'Art for Obama' book is full of political hollowness, not hope

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

It isn't meant to be a gloomy or creepy book. The images of Barack Obama with strangely full lips and long lashes, or the weird morphing of his face and Lincoln's, or the gal in the very short and saucy sweater dress she made that proclaims "My Jewish Grandma is voting for Obama, is yours?" are all meant to be positive and inspiring, the voice of a new generation of artists who feel empowered by the election of the 44th president.

But there is something tremendously depressing about the recently published "Art for Obama," a survey of images and sculpture produced in support of Obama's 2008 campaign for president. The gloom sets in slowly, page after colorful page, slogan after inspiring slogan. It is a catalogue of celebratory art, of smiles and hope and change, and somehow, it leaves you with a hollow, panicky feeling in the gut.

The volume, published by Abrams Image, documents a traveling exhibition featuring works made explicitly in support of Obama, which began in Denver (during the Democratic National Convention) and ended in the District (during the inauguration). Shepard Fairey, whose "Hope" image of Obama became the icon of the campaign, contributes an introductory essay, several variations on his famous red-and-blue poster of Obama's face, and far too much influence on many of the lesser graphic artists in the catalogue. The book also includes an essay co-written by Yosi Sergant, the young campaign worker who was appointed communications director of the National Endowment of the Arts, only to be forced out last month after it was revealed that he had solicited artistic support for the administration's political agenda.

The book was already printed and in warehouses when Sergant held his now infamous Aug. 10 conversation with artists, marketers and consultants, taped by one of the participants and widely flogged on conservative media. But the art itself raises many of the same troubling questions that Sergant's blunder raised. How closely should artists be aligned with political power? Can they remain artists of substance and integrity if they are on the inside of the halls of power? Can art be channeled by political leaders and remain interesting art?

More fundamentally, however, is an even deeper question: What is the psychology behind the new artistic mania for patriotism, once considered suspect or anathema by many serious artists?

Perhaps not since the days of the old Saturday Evening Post covers has there been such a vibrantly colorful and exuberant celebration of naive Americana in graphic form. Flags are everywhere in these images, as are images of Abraham Lincoln, children and families, the Statue of Liberty, the White House and the map of the continental United States. Much of this comes with a left-leaning spin, such as Trish Moreno's print of the Statue of Liberty giving the Black Power salute, or numerous images that suggest a more inclusive vision of family life than is offered by the religious right. But even with a lefty spin, the apple-pie imagery doesn't seem particularly subversive.

This is a wholesale embrace of the full trove of Americana, as if young American artists were never happy on the margins of American society, as if they have suddenly found the right moment to release their inner Norman Rockwell. It almost calls into question the long-standing assumption that artists in America are by necessity and choice outsiders. Perhaps they never really were. The artists included here feel more like insiders whose invitation got lost in the mail.

So, throughout the book, one can never be quite sure if the supposed anti-bourgeois orientation of artists still applies in the age of Obama. Consider Guillermo Bert's "Change," which superimposes the perpetual buzzword of the campaign over the black vertical lines of a generic bar code. If an artist had taken a word associated with the McCain campaign -- say, "Maverick" -- and written it over a bar code, the reading would be obvious: The maverick theme is just a sales gimmick, a hollow marketing ploy. By equating change and commercialism, is Bert being ironic? Has he managed to slip a bit of suspicion into this overwhelmingly single-minded book? Or is the bar code just American visual ornament, to be hung on the Obama Christmas tree?

The use of Americana can be wildly dissonant. Scott Siedman's "The Man From Illinois," an oil painting, shows Obama in overalls, clutching a hoe in one hand and a book in the other, standing in a flowing field of corn. The palette of vibrant yellow and blue, and the elongated figure of the president, suggest a clear allusion to the works of Thomas Hart Benton, the left-leaning champion of small-town life who was also a vitriolic homophobe. As with several other images in this collection, especially those that borrow politically charged styles familiar from authoritarian propaganda, it's not clear if the artist is aware of the association or deliberately creating ambiguity. If the latter, then the image may well be a clever revelation of an increasing cleavage in Obama's political coalition, as frustrated gay rights groups distance themselves from a president unwilling to act on his promises.

Or maybe not. It's hard to credit this art with too much sophistication. Rather than call it political art, which has a long and noble tradition, it might be better to label it merely partisan art. Even the occasional interesting image, such as Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's wry comment on race and the "black enough?" debate, suffers from juxtaposition with the hackwork, throwing off all the irony detectors.

And much of it is simply, even embarrassingly saccharine, such as Amy Martin's image of a mother holding her baby up to watch butterflies buzzing about the word "Hope," or Ben Dutro's "Embrace for the White House," which shows a cartoon donkey hugging a cartoon elephant, above the words "Unite America." Some of the work is so treacly and weirdly sexual at the same time that it almost feels borrowed from serious artists such as Lisa Yuskavage, who mixes storybook figures with strangely sick and naughty eroticism. And so we get Lukas Ketner's "Barack on the Water," a digital painting that shows the president, shirt open and surrounded by red roses, emerging from a pool of milky water while a white stallion cavorts on the seminal waves. One hopes this is a sophisticated comment on sexuality, race and the erotic desire for strong male leaders. One suspects it isn't.

Most of the work feels borrowed, and borrowed without irony. White doves of peace fly through these images in flocks to rival Hitchcock's birds. The president's face appears with the frequency of Bashir al-Assad's on the streets of Damascus. The repetition of the president's face and form -- often in images cravenly indebted to Fairey's -- grows oppressive and even frightening.

Two images hint at this claustrophobia, but again, with an ambivalence that is more confusing than comforting. Sueraya Shaheen's "Right on Track, London Tube" is an arrangement of cellphone camera images of the president, such that he seems to haunt the London Underground, peering in its train windows and the station walls. He's everywhere, it says, but not clearly enough to be an indictment of the cult of personality it echoes. And Ocean Clark's "Obama Entrances the Crowd," an acrylic painting, shows an image of Obama speaking to a swirl of red and yellow and orange circles, seemingly capturing a crowd whipped up to conflagration by the power of his rhetoric.

These are terrifying images, made by artists seemingly unaware of the fragile line that separates democratic enthusiasm from totalitarian mania. It's too easy, however, to say that this naive collection of Obamamania amounts to any serious desire for fascism or authoritarian control, as the president's critics will surely do. But it does show the emptiness of imagination in a group of artists who suddenly find themselves on the crest of a historical wave, unable to invent anything new, unable to articulate any sense of the moment beyond the observation that it is "all very inspiring and a lot of fun."

Those are the words of Ron English, who was told by the organizers of the original exhibit that he should "please stay positive." It seems a small dictate, to stay positive, just as it must have seemed a small nudge from Sergant when he encouraged artists on a conference call to "pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment," and "apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative community's utilities and bring them to the table." Leave aside the question of whether that was a re-politicization of the NEA. Leave aside the inestimable damage it did to an agency that had been scrupulously depoliticized over the past eight years.

What should have been clear, and what becomes painfully clear from "Art for Obama," is that this is a very bad recipe for making good art.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company