Monday, May 26, 2008

Obey Obama

For almost four years now, there has been little doubt of Barack Obama's standing in political culture. But recently, he and his image have not simply driven by but set up shop in the visually-based realm of pop culture.

The appearance of the Obama "Obey" signs may be the most convincing proof that Barack Obama's semiotic house has a good solid foundation on the main street of America's popular imagination.

As most readers know, the Andre the Giant "Obey" images have come to be the poster-poster for American fringe culture, but the quickness and ease with which Obama's image has occupied Andre's former semiotic space speaks to Obama's popularity across demographics.

It might also speak to the ease with which his image can become propagandized.

Meghan Daum has argued that the "official" Obama Obey images, designed by Shephard Fairey (who did the original Andre posters), merge the mythical with the questionable. For her, the posters are "a half-artsy, half-creepy genuflection that suggests the subject is (a) a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality; (b) a controversial American figure who's been assassinated; or (c) one of those people from a Warhol silkscreen that you don't recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way."

Inspired by WPA posters of the 1920s but also the bold images of revolutionary semiotics, Daum's reading of the posters are not entirely off base. These texts play with important visual symbols that are often linked with deep-seeded images of nationalism. Such propaganda is characterized by bold colors, strong assertive graphics, heroic and commanding poses, and the iconography of leadership. As these two images reveal (and as we discuss in regard to the Time magazine covers), it is common to represent the figure from a "lower" perspective, making the hero appear larger than life. Note also the holy, even angelic rays emanating from Mao's head.

There is no question that, aesthetically, the Obama-obey posters recall the visual rhetoric of totalitarian imagery, of dictatorial propaganda, but they lack the idolatry of the Russian and Chinese versions. It's true the "Change" Obama looks a bit stern, even robotic, as though he has emerged from the panopticon to do some serious surveillance of the right wing. However, the "Hope" and "Progress" Obama is more pensive, more thoughtful, as though he's listening to a Neil Dimaond record or watching performance art. But, then again, hope is more laid back than change.

One question is, do the images evoke democracy? The red, white, and blue graphics play on American colors of patriotic semiotics, which is key. And, where most of the pure propaganda images show the body in postures of action, ruling, holding forth, and showing strength, these images exude confidence, authority, trust, and thought. They emphasize intelligence over action, realization over revolution.

This last point makes the fact that the images are so popular even more fascinating--especially given the audience of the original Andre posters. But then again, maybe they are, at their core, the most appropriate Obama images: they are edgy yet sophisticated; populist yet cool.

Not unlike Obama himself.

--D. R.

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