until 2003, when it came to be directed at George W. Bush. Among all the scatological, puerile, and corrosive caricatures of Bush that began to be shown at that time, one looks in vain for even one corresponding image of Osama bin Laden or Mohamed Atta. For example, In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman’s intensely personal graphic memoir of the 9/11 attacks, contains not a single depiction of bin Laden, while we are treated to scurrilous images of President Bush toppling the Statue of Liberty and a gleeful Dick Cheney slitting the throat of the American eagle on whose back he is riding.1

The jubilee of Bush-baiting culminated in the summer of 2004, when the Republican Convention was held in New York. Across the city, galleries and museums opened their doors to art commenting on the upcoming election. While a few elder statesmen joined in (Richard Serra, otherwise a rigorous formalist, exhibited an Abu Ghraib image labeled “Stop Bush”), most of the artists were young and clearly elated at their first opportunity to take a public stand. This helps explain but hardly excuses the unvaryingly sophomoric tone of the work: for instance, Chris Savido’s Bush Monkeys, a portrait of the president composed of swimming monkeys in a marsh; and Joan Linder, whose artist’s statement speaks of her “attempt to express the complexity and variety of contemporary life” and whose contribution consisted of paintings of administration officials in their underwear. Even Shepard Fairey, later to create the iconic Obama image, contributed a poster of Bush embracing a bomb and trying to remember if it was “hug a bomb, drop a baby” or the other way around.

For all the vitriol directed at Bush, there was little corresponding enthusiasm for John Kerry. Only Elizabeth Peyton’s anomalous John Kerry, April 1971, a portrait based on a photograph taken during Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Vietnam War, offered a positive exhortation. Given the near monolithic support for Kerry within the arts community, the absence of work depicting him was startling. Evidently it was more professionally rewarding, or emotionally satisfying, to affect a stance of knowing contempt for Bush than one of credulous enthusiasm for Kerry. But then again, ever since art had begun to concern itself again with contemporary politics in the late 1960s, it had done so essentially from a critical standpoint.

There was no precedent, no corpus of work or aesthetic doctrine, that might serve as a model for an art of political enthusiasm free of irony or cynicism. Even in 1972, when American artists were nearly unanimous in their backing of George McGovern, they preferred to express their support in negative rather than positive terms. Andy Warhol’s campaign poster Vote McGovern did not actually depict the candidate but rather a silk-screened photograph of Richard -Nixon tinted a bilious yellow and green. It is the surrender of this attitude of ironic detachment that is the most conspicuous development in the political art of 2008.

Art, Race, and Politics

On November 18, 1993, Time magazine published a special issue entitled “The New Face of America,” the cover of which showed a computer-generated face distilled from multiple races, a statement of the multi-racial makeup of the United States, as well as a prophecy of a racially blended American future. At a time of self-consciousness about race (both the Crown Heights riot and the Rodney King beating took place in 1991), it seemed to suggest a distant Utopian America that was no longer perpetually Balkanized into racial camps. The image was widely discussed and reproduced at the time (even affecting collective public conceptions of beauty) and so became part of the visual conventional wisdom. When Obama first entered the national consciousness, he surely benefited, if indirectly, from what might be called the subliminal authority of the familiar.

From the beginning, the Obama campaign invested much thought in its visual strategy. To portray him as a radically transformative deliverer, a figure of redemptive promise, was a natural course of action, his appearance comfortably matching his rhetoric. The challenge lay in the other direction, to reassure those leery of a messianic figure with a hazy resume and an oracular verbal style that he nonetheless stood in the mainstream of American political history. In consequence, throughout the campaign Obama was festooned with patriotic devices. Some of these worked well graphically, such as the campaign logo created by the designer Sol Sender. This reworked the American flag into an O, a white sun rising in a blue sky and a road of red stripes rising up to meet it. The image struck the right note—balancing patriotism with aspirations for the future—but many of the other campaign devices misfired badly.

