You may not have heard of Shepard Fairey, but I'll lay odds you'd recognize his seminal, self-published posters for the Obama campaign. The moment he printed the first run, the "PROGRESS" design, this street artist-turned-contemporary-art darling hit a nerve, attracting media attention from NPR to The Washington Post to the TV networks. Even in this flailing economy, people couldn't buy enough of them; each run of his posters sold out quickly, often within hours of their release. The attention was well deserved. Fairey's designs are propaganda masterworks, and I mean that in a good way. Just as significantly, his political endorsement had real reach. With his posters pinned up on urban street corners, in demand as memorabilia, and ultimately embraced for official use by the Obama camp, Fairey's DIY efforts actually worked.
Fairey's Obama posters derive part of their power from their restraint. A single word—hope, progress—at the base of each poster is a distillation of Obama's appeal for the faithful, stated with the populist confidence of all caps and a sans serif font. The simple designs echoed the poetic optimism that was the candidate's stock in trade. The visual vocabulary of Fairey's designs, unmistakably indebted to 1930s and '40s posters made for the Works Progress Administration, again reinforced Obama's core message: The blue-and-red palette suggests a working-class patriotism, and the color-blocked portrait is romantically retro, invoking the promise of a new New Deal.
If the artist has cast Obama as our era's Roosevelt, he's also lent the rest of us the downtrodden heroism and romance of our "greatest generation" forebears. There's a proletarian grandeur to these posters that assures an inspiration-hungry public that we are still a virtuous, industrious people who, with the right leadership, are destined once again to be a force for good in the world. Perhaps this is the real source of appeal in Fairey's work. After eight years of war and fear, in the wake of shame and scandal and on the brink of economic collapse, we're eager for some vindication and a sense that better times are just ahead. Fairey's posters offer us a beacon in the night promising us that, from now on, we'll be on the right side of history.
Susannah Schouweiler is editor for the arts journalism published by mnartists.org, an online resource for artists and arts enthusiasts in Minnesota.
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