Hope and Political Art

Recently Esquire Magazine ran an interview with Shepard Fairey. In it, the HOPE poster designer admitted that he's disappointed with President Obama. Now that the breadth of policies the President has kept and expanded from prior administrations has become widely understood, I seriously doubt he's in a minority opinion here.

Shepard Fairey in front of his Hope Obama poster.

Of course the news is likely a boon for some who would like to pile on the President for losing his literal poster boy of supporters. That's fair. Obama deserves scorn for the domestic spying and drone policies Fairey lost hope over.
This is the thing, from the beginning Fairey's HOPE poster was most successful as a vehicle for parody. Last year he even admitted that he finds joy in other artists defacing the poster as commentary on Obama's failed presidency. I certainly used the meme immediately to do so myself. 


The problem artists run into when dealing with political themes such as politicians and the state is that they misapply the same optimism and hope to the subject that they use elsewhere. The inevitable result is that the art comes off as silly, naive, or even propaganda. 


There's a reason this is the case, and it doesn't have to do with the artist. It has to do with the subject itself.


The world is filled with hope, beauty, humanity, love, wonder, and virtue. That's the meat of what inspires most artists. That's what inspires us all. But politics is none of this. Politics is the domain of lies, deceit, irony, and compulsion. It's the one place in life where cynicism is no vice. It's actually a necessary ingredient to have any wisdom on the subject.


Even the most pious politician is leveraging the dark powers of authority. Even the most benevolent policy doesn't hold a candle to true charity and love, nor remind us of the sublime scope of heroism and sacrifice that truly lifts us as human beings. They're ersatz articles; inferior substitutes for the real thing. We know this inherently. Or we should. So when politics and politicians are placed before us as idols of hope, we naturally wince a little bit. Something is out of whack.

Politics is also a brutal, twisted muse. It's a horror genre. To successfully deal with it you have to understand that the subject itself cannot be elevated. In art terms, it's the shadow one has to cast light on to form the optimism and hope that lifts the soul, and the only way to do this is to contrast politics with its opposite; liberty, compassion, honesty, virtue, humor, and even irreverence.

It's easy to see why people had optimism in President Obama at the outset and wanted to believe that he would be different. I can't blame anyone for that. But smart people have learned something from the Obama administration, and how taking politics and politicians too seriously is a recipe for disappointment.

It looks as though Shepard Fairey has gained some hard-won experience and wisdom from all of this. I'm happy for him. It should make his art even better. I'm sure the best is yet to come.