'Restoring Honor,' Appropriating Images: The Conservative Movement’s Co-optation of Shepard Fairey’s Obama Portrait
by Joel Penney — Montclair State University
November 04, 2010 – 00:01
In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Obama campaign capitalized on the youth-oriented ‘cool’ of popular culture like no other campaign had done before. One of the most vivid examples of this is the iconic red-and-blue Obama “HOPE” portrait, created by graffiti artist and street fashion entrepreneur Shepard Fairey (founder of Obey Giant). Originally designed as a poster, the portrait became an enormously fashionable image during the campaign, featured on T-shirts sold by the thousands by retailers like Urban Outfitters and endlessly circulated and parodied online. The cultural ubiquity of the image came to symbolize Obama’s rock star-like popularity, particularly among young people.
Two years later, as the midterm elections loom on the horizon, the visual culture of the American political scene has undergone a dramatic, if somewhat predictable, transformation. The conservative opposition to the Obama administration, sensing a shift in popular momentum, has refashioned itself as the new arbiter of political ‘cool’ by appropriating some of the Obama campaign’s most successful marketing images. This strategy of cultural co-optation is readily observable in the conservative movement’s wholesale embrace of Fairey’s Pop Art-inspired graphics. Rather than rejecting this design scheme for its association with the political left (indeed, many observers have pointed out the similarities to Jim Fitzpatrick’s 1968 ‘radical chic’ portrait of Che Guavara), conservative marketers have instead opted to take advantage of its current popularity while simply replacing Obama’s face with those who they believe inspire ‘real hope.’
The video clip shown here contains photographs which I took at Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in Washington DC, held in August 2010. Billed as a ‘conservative Woodstock,’ the event was a veritable coming-out party for the American right’s post-Obama visual culture. The Fairey-esque portraits of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin, juxtaposed with the words “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity,” served as the official images of the rally and were printed on T-shirts sold by Beck’s own website. Other T-shirts worn by crowd members displayed portraits of Bush, Reagan, and even Jesus Christ in the familiar red-and-blue design scheme. The photos dramatize how quickly political iconography can evolve in our rapid-fire media culture.