Monday, September 13, 2010

From Punk to President to Pulpit: A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

Scott Andrews is one of TWR's most frequent contributors.  He has published poetry, criticism, and essays in a number of journals. He is on the faculty at California State, Northridge. 
Few images have gone “viral” as quickly as Shepard Fairey’s poster of Obama created for the 2008 election.   Everyone has seen it.  What everyone may not know is that its creator first broke into the spotlight with his guerilla art campaign that mocked such iconic imagery.

Fairey gained notoriety in 1989 with his “Obey” posters that were plastered on walls in the middle of the night.  They featured the very stylized face of Andre the Giant (it is recognizable as him only after one has been told it is him), who seems to be staring at the viewer.  Beneath the face is one word: OBEY.

His poster was inspired by John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live, which imagined that humans were being subliminally controlled by an alien race through advertising and the news media.  When rebellious humans put on special sunglasses, they could read the messages behind the messages.   For instance, with the glasses one could see that the true message of various billboards was CONSUME or OBEY, etc.  (You can read more about Fairey’s poster here.)

Fairey has said his poster shared a message with that movie:  “… people have no idea how manipulated they are.”  The “Obey” posters and stickers were designed to make people question rather than obey.  It was designed to encourage people to see behind the messages that bombard them every day. Fairey said, “Obey.  It’s such a compelling word.   When told what to do, my instinct is to do the opposite.”

Fairey seems an odd choice, then, to design a political campaign poster.  An artist who seems dedicated to challenging advertising’s manipulative power was called upon to create a campaign poster designed, at least in part, to get us to trust the figure depicted.

Of course, “Hope” is different from “Obey.”  And Obama is looking up, suggesting inspiration, rather than at the viewer, suggesting authority or even domination – yikes, it’s a giant!

The poster proved effective possibly because it was so simple.  One image that was highly stylized and therefore short on detail.  One word that could inspire positive feelings in a voter without making promises of anything specific.  Hope for what?  Well, anything you hope for.  That is, the poster was short on content and so the viewer was free to supply that.

 In semiotic terms, this can be deemed a “floating signifier.”  A website devoted to the ways humans communicate with signs, Semiotics for Beginners, states this: “Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.”

Perhaps this helps explain why Fairey’s “Hope” poster was so easily parodied.  It quickly spawned all sorts of farcical imitations.  You could get an image of The Dude from The Big Lebowski.  Or perhaps Futurama’s Hypnotoad with the caption of “Obey.”  Industrious folks quickly created applications whereby any image could be “Obama-fied.” 

What relation is there between these various parodies and the original?  Hardly any at all.  They are not commenting upon the “Hope” poster.  They are merely copying its style.  (Though perhaps that is a commentary on the floatiness of the floating signifier.)  One parody comes close, though: Alfred E. Newman above the caption “Hopeless.”  But this image does not blend the image of Obama with Alfred’s.  The poster may not be saying that Obama is like Mad Magazine’s mascot.  But then again it might.

The “Hope” poster’s lack of specificity not only makes it easy to parody, that lack also makes it easy to appropriate, to undermine and deploy for purposes in direct opposition to the original’s.

This came to mind when I saw images created for Glenn Beck’s campaign to reform America’s moral code according to his understanding of Christian ethics.  His staff Obama-fied three profiles of famous Americans: John Adams, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin.  Beneath Adams is one word, “Faith.”  Beneath Washington is “Hope.”  And beneath Franklin is “Charity.”  Few people would argue that these are not worthy values or virtues.  One of them is even the word featured in the Obama poster.  But Beck seems to be hoping for something rather different from what Obama’s voters hoped for.  As he unveiled the images, he accused Obama of attacking these three things. 

Reminiscent of that John Carpenter movie, Beck suggested that the people assisting Obama were part of a hidden conspiracy to control and destroy America.  He echoed Fairey’s goal for the original “Obey” posters, which was to show people how they were being manipulated.  Beck said, “And radical progressives are infecting America by deceiving unsuspecting people on their true intentions.”

Man, I got to get a pair of those sunglasses so I can know who to trust.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Burning the Quran: Why It's Really about Semiotics

BY NOW, MOST AMERICANS have learned of Rev. Terry Jones' decision to host a special pageant at his church in Gainesville, Florida.  His "Burn a Koran Day," (really more like "Burn a Koran Rush Hour") is scheduled to light up at 6 pm sharp on September 11.  According to Jones, he and some of his congregation plan to set fire to copies of the Quran to symbolize that Islam is "of the devil."

There are many questions to ask here, like, what happens at 9:01?  And, will there be smores?  And, what happens if no one shows up?  And, isn't it hot enough in Florida the way it is?

But, even more pressing issues frame this event.  Bizarrely, it's become a wildly controversial project.