As soon as Obama clinched the nomination, his campaign acted as if his election were a foregone conclusion and sought to convey subconsciously that he was already presiding. In June 2008, he briefly appeared behind a podium decorated with a revised presidential seal with his campaign motto “Yes We Can” rendered into Latin (Vero possumus). Although it was laughed out of existence within a week, it did not prevent him from delivering his acceptance speech at Denver before a Styrofoam facsimile of a Greek Doric temple. This time the intention was to evoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial, although once again the gesture met with some derision (especially when commentators learned that it was dreamt up by the designer of Madonna’s concert sets).

But if these ceremonial trappings fell flat (as did the contrived “Office of the President Elect”), the campaign scarcely needed any extraneous props. Its great asset was the physical presence of Obama himself, who was young and handsome and who photographed attractively (not everyone who is good-looking in person does), his lanky build easily absorbing the pounds the camera adds. It was inevitable that the campaign, and a sympathetic media, would find a surfeit of effective images of their candidate.

Yet the image created by Shepard Fairey was of a higher order altogether, not only for what it said but also for the language it used to say it. Born in 1970, Fairey belongs to the artistic generation that came of age long after the modern movement lost momentum and coherence and at a time when the furious identity art of the 1980s was beginning to seem tired. During his time at the Rhode Island School of Design (he graduated in 1992), the work he found most exciting was anarchic in tendency, especially the graffiti art produced by self-taught painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, who prowled the streets at night with cans of spray paint. Fairey was particularly taken with how so-called guerrilla artists could cut out simple cardboard stencils of a design and inundate a city with hundreds of identical images. Fairey’s insight was to see that such street art had advertising potential.

Fairey was still a student when he achieved notoriety for a street-art campaign of his own devising, which disseminated stickers showing the professional wrestler André the Giant (like Warhol, Fairey draws his source material from the easily recognized artifacts of popular culture). By the late 1990s, the self-proclaimed street artist was already working for Wall Street, helping such corporate clients as Pepsi and Netscape devise “guerrilla” marketing campaigns. It was Fairey’s aura of populism along with his experience in the mass dissemination of images through novel channels (appropriately termed “viral” advertising) that made him a logical fit for the Obama campaign.

Of course, Fairey was not the only artist to root for Obama, who had pledged the creation of an Artists Corps, a new federal program that would be a “domestic Peace Corps for artists.” The response from the arts community was overwhelming, and 13 of its senior statesmen—including Serra, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, and Ed Ruscha—joined forces to produce “Artists for Obama,” a limited-edition suite of prints available for a minimum donation of $20,000 to the Obama Victory Fund. But these artists belonged to the generation that deplored life drawing and figurative realism, and their support was largely ceremonial. Fairey, by contrast, belonged to a generation of younger artists that relished the instrumental use of images to effect action—or, in other words, propaganda.

Throughout the months leading up to the election, the Obama team insisted that Fairey’s poster was his own voluntary creation and had not been coordinated with the campaign itself. Later it came out that the campaign had indeed played a role in its design, most significantly in changing the word on the bottom from “Progress” (a term too redolent of progressivism and five-year plans) to the less objectionable “Hope.” But otherwise, the image is absolutely characteristic of Fairey’s work: a photograph is turned into a high-contrast image, eliminating the intervening middle tones until all that remain are strong areas of white and black. (Fairey used red, white, and blue to tint the middle tones, giving the sense that Obama is basking in reflected patriotic colors.) The use of extreme high contrast makes for bold and arresting graphic imagery, for which reason it was wildly in vogue during the 1960s, when it was used on everything from magazine covers to record albums to movie posters. But it also had the look of the stenciled graffiti that helped form Fairey’s visual language and that gives the Obama poster a kind of nervous spontaneity that lifts it above the conventional platitude of virtually every other campaign poster.

The high-contrast stenciled nature of Obama’s face seems to have had one other unintended consequence. By breaking his image down into a few simple planes, it seems to have persuaded viewers that it was an easy face to draw, thus helping to set in motion the fad for making drawings and paintings. In many cases, then, they are not so much drawing Obama but replicating the forms of the face on the poster.

