During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, an image of Barack Obama designed by artist Shepard Fairey claimed almost as much attention as the candidate. In the image, a stylized graphic in shades of red, blue, and white, Obama gazes upward. Often, riding just below the knot of his necktie, a word was included: progress, change, hope, etc.
The Obama image became instantly iconic, though it flowed from a long-established Social Realism heritage. After the election the National Portrait Gallery acquired a mixed media stenciled version. Permutations of the image using other prominent figures from the political and entertainment fields proliferated. Some were outright parodies, for example, with Obama’s “hope” replaced with “hype,” or the faces of Obama’s opponents Sarah Palin and John McCain with “nope.”
The image sparked a controversy when the Associated Press claimed that Fairey’s inspiration was taken too literally from a copyrighted photograph snapped in 2006 by freelance photographer Mannie Garcia. Fairey sued for a declaratory judgment that his adaptation of the original image was fair use. The legal issues eventually were settled out of court.
In the political realm the iconic elements continue to be used. Witness most recently the anti-Mubarak poster (at right, posted on Facebook by my friend Alex Goebel, a German public radio correspondent stationed in Morocco), which is being carried during a protest to end the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Fairey’s powerful graphic embodies the essence of any icon, a bold simplicity that renders the message instantly comprehensible. And so the form can be transmuted, whether for serious or humorous intent, without diminishing its power to communicate.
Inspiration in terms of political art arises from the artist being particularly attuned, often subconsciously, to signals and currents in the culture that shape and are shaped by a political dynamic. Translation of that inspiration into imagery, in the case of Fairey’s Obama portrait, can produce the iconic, which then takes on a life of its own.