Monday, August 17, 2009

Shepard Fairey & the Obama/Joker/Socialism Poster

Shepard Fairey’s infamous “Obey” series was interesting because it juxtaposed several streams from different parts of the pop. cultural landscape and left it for the viewer to impose meaning on the resulting image. His original “Andre the Giant has a Posse” sticker morphed into the Andre “Obey” icon that was then used as the basis for a thousand new pieces, each incorporating either the image or word from the generative original. Each also developed the skateboard/punk aesthetic of the sticker by adding more stylistic markers (most obviously the Russian Constructivism that has dominated much of his recent work).

Fairey’s work has often seemed to claim for itself some political message: vague, but invariably left-skewing. What made it so powerful as a meme, though, was its openness and infinite reproducibility. When Fairey decided to endorse Obama’s presidential bid with the almost self-parodying “Hope” campaign, all of the tension that resulted in the juxtaposition of the earlier work was drained out, leaving only one possible signification. As I’m sure has been said before, the images didn’t parody propaganda, like much of the earlier work had, they were propaganda.

The aforementioned openness and reproducibility of Fairey’s work makes it particularly potent material for further parody and recombination. Two examples are below. The first takes a shot of Obama and superimposes it on the original “Andre has a Posse” sticker, keeping Andre’s measurements in the corner but replacing the text with Obama’s name.

The other is a spot-on parody of the “Hope” posters which replaces Obama with Heath-Ledger-as-the-Joker and changes the text to read “Joke.”

This image, as far as I can tell, received none of the outcry of a very similar image popping up all over the place in the last two weeks that also combines Obama’s image with that of the Joker from The Dark Knight. (see top of the article)

All sorts of trumped-up claims have been made about the Obama-Joker-socialism poster by those on either side of the political divide, according to a piece written by Whitney Phillips
on Henry Jenkins blog. On my trolls through the comments sections of various blogs I found (amongst other hyperbole) people calling the poster racist for all sorts of different reasons. Some said that it was making fun of Obama for being whitewashed, while others claimed it was a plea for Obama to become more “white.” One said it was impossible to look at the image without thinking of black-face and minstrelsy. The LA Weekly said, “all that’s missing is the noose.”

In an article headlined “Shepard Fairey has ‘doubts’ about intelligence of Obama Joker artist,” the LA Times blog interviews Fairey. First he claims that the one-word text in the poster (“socialism”) is grammatically incorrect—which, since grammar is defined as “the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed” makes me somewhat doubt Fairey’s intelligence. When he goes on to say that his “frustration with Bush was fueled by a very clear understanding of what's going on,” but that his artwork depicting Bush as a vampire was nonetheless a “one-dimensional presentation,” my doubts are pretty much confirmed.

Fairey’s analysis of the Obama-Joker-socialism poster—in which he says, “I don’t agree with the political content of the poster”—falls victim to the same assumptions that many other analyses of the poster have. They assume two things: that the poster is meant to imply that Obama is a socialist, and that this is meant to portray him as evil. Maybe the maker of the poster thinks that socialism is good. Maybe the maker of the poster is ironically mocking other people’s appraisal of Obama as a socialist, and using the Joker imagery to suggest that he’s more complex or misunderstood than all that. Maybe…

In the LA Times article, Fairey says that the poster “gets a point across very quickly” because "The Joker is a sinister, evil character.” Perhaps the Joker is sinister and evil, but the fascination with the Heath Ledger incarnation of the character goes deeper than that. He may be a badguy, but he also screws over all of the other badguys, burns the money he makes from the caper, and explicitly states that his goal is to subvert the dominant paradigm and reject all “scheming” and “planning” since some of the people in power’s idea of things going “according to plan” involves trucks full of soldiers being blown up. And he’s most certainly not a socialist: besides having in common some of the romantic surface aura of the Marxist radical, the Joker is very obviously an anarchist.

What most disappoints about Fairey’s assumption that he very quickly gets the point of the Obama-Joker-socialism poster is that he doesn’t afford it the same transformative space that his own (pre-“Hope”) work operated in. The maker of the poster is relying on our familiarity with a whole range of concepts and pop. cultural images. It trusts us to bring our own feelings to the table about Obama, socialism, the Joker, Heath Ledger, the Dark Knight, and any other signs the viewer may perceive as being referenced (minstrelsy included). It has an openness that precludes our ability to apprehend “a point… very quickly.”

Just as Fairey’s “Obey” series would have often prompted the response, “Obey what (or who)?,” the Obama-Joker-socialism poster may very likely prompt us to say, “What about Obama, the Joker, and socialism?” The LA Times backs up Fairey’s elitist response that it’s probably not even made by an artist with the assertion that it could have been created by so lowly a figure as “a kid with a pirated copy of Photoshop or a middle-aged guy looking to spread a message.” For me, that message is: think about what the images the world bombards you with mean; about how they interact with each other, and about what different combinations of them might signify. I always thought that’s what Shepard Fairey’s art was supposed to do, too.

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