Sunday, December 13, 2009

#20 - Shepard Fairey's "HOPE" Poster

It was the decade when...

A poster made a President.

Marketing professionals have long known that image is everything; political campaigns focus-group every piece of official electoral paraphernalia and photograph in an effort to target their audience and "control the message." They might as well be selling you detergent, so over-analyzed and blandly mass-marketed are most pieces of presidential advertising. Despite the strenuous labors by a presidential campaign's highly-paid and professional PR department, rarely does a marketing strategy break through the din of punditry and negativity that is par for the course in any modern presidential election. As electioneering gets more and more corporatized, the trend only seems to be worsening. Who would have thought then that in 2008 America would be introduced to perhaps the most effective and iconic piece of propaganda in the history of presidential campaigns: Shepard's Fairey's HOPE poster.

Fairey's creation is so classically appealing, so brilliantly anti-programmatic, so in-sync with the zeitgeist of not only a campaign but a nation, that it is now hard to imagine the 2008 Election without this blue- and red-inked portraiture. Fairey's poster, while utterly of the aughts, is - ironically - something of a throwback; redolent of Soviet propaganda, this image of the (then) future President can almost be considered an example of illustrative pastiche. A post-Warhol portrait, with it's "silk-screen" effect and large swaths of pure color, Fairey's is a decidedly "pop" representation of the candidate. Blissfully absent the platitudinous sloganeering that passes for a candidate's "message" in modern politics - "change you can believe in," "America first," "in your heart you know he's right" - Fairey reduces down an entire campaign's raison d'etre to one word : HOPE. Placed in large, plain font underneath Obama's placid but distantly-hopeful and deeply-dignified expression, the word is less a command for the reader than a definition of its subject. The man is the message. Candidate as abstract concept. When some critics (cough, Hillary, cough) were criticizing Obama as being short on wonkish detail and long on vague, inspirational speechifying, Fairey dived head first into the fray, turning the broad and imprecise substance of Obama's buzzword heavy campaign into a virtue; America, it turned out, needed the diaphanous and simplified power that comes with an ideological point-of-view based on simple and fundamental concepts like HOPE, CHANGE and PROGRESS. America's feverish and swollen head needed a detailed and systematic analysis to be sure, but, even more, its bruised and wounded heart needed the palliative that only comes from finding a powerful yet simple idea it could believe in. Eight years of the abysmal Bush Administration had demoralized us and tarnished our perception of ourselves. There was a crisis of national spirit. Obama's eyes reaching toward the heavens, it's no coincidence that Fairey's poster looks more like a stained-glass window than a traditional campaign poster. Obama inspired something akin to secular devotion in his followers, and Fairey knew it.

Not since Che Guevarra's iconic visage became a staple of college-dorm rooms has the image of a political figure so penetrated the general consciousness as Fairey's Obama. Seemingly unsullied by manipulation from computer software, the HOPE poster spoke true in an era when an analog aesthetic had become synonymous with a forgotten authenticity. Though Fairey's poster was developed independently of the Obama PR team, it quickly became the unofficial image of Obama's campaign and an endlessly imitable pop culture landmark. Parodies were common almost as soon as the poster was released. When a website called obomiconme allowed any user to Fairey-ize their face, a bold-lettered word of their choice below their colorized mug, the results were posted to endless Facebook pages, all but solidifying the HOPE poster as a watershed piece of political ephemera for an entire logged-on generation. The original poster now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, a piece of American history encased and displayed for posterity. Fairey's use of the AP photograph that served as his "inspiration" has gotten the artist into a messy and as-yet unresolved legal imbroglio, a case which still may set new precedent in the legal intricacies of "fair use" doctrine in a world with Google Images and porous boundaries of ownership.

Am I suggesting that the HOPE poster won Obama the election? Hardly. Such an assertion would be at once widely hyperbolic and sillily shortsighted. It's bigger than that. The poster was the election: the victory of hope over cynicism and change over stasis. It is a testimony to Obama's skill as politician and his dignity as a person that he could carry the weight of such lofty ideas on his shoulders and not seem diminished in some way by the heavy load. And it is ironic yet inevitable that Shepard Fairey, an artist outside the political machine who emerged from the guerilla hinterlands of the skateboard scene, was the American who most knew how to connect a candidate with a country. Obama spoke to a nation full of people needing the reassurance and quiet resolve that comes from embracing the one item left at the bottom of Pandora's Box. If there ever was a decade when the rest of its contents had spilled out over America, this was, sad to say, most definitely it.

You AUGHT to remember...

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