The Virality of Hope: Shepard Fairey and Brand Obama
by Richard Edwards — Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
February 26, 2009 – 03:59
Street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey (obeygiant.com) created one of the most iconic images of Barack Obama in the 2008 election. It contributed greatly to “Brand Obama,” the set of logos, bumper stickers, t-shirts, songs, social media sites, videos and images that came together in support of Obama’s campaign.
Based on an Associated Press photograph that Fairey claims he found while browsing the web, his widely circulating ‘HOPE’ poster was distributed online, has graced the cover of Time Magazine, and is now in the permanent collection of the US National Portrait Gallery. This poster becomes a good point of comparison and contrast with other viral media efforts for Obama. Unlike Phil de Vellis’s ‘Vote Different’ video—which I discussed in a previous IMR post—Fairey’s work here was embraced and celebrated by Obama’s campaign, organizations like Moveon.org, and Obama himself.
In this video from the LA Times, Fairey discusses the ‘HOPE’ poster and its viral impact. When asked by candidate Obama how this particular poster spread so quickly, Fairey quips: “It helps that there is an Internet and you are a popular guy.” Fairey’s semi-serious comment highlights the role of technology and celebrity as key vectors for the poster’s raging success. While I do not want to dismiss the power of the Internet nor Obama’s popularity as factors, what is elided in that response is Fairey’s own complicity in the process: his active myth-making on behalf of Obama and his re-appropriation not just of an AP image, but of powerful propagandistic graphic design codes that metonymically transform Obama’s slightly upturned face and the word ‘hope’ into Brand Obama.
But I still wonder what role transgression plays with the ‘HOPE’ poster? Like many appropriated media objects or remixes, transgression can be narrowly conceived as legal infringement: the AP threatened to sue Fairey for using their photo without permission—in ways that remind me of DJ Danger Mouse being sued by EMI over the Grey Album. But in a wonderful reversal, Fairey sued first, claiming fair use provisions, in an effort to vindicate his artistic practice. Yet are there other, more radical transgressive elements left out of this story? An interesting side-note in the video is that Fairey seems very concerned about being perceived as a propaganda artist working for Obama, and he states in the video that he will still critique Obama when necessary. A street artist like Shepard Fairey has a reputation for transgressive acts, and his anti-Bush poster art activism is reminiscent of a practice like Robbie Conal’s. Is it simply coincidental that Fairey gets arrested on the streets of Boston for graffiti tagging while a museum retrospective is celebrating his work as ‘high art’ at the ICA and while the “HOPE” poster is being displayed in the National Portrait Gallery?
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