Painting in a President: Shepard Fairey and the Art of an Election


If there’s an image in the history of American presidential politics that’s more ubiquitous than Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” portrait, it can only be found on the face of our legal tender. But Fairey’s now legendary work was only one in a sea of stellar images inspired by Obama and his legendary quest for the White House. Fairey and Evolutionary Media Group founder Jennifer Gross collect much of the best of that historic time in Art for Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change, a 181-page compendium of the campaign’s artistry.

Flavorpill got with Fairey on the eve of Art for Obama‘s release and just a day after the White House succumbed to conservative pressure and allowed noted Obama culture op Yosi Sergant to secede from the NEA limelight. Here’s some of what he had to say about it all.

How’d the idea of the book come about?

Well, this book really came out of the process of me, Yosi [Sergant], Jennifer Gross and MoveOn curating the Manifest Hope art shows for Denver during the Democratic Convention, and then in D.C. during the Inauguration. The amazing thing was that a lot of people started making art to support Obama and his policies. And it was something that Yosi and I really decided was important, and we initially made posters of some of the peoples’ work. Then we decided during the Denver Convention that we would like to do an art show. So then we did a broader call for entries, beyond the circle of artists that we knew, and MoveOn did a call for entries from their web site. We were flooded with really amazing submissions. And then we just chose what we thought was the strongest work, and we put it in those shows.

The majority of the work in the book is really the stuff that was shown in the two Manifest Hope art shows. There’s some other work that didn’t make it in shows that we thought was really good. Fortunately, because my “Hope” image had become such a widely known image when people heard that from me or from Yosi that Shepard was assembling an art show, a lot of artists said well, “That’s the show I want to be down with.” So I think we were able to really get the energy and the attention of a lot of the people making art for Obama. We didn’t have to scour the nation. It came to us.

Will you be doing any touring to support the book or curating any further coincident shows?

I don’t have plans for that now. There are going to be some promotional events for the book that I’m going to maybe be involved in. I know there’s going to be one in New York City that I’m trying to figure into my schedule. Unfortunately, I am really really bogged down with obligations.

Really my feeling about the book is that there’s a lot of wonderful art, but it’s not time to just celebrate this body of work. It’s time to use this body of work as a source of inspiration for how people can address the issues that they care about now, as the administration evolves. Obama is president. We don’t need to put Obama on a pedestal anymore. Now we need to, as artists, a creative community, tackle the issues we care about. So for me that’s global warming, the environment, health care. I’d love to see us get out of Afghanistan. Those are issues I want to tackle with my art.

Having this book come out right now and seeing this body of work, some of which was already dealing with those issues, hopefully, will just re-energize the creative community to keep making stuff that they think can make a difference. There’s a lot of really positive work in this book and most of the debates have been very negative lately. And I think it can be a powerful reminder to people that just putting things out there in a positive way, that’s heartfelt, can make a big difference.

Considering how closely you worked with Yosi Sergant, you must be heartsick over his reassigning and all this stuff that’s been going on recently?

I am. There’s a little post on my web site that I wrote last night about it. Yosi is somebody that is an amazing human being [who] cares only about bettering the country. He sees that artists can make a really vital difference. All he did was he combined his understanding of that with knowing that Obama is trying to inspire people to service.

The country needs all the help it can get right now. So all he tried to say was, “Look, if you care about issues and you’re an artist and you also care about service to the country, you can combine the two and make art about issues you care about.” And then that’s spun by Glenn Beck as propaganda. When the right wing has absolutely no qualms about telling straight up lies — Republican Congressmen will lie about aspects of Obama’s Healthcare Reform Plan and they’re not forced to step down. So to me it’s tragic how it happened to Yosi when really there was absolutely nothing sinister about what he was trying to [accomplish].

It’s the same thing with Van Jones. It’s ridiculous. How’s Beck even getting away with these smear campaigns?

I think it’s very unfortunate that the Obama Administration won’t just stand up to this stuff and say, “These are good people doing good things. We stand behind them. Your smear tactics are not ethical and they’re not going to work.” On the other hand getting bogged down in the minutiae of these supposedly radical people when there are bigger issues to resolve might just seem like a less important battle. They’re trying to choose their battles. I’m disappointed because what I think it does is, when you have victims of the right wing smear machine and they see it work, they’re emboldened to do it more and more and more. So, I think somebody’s got to take a stand somewhere.

What can the normal folks do or even artists do to combat such blather?

Well, first of all I think making efforts to make sure that the truth is out there — that can just be sending an email out or posting something on the internet. What I’ve been trying to do, and I would never tell other artists what to do, but I’ve been making images about things I care about. I did a clean energy initiative with MoveOn and the image comes with all the information about the issue. The information is extremely important and the image is designed to inspire interest in the information. Just in the same way that a lot of the art in the book may have inspired people to look more closely at what Obama was about, what his policies were about. They’re not voting for Obama because he looks nice in a picture. They’re voting for Obama because maybe after their interest was peaked by the picture they got to the substance of what he was about.

That’s what I think artists can do right now. Going tit-for-tat with Glenn Beck might not be the right way to go though. It’s gotten to the point where I do actually think I might do something to try to combat him. But really, if the right wing is going to lie about health care reform, if they’re going to lie about the environmental impact of the companies that they’re getting big corporate contributions from, [we need] people [to] make art that tells the truth, that inspires people to look at the other side of the story.