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.


  1. I believe the title of the movie is: "We Sleep, They Live."

    If it wasn't for the professional wrestlers he used in this movie, and some macho and sexual silliness, John Carpenter could have ascended to the heights occupied by Chris Marker.

    But, then, that's America.

  2. Mike, Thanks for reading. According to, the title of the movie is "They Live." I am familiar only with "Twelve Monkeys" from Chris Marker. I will have to check out "The Pier," which seems to be the French and much earlier version of Gilliam's film.