From hope to hopeless

From a Will.i.am song to the arty “Hope” poster, President Obama’s 2008 campaign capitalized on several pop-culture hits to spread its message.

But four years later, images of similar influence have yet to emerge in the 2012 campaign. Grassroots artists — who created countless pieces of media for the 2008 Obama campaign — remain muted for both candidates thus far. The campaigns themselves have also failed to produce any memorable media at this point, experts say.

Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster is arguably the most memorable image from the 2008 campaign. As Fairey himself has said, it became “the unofficial poster of the whole campaign.” Some media experts are skeptical that the 2012 campaign will produce an iconic image equal in influence to Fairey’s poster.

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Beyond Fairey’s work, there were other influential pop-culture phenomena that swept the nation four years ago, including the risqué “Obama Girl” video that garnered millions of YouTube hits, Will.i.am’s Emmy award-winning music video “Yes We Can” and the persona assumed by conservative activist Samuel Wurzelbacher, famously dubbed “Joe the Plumber” by John McCain’s campaign.

Greg Lebel, a political management assistant professor and director of the Semester in Washington Politics Program at George Washington University, said 2008 was a unique election cycle for campaign art.

“I don’t want to say it was a one-time thing, but the chances of something working that well and becoming that big are very slim,” Lebel said. “All the stars came into alignment for that.”

One reason for that could be that the art community isn’t as supportive this election cycle, said New York University communications professor Stephen Duncombe.

“Sure, I think most people in the art community are going to vote for Obama, but I think that enthusiasm — that inspiration — has waned in the past three and half years,” he said.

Both Lebel and Duncombe said the lack of grassroots artwork in the 2012 campaign thus far has to do with the lack of an “insurgent” candidate in this cycle.

“Mitt Romney was not the insurgent campaigner and Obama obviously is not the insurgent campaigner,” Duncombe said. “My guess is we’re not going to get any bold graphic styles or bold messaging or the bubbling up from the bottom popular cultural resonance that the Obama campaign had in 2008, because these candidates are not those people. Obama might have been in 2008, but he’s not in 2012.”

Even an image created by Fairey himself might not have the same cultural resonance for Obama this year, Duncombe said, adding that what both campaigns are waiting for is “the next Shepard Fairey.” The likelihood of that happening, he said, is slim.

Without an outpouring of grassroots artwork, both campaigns will have to rely on their campaign offices to produce popular images. However, Duncombe said we shouldn’t expect anything that is “Hope-esque” from the campaigns.

“You can’t make that from the campaign office — it just doesn’t work,” he said. “You can come up with some good posters and get some people to download those posters, but you’re not going to get that sort of popular cultural resonance.”

Josh Claflin, the president of Garrison Everest, a design agency that specializes in branding and is currently working on campaign art for a Republican in a congressional race, said if an influential image emerges in 2012, expect it to come from grassroots conservatives. Though he conceded that most prominent artists “tend to fall on the liberal side,” Claflin said the disparity doesn’t matter in this election cycle.

“I see a lot more enthusiasm and energy on the conservative side,” he said. “The reason why we had so much art come out of the Obama campaign was because everyone hated [George W.] Bush. Now you’ve got an incumbent Democrat and a Republican candidate, and it seems like the energy has reversed.”

Claflin said his company is working on an image for the 2012 campaign that will appear in a traveling showcase. It will portray Obama and the Democrats as big-government politicians who want to raise taxes, promote socialism and limit Americans’ freedoms.

Neither the Obama nor the Romney campaign responded to requests for comment. Shepard Fairey was also unable to be reached for comment.

Artists agree that creating an image as influential as Fairey’s “Hope” poster does not simply happen. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.), who graduated with a degree in fine arts from Cornell University, said it is difficult to bridge the gap between something that is a piece of art and an iconic cultural image like Fairey’s.

“You have to have some kind of a vision,” Clarke said. “People may have wanted some type of hope, something to look forward to in the future because they didn’t like what was happening in the past.”

Clarke added that he has struggled to create artwork that resonates with the public. He said he classifies himself as a “fine artist” and did not get involved in the artwork for his congressional campaigns.

Gan Golan, the co-author and illustrator of Don’t Let the Republican Drive the Bus! — a political satire based on a children’s book — said an artist needs to have both artistic skill and a deep cultural understanding to create an image like Fairey’s poster.

“To have any cultural work have that kind of impact requires tremendous intuition about where the public is at and an ability to speak in an authentic way to the truth that people are feeling,” Golan said. “Also, [you need] tremendous skill as a craftsman to articulate those feelings in a way that’s incredibly compelling.”

Golan said he doubts that an image as powerful as the “Hope” poster will emerge in this election. He added that the grassroots activists who pumped energy into the 2008 Obama campaign have shifted their efforts to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Without those winds of change at its back, Golan said, the Obama campaign will struggle to generate art like it did four years ago.

“That’s the most powerful thing that art can do,” he said. “It’s not to convince you that someone else is powerful, but to convince you that you yourself are powerful. And that’s something the Shepard Fairey poster did, and it was also something that the Occupy Wall Street image with the ballerina on the bull did.”

Tom Weiner, who co-authored the Library of Congress book Presidential Campaign Posters, said at a presentation last month that, with the expansion of social media and television ad campaigns, posters are becoming an afterthought. He added that up until the late 20th century, presidential campaigns used to create posters that had broad national messages and exquisite detail. 

As for music, Will.i.am and his celebrity peers have yet to release a new song. The recent Obama Boy video — starring Justin Brown — hasn’t taken off like 2008’s Obama Girl, and a Joe the Plumber-like figure has not emerged.

And though the 2012 campaigns have marketing tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that can reach millions of people, without effective art, their messages might be lost on the masses, Golan said.

“Art and culture has unique power,” he said. “It is often misunderstood and under-utilized by people in politics. And in some ways it’s a more powerful way of communicating with people than the message that they’re promoting.”