Chances are you’ve seen this emblematic poster representing Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. I’ve seen images of the print all over the web, and prints of it around shop windows here in Seattle. The visibility of this poster across the country is the envy of every serious artist. And it’s no accident that it has had such a large audience. The creator of this Obama poster is none other than Shepard Fairey, better known as the creator of the iconographic Obey the Giant propaganda campaign.
What’s the deal? As I understand the cultural phenomenon surrounding Fairey’s work, it’s a matter of anti-propaganda, by way of employing the tools and craft of propaganda. Huh? Like a magician that gives away her secrets (cardinal rules for all magicians is never give away the secret of how a trick or illusion is done), Fairey creates prints and images about propaganda, which are themselves propaganda. When Fairey writes “OBEY” underneath his simplified images of the face of the French actor and wrestler Andre the Giant, he’s cluing the viewer in to the goal and purpose of every ad campaign ever created: capture the viewers attention and generate a reaction in the viewer/consumer, in a manner that the advertisers have engineered with the help of behavioral psychology. But those things have historically been subliminal. The viewer isn’t supposed to know that he’s being manipulated while he’s being manipulated to consume.
Despite giving away the secrets of his artistic ad campaign, or more appropriately put, because Fairey’s work gives away the secret, he has generated a wide audience for his work, which has grown so much that he has lost virtually all control of marketing his images and work. People post his work in the form of stickers and posters without his knowing consent all across the country. Surprisingly, that’s the whole idea, according to Fairey. Fairey’s case is a blissful wet dream for intellectual property lawyers, yet as far as I know he is unconcerned with damages that might be engendered as a result of other people’s infringement of his trademark.
Fairey graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in illustration. It was there that he began formulating the seeds of an idea based on the writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In a 1990 manifesto, Fairey wrote that “the Giant sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as ‘the process of letting things manifest themselves.’ Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they become muted by abstract observation.”
Part punk, part advertiser, and part print maker / illustrator, a la the old Soviet style propaganda posters in the heyday of Communist Russia (I absolutely love seeing those old posters – anyone who appreciates the subject of design is sure to love those works, even though they advertised a brutal political regime), Fairey somehow found himself linked up with the Obama campaign during this long, long, long (did I say long?) presidential run. My understanding is that he created several print images and simply contacted the Obama team and asked if he could help out the campaign with his work. It isn’t difficult to see why they agreed. The work has a punch to it that is unmistakable.
“There’s an unequivocal sense of idol worship about the image,” wrote op-ed columnist Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times, “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 silkscreen that you don’t recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way.” (I’m still waiting for some republican talking-head dildo to appear on Fox News and publicly correlate the image to the old Soviet propaganda posters and call Obama a communist.) “I wanted strong. I wanted wise, but not intimidating,” Fairey says of the look for his Obamas. The poster has become a must-have accessory among a certain subset of the candidate’s supporters, who have gobbled up more than 80,000 of Fairey’s posters and 150,000 postcard-size stickers since Super Tuesday.
What artist wouldn’t die to have 80,000 prints of her work published – purchased? In a letter from Obama to Fairey, he wrote in part “your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign.” Obama seems to get it. Fairey’s got the game of propaganda down pat, and the fact that he’s propagandizing an anti-propaganda, anti-corporate campaign I guess means he technically hasn’t “sold-out”. Aside from the social phenomenon his work has generated, he has also produced some aesthetically strong prints.
Kudos to Fairey, an art school dweeb that hit the big time.
P.S. to Shepard – now that I gave you your props, send me a print of Peace Mujer!