Much of the controversy surrounding this commemorative event centers on the rightness or wrongness of burning the Islamic holy book, whether it violates the constitution, whether it is anti-Christian or even Anti-American.

In addition to the moral and ethical issues, there also appear to be questions of national security.  The top U. S. commander, General David Petraeus sent an email to the Associated Press claiming that "images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs joined Petraeus in condemning plans to set fire to the book that almost 1/4 of the world believes to be holy.  Clinton called it "disgraceful" and Gibbs went even further, noting that any kind of "activity that puts our troops in harm's way would be a concern to this administration."

Of course, burning the Quran is legal, as it should be.  Burning The Bible must be legal. Same goes for burning the flag, burning photos of Barack Obama, burning copies of the Constitution, burning all Jethro Tull albums. These are important freedoms, and they must be protected.

The great irony is that burning sacred texts is not anti-American; it's wholly American.

The freedom to symbolically destroy another symbol is, in part, what makes America itself a symbol worth attacking.

In reality, there is no actual danger in burning pages of a book.  But, as General Petraeus notes, it is the image of Americans burning Qurans that concerns him.  The danger, then, lies in the semiotic realm.  

In all religions, fire carries with it a purgative and a punitive signification.  For Rev. Jones, watching the Quran burn in the flames of denunciation is in concert, symbolically, with his claim that Islam is of the Devil.  

Americans are, again, misguided if they obsess about this proposed burning on legal or moral grounds. That's not where the real meaning is made.  True meaning, real consequences take place in the semiotic, the symbolic, the cultural realm, and it is in that realm where discussions about the wisdom of such actions need to take place.

My prediction is that this is a stunt and that the Rev. Jones will bow to the pressure of other ministers, the president, the military, and even local law enforcement (who denied his application for a permit for an open burn) and call things off.  

Because, once you've earned it, it is very, very hard to shake the universal symbol of jackass.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The True Blood Rolling Stone: Revisiting the Naked Photo Cover

I LIKE THE NAKED blood-Pollacked bodies on the cover of the most recent Rolling Stone.  In fact, it's made me rethink my stance on this season's True Blood.  Things in season three are starting to feel a little like they did toward the end of Buffy, when all manner of demon, wolf, devil, and nether-creature found their way to Sunnydale.  Similarly with all of the werewolves, werepanthers, demons, fairies, and vampires, Bon Temps is lousy with weirdos. 

This cover is crowded, too, but in a good way.  Bill, Sookie, and Eric wear each other as well as the blood.  It's violent and erotic, and it made me think of all of the Rolling Stone covers where people are naked and  a few other covers where the nakedness actually becomes a kind of clothing.

Maybe it's because Bill is cupping Sookie's breast, but this first reminded me of the infamous 1993 Janet Jackson cover when she was more fastidious about potential wardrobe malfunctions.
This was sort of a shocking cover, as much for the unbuttoned jeans and the hidden male body as for the nude top.  Who is that behind her?  And, how many shots did they do?  Is she ticklish?  Any chance it's Woody Allen back there?

I know with Sookie's raised leg and all I should have immediately gone to the Yoko/John cover, but in retrospect, that shot feels dated and by no means transgressive.  I know, I know, it was at the time.  And, it has much in common with the True Blood cover in that it celebrates romance and sexuality.  It's about a relationship.  It's also much sweeter than either of the other two images, and that also makes it more forgettable.

The nearly-nude Russel Brand is more like the Janet Jackson cover than any of the others.  It's a funny shot that would have been funnier if someone else had been covering some of his body parts of if he was sporting tighty whities.

 And then there are the famous nude pregnancy photos, such as those by Demi Moore and Claudia Schiffer.  These celebrate the body, the female body, which, I suppose the Russel Brand shot does as well. Granted, these are not on Rolling Stone, but we get the reference.

I think my favorite nude cover of the past few years is the hardly discussed shot of the Dixie Chicks.  This 2003 cover was just one in a series of controversial moves that positioned the country trio as more progressive and more political than many of their listeners liked or expected.  

It's not particularly surprising that any of the folks in these images undressed for the camera or that they agreed to participate in artful neo-nudity.  But, I think most people were both surprised (even shocked) when Martie Maguire, Emily Robinson, and Natalie Maines went commando on the cover of Entertainment Weekly

What makes this cover particularly interesting is its lack of overt sexuality.  This particular image is much more about politics than the politics of the body.  Sure, it's an alluring photo and you find yourself looking closely at their bodies but it's to read what's been written on them.  You want to see how they have been marked.  The True Blooders are also marked but in a different way--ironically, even though they are bloody, it's less violent.

There is a defiance in this shot that dares the viewer to look at the women solely through an erotic lens.  The women then author their own bodies.  They tell us how to read them.  Rather than celebrating violence and eroticism like the True Blood cover it redirects that violence.  If you criticized them, it's on you.