Sunday, May 18, 2008

Barack Obama's Cult of Personality


I've been chronicling Barack Obama's embrace by the progressive/radical left for some time now. Thus it's no surprise to me that Obama supporters have turned to artistic iconography to build a cult of personality around the Illinois Senator.

As the Washington Post indicates, Shepard Fairey, the graphic designer pictured above, has created the Democratic primary's "equivalent of the Che poster," an agitprop pop-art image for the Bolshevik-constructivist set.

The Obama cult is the topic of this week's cover story at the Weekly Standard, "Let a Thousand Posters Bloom":

More than any other politician in recent memory, Barack Obama has been the subject of iconography. His campaign's official posters often portray Obama in a beatific light--clad in a white shirt and silver tie, eyes squinting and looking into some middle distance above the camera, a nimbus of wispy clouds illuminating his sacred head. But even away from the Obama mother ship, graphic designers and pop artists have adopted the candidate as their own, producing a raft of posters and prints in support of his campaign.

Last summer, an Obama poster began appearing in downtown Chicago, plastered randomly in public spaces. Drawn in mustardy yellows, Obama appeared from the shoulders up, staring straight at viewers, with a sunburst exploding behind his head. Below the image, in large block letters, the poster proclaimed "The Dream." At the time, the artist was identified only as "CRO," but, as the posters spread, CRO was revealed to be Ray Noland, a 35-year-old graphic artist....

To get a sense of Noland's politics, you need only look at the details. In one print, a crowd of Obama supporters is waving tiny placards, some of which read "Surge of Diplomacy" and "Peace Is Patriotic." Another poster, titled "No! From the Go," bears the slogan "U.S. out of Iraq."

Noland's designs attracted a huge amount of attention in the art community, and even some interest from the Obama campaign. At first, campaign officials asked him to donate his images, according to the New York Post. He declined. But the campaign finally did purchase a poster, which was used as part of the official promotion for a September 2007 rally in New York City.

Shepard Fairey was the next to step forward. He is best known for his early 1990s underground "Andre the Giant has a posse" campaign, a cultural phenomenon designed around a small, easily reproducible likeness of the wrestler. Fairey distributed thousands of stickers and posters bearing the image, which eventually took on a life of its own, turning up in cities and towns across the globe--the image itself becoming part of the popular culture. Fairey specializes in this sort of epiphenomenon, which he calls "propaganda engineering." As his website proudly proclaims, he's been "manufacturing quality dissent since 1989."

Fairey is not new to politics. As he told, "I've been paying attention to politics since the mid-'90s." In 2000, he created an anti-Bush poster. In 2004, even though he "wasn't really that impressed" with John Kerry, he mounted what he calls a "pretty aggressive anti-Bush poster campaign" called "Be the Revolution" in support of Kerry. It wasn't until Obama appeared on the scene that Fairey really fell for a candidate. He would later explain that he admired Obama's "radical cachet." "I have made art opposing the Iraq war for several years, and making art of Obama, who opposed the war from the start, is like making art for peace."

In January, he unveiled two posters in support of Obama. Done in blood red and grays, the prints depicted a large, iconic Obama, head thoughtfully cocked. One version of the poster proclaims "HOPE," the other, "PROGRESS." As Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum noted, the Fairey motif was something like "Bolshevik constructivism meets skate-punk graffiti art," all of which suggests that the subject might be "a Third World dictator." But the American Thinker's Peggy Shapiro grasped the poster's more proximate ancestor: Fairey was using "the graphic style of totalitarian Soviet propaganda .  .  . [recalling] the idealized portraits and personality cult of the 'Beloved Leader' such as Stalin and Lenin."

Fairey's posters have become huge hits--you often see them at Obama rallies adorning either T-shirts or signs and plastering urban places such as bus kiosks....

Artists keep flocking to the Obama campaign, designing posters, sometimes selling them, and often giving them away for free....

Designer Jean Aw, trying to explain the attraction, told the Huffington Post that "By placing such an emphasis on building a visually appealing brand, Obama is validating the importance of design in communication. This in turn builds support from the design community, who might feel that a design-conscious candidate best represents their personal beliefs."

Of course it is equally possible that artists are responding instead to an ideological kinship with Obama. The Upper Playground is an artist collective in San Francisco, which the San Francisco Chronicle helpfully describes as a "multiplatform international lifestyle brand encompassing artist-centered clothing and housewares." In February they endorsed Obama, writing, "For too long we have been plagued by mediocrity and incompetence at the Executive level. As an international company, we feel that it is time to support a candidate that truly embodies the American spirit in both his campaign and his ideologies. We believe that Barack Obama is that candidate."

Meghan Daum at the Los Angeles Times, in commenting on Fairey's agitprop fame, offers the best summary of Obama's idolatry:

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...

Well, the Obama folks apparently think so.

Totalitarian chic is popular, and as this is widely considered the "change" election, voters have only themselves to blame if, God forbid, they eventually succumb to the cult of Obama in November.