Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past year, you know that an election is coming up. You’re probably familiar with the players involved; they’ve been hoofing it across the country for months, stumping for votes, parrying debate questions and fending off (or courting) reporters. As we creep ever so slowly toward the nominating conventions, things are taking shape. While Senator John McCain has all but sewn up the Republican nomination, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still fighting it out in Ohio and Texas, although Obama seems to be pulling away.
Both Democratic candidates have relied on strong and distinct bases. Clinton is still winning the majority of registered democrat’s votes, while Obama’s appeal is strong among moderate independents. The race and gender factors have been widely discussed. Both candidates have raised millions of dollars. But in the last few months, Drymount! has observed a new source of vocal, and visual, support for Obama—artists appear to be throwing their support behind his candidacy, especially in the form of a few highly visible art campaigns.
Perhaps this is because no artist wants to take on Hillary’s over-familiar cheekbones and chipmunk smile. Kidding aside, though, Obama’s message of change has really resonated within the artist community, and I’ll take a look at a few of the more compelling works that have come out in his support.
Shepard Fairey – Hope and Progress
The man behind Obey Giant has based his entire career on political imagery. He’s designed anti-Bush posters in the past, but this is the first time he’s put his art out in direct support of a candidate. Check out the interesting interview with him over at Creativity Online.
The campaign started with 350 signed and numbered screen printed posters, sales of which raised money for 3000 offset prints made as posters for the streets. The screen prints sold out in less than 15 minutes, then almost immediately started popping up on eBay. “Flipping,” the act of buying a poster only to sell it for a profit, has always struck me as morally ambiguous, and in this case I really did see it as capitalism at its worst. The screen prints have sold for as much as $3,100 according to Expresso Beans. Meanwhile, the offset posters that Obey basically gave out for free have also been on eBay, routinely selling for over $100.
Still, despite all the shenanigans, I think Fairey has created a lasting image here. Art (as opposed to crappy lawn placards) has a history in American politics, but the intertwining with the Obama phenomenon feels rare and special. An interesting post about past campaign posters on The New York Times’ Campaign Stops blog is worth a read.
Go Tell Mama
Ray Noland – Go Tell Mama
It’s not a surprise that a lot of the Obama art has come out of Chicago—he is that city’s favorite son after all. Another campaign that has received national exposure is the Go Tell Mama website and posters. Over the last year and a half street artist Ray Noland has been pumping out unauthorized Obama posters and hanging them around Chicago. Like Fairey’s posters, these are not your typical political rally posters. Most of them feature an almost beatific portrait of Obama along with catchphrases like “Go Tell Mama I’m For Obama.”
Whereas I see Fairey’s art portraying Senator Obama as a strong leader, Noland’s posters seem to appeal more to Obama’s folksy charm (and no, its not the same folksy charm many people thought W. had 8 years ago); they usually avoid the red, white and blue color schemes typical of campaign posters. A Chicago Tribune article on Noland attributes a “Hip Hop sensibility” to the posters, perhaps most obvious in a portrayal of the Senator as a basketball player with the tag-line “Obama Got Next.”
Gig Poster Artists Get Involved
Street artists aren’t the only ones getting involved in the Obama campaign. Drymount! favorites and Chicagoans Jay Ryan and Kathleen Judge also did their part. On Thursday Jay’s band Dianogah played the Hideout with whistling (and violin, and guitar and….) virtuoso Andrew Bird. Proceeds from the $100 tickets went to the Obama campaign and everyone in attendance left with a very cool Obama poster designed by Judge. I love the sense of urgency that Judge’s scratch board style lends to the poster.
It Doesn’t End There
I don’t know if it’s a trend, a bandwagon, or what exactly, but the same people that Fairey worked with in the Obama campaign later contacted mural artist The Mac to design a poster. The result is thematically pretty similar to Fairey’s, with an off-center shot of Obama, a red white and blue color scheme, and “Hope” in big letters. The details in the line work are exceptional. Mac’s tribal tattoo-like lines are pretty incredible, although I wonder whether they’re that effective when seen from afar. As with the Obey campaign, the funds from this poster are being put towards still more poster endeavors, so its true effectiveness may be more in the fervor with which supporters (and those looking to make a dime) are snapping the posters up, instead of its power to make a statement on the street.
The Date Farmers
One poster specifically designed for the street is the Date Farmers “Cambio” poster. Published by Upper Playground and printed by Burlesque of North America, the “Cambio” poster was mass-distributed in Texas to help get Obama’s message out. The poster is designed in the style of Mexican street signs, an especially interesting tactic meant to appeal to a voter base that has mostly supported Senator Clinton in earlier primaries elsewhere (most notably California). Polls are now showing Obama pulling ahead in Texas leading into Tuesday’s primary, and although it’s impossible to say the posters are having an effect, I like the idea of targeting a particular voter-block in an openly contested state. 300 of these were screen printed and signed, and they’re selling for $200, with the proceeds again going towards new artistic campaigns.
Is It All Good?
Ray Noland – Go Tell Mama
I’m really excited about Obama, and whatever its effect on the actual vote, I think this outpouring of artistic enthusiasm illustrates the ground swell of support that is happening around the country. It’s a different kind of feeling than for any other candidate I’ve seen in the few years I’ve been paying attention (considering it will only be my second vote for president, I don’t have that much to compare it to). But people are energized like I’ve never seen, voter turnouts have been high, and fund raising is breaking all sorts of records.
Still, there is something about such fervor that makes me feel queasy. Take the recent star-studded music videos by the Black Eye’d Peas’ Will.I.Am. I found the first one really effective. Everyone knows what kind of orator Obama is, and the “Yes We Can” video really brought that point home. His most recent video, “We Are The Ones,” doesn’t show Obama at all. Instead it shows a wide range of celebrities (who are by definition not regular people) explaining how Obama is basically the people’s vote, interspersed with thunderous chants of “O-Ba-Ma.” I appreciate the sentiment, but the faceless herd (the chanters are only heard, never seen) conjures images of crazy sport fans chanting “Yan-kees Suck,” and “Red Sox Suck.” And anything that reminds of Red Sox Nation or the Yankee Faithful frightens me.
I sometimes feel a sense of blind reverence in Obama supporters, and that worries me just a little bit. I’m wary of idealized iconographic images. Obama is not the Second Coming, but maybe, hopefully, he’s a candidate that can bring change to a country in dire need of it. But, in the immortal words of LeVar Burton, “you don’t have to take my word for it,” nor the words and images of any of these artists. “Even if you like my art and think it’s a cool poster, don’t vote for Barack unless you think he’s the right guy,” Shepard Fairey said in the Creativity interview, and I’d have to agree with him there.