It was not only amateurs who imitated Fairey’s example. Shawn Barber, an artist otherwise known chiefly for his heavily tattooed subjects, made a formal portrait for the Wall Street Journal’s inauguration issue that followed the formula quite closely: the head tilted back, unsmiling lips tightly pressed, and the eyes focused on some distant realm. Here the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description of devotional art is useful: “an all-powerful, remote, and mysterious being, painted as a flat, formalized head or figure whose stern gaze dominated the interiors of temples, churches, and sanctuaries.”

Something similar might also be said of the Obama painting made by Ron English (he of the “Jihad Is Over” billboard), who for once indulged his penchant for reworking familiar images without his customary irony. He grafted Obama’s face onto Matthew Brady’s familiar photograph of Abraham Lincoln, a visual pun that works surprisingly well because of the two presidents’ similarly angular features.

English’s poster has sold well, but it was Fairey’s that proved career-making, turning him into an overnight celebrity and bringing him a contract for a book on the campaign. His newfound celebrity would not be trouble-free, however. Shortly after the election, it came out that Mannie Garcia, a freelance Associated Press photographer, had taken the photograph on which the poster was based in April 2006. Fairey, who had not secured permission for using the photograph, claimed it was “fair use” and promptly instituted a preemptive lawsuit against AP to forestall any charge of copyright infringement. The case is still pending. The revelation has tarnished Fairey’s reputation, particularly in view of the ruthlessness with which he has pursued violators of his own copyrighted images. (In particular, he has been criticized for taking graphic images that are in the public domain, making commercial products of them, and thereby depriving other artists of their use.) Fairey’s novel artistic -technique, it seems, contains its own rewards and punishments.

Power Worship

A work of art can possess great historical or social significance while also being aesthetically mediocre. Viewed as art, the spate of Obama images is negligible. Properly speaking, they belong not to the world of high art but to that of illustration and graphic art. For more than a generation, it has been fashionable to view such a distinction as arbitrary, but it retains its explanatory value. Works that are small in scale, intended for mass production, and meant to convey a lucid message tend to be eye-catching in outline, economical in composition, and free of complexity, ambiguity, or anything that might compromise the clarity of the message. Like book illustrations, they are secondary forms of art and exist to serve ideas created elsewhere. They are to be judged primarily on their -effectiveness, not on the visual pleasure they give.

But if their work is aesthetically negligible, the artists who painted Obama are of considerable historical importance. They represent the first corpus of critically successful artists who have made political art that is unashamedly sincere, free of irony, and with none of the stance of the cynical outsider that has characterized most American political art since the 1960s.

For the longest time, when dealing with the institutions of American society, it has been the reflex of American artists to deflate or puncture. These are the actions one performs on hollow things. But the thoroughly unironic art of Fairey and his ilk suggests some sense that American institutions are solid affairs and deserving of respectful treatment. On balance, this is a positive development. It abolishes the foolish notion that the progressiveness of artists can be gauged by the extent to which they are alienated from American life.

At the same time, there is something unsettling about images that offer little more political commentary than an uncomplicated adulation that borders on power worship. By showing the subjects removed from all political context, and in a beatific reverie, such art produces images that are aesthetically indistinguishable from the “dear leader” effigies that delighted the dictators of the 1930s or of our own day.

Of course, artists greater than Fairey, English, and Barber have shifted from denouncing tyrants to bleating at their feet—for instance, Jacques-Louis David, whose paintings helped send Louis XVI to the guillotine and who then went on to flatter Napoléon in some of the most obsequious paintings known to Western art. Such a choice between abject hero worship and dehumanizing agitprop shows once again, as it did 70 years ago, what happens when artists become courtiers and put themselves in the service of ideology. But to realize the dangers implicit in an art (or politics) that sorts its subjects into class enemies and anointed ones requires a knowledge of history that Fairey seems not to possess.

Whether Fairey himself understands this is unclear. One of his most popular “sampled” images, pried from the public domain, was an amiably grinning skull, which sold in large numbers until its source was revealed: the elite “death’s-head” division whose ruthlessness it symbolized, the S.S. Totenkopf Division.


Footnotes

1See my review in the December 2004 Commentary

About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)