Naomi Klein dismantles Obama the superbrand in yesterday’s Guardian. “[His] preference for symbols over substance, and […] unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much,” she writes, itemising “the pop-art branding from Che, his cadence from King, his ‘Yes we can!’ slogan from migrant farmworkers.”
Klein predicts than “bitter cynicism” will emerge as Obama fails to deliver on the optimism he inspired, and another report in the Guardian suggests that this is already happening: Obama’s approval rating has dipped calamitously since election, reports Gary Younge. The left-wing rhetoric has distressed opponents; the compromised achievements have disappointed allies. Shepard Fairey, who designed the screen-print image of Obama, has since updated it as “Hopeless Escalation”. Sad faces all round.
Shepard Fairey’s previous big project was the Obey Giant campaign – a series of pop-art graphics of Andre the Giant with the word “obey” issued as stickers to be slapped all over the place. The “Manifesto” from 1990 asserts that his purposes were mostly playful (“The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker”), but also presents it as a sort of anti-brand:
Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail.
But the Giant stickers became their own product and the brand of Fairey’s work. That’s not a slaying criticism of them – it’s just that anyone who was drawn to them because they saw them as subversive anti-marketing is going to be disappointed. The language of images gives a meaning to anything that shows up: it’s impossible to undermine it from the outside, even if a project like Obey can show its workings.
Klein, in a more sympathetic paragraph, suggests a similar systems-based explanation for Obama’s failure to reinvent American politics: “Obama is a gifted politician with a deep intelligence and a greater inclination towards social justice than any leader of his party in recent memory. If he cannot change the system in order to keep his election promises, it’s because the system is utterly broken.” So maybe Obama is another Obey, and apparent outsider whose entry into the system only shows its efficiency in accommodating all elements.
Semantic systems can be viewed as organic and inevitable, but political systems aren’t: they’re manufactured things, and they could be manufactured to avoid recreating the “dull old shapes of poverty and war”. Because the alternative – the idea that violence and iniquity are the inevitable best we can do – is almost too depressing to go on with.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010