WITH THE ELECTION RETURNS LARGELY IN, this seems a good time to revisit “The Art of Obama Worship,” by Michael J. Lewis. Published in Commentary, September, 2009, the essay took off from Shepard Fairey’s iconic, Warhol-like poster of Obama in red, white and blue:
From the beginning, the Obama campaign invested much thought in its visual strategy. To portray him as a radically transformative deliverer, a figure of redemptive promise, was a natural course of action, his appearance comfortably matching his rhetoric. The challenge lay in the other direction, to reassure those leery of a messianic figure with a hazy resume and an oracular verbal style that he nonetheless stood in the mainstream of American political history.
Obama’s messianism was a carefully crafted human pseudo-event. Last night’s body count confirmed the gradual awakening of the electorate to the difference between a hero and a celebrity.
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The qualities of the first take time to gestate; the other, on the contrary, is a product of publicity.
Lewis has no illusion about the aesthetic worth of Fairey’s work, but his essay takes seriously the sincerity of its naiveté:
For the longest time, when dealing with the institutions of American society, it has been the reflex of American artists to deflate or puncture. These are the actions one performs on hollow things. But the thoroughly unironic art of Fairey and his ilk suggests some sense that American institutions are solid affairs and deserving of respectful treatment. On balance, this is a positive development. It abolishes the foolish notion that the progressiveness of artists can be gauged by the extent to which they are alienated from American life.
At the same time, there is something unsettling about images that offer little more political commentary than an uncomplicated adulation that borders on power worship. By showing the subjects removed from all political context, and in a beatific reverie, such art produces images that are aesthetically indistinguishable from the “dear leader” effigies that delighted the dictators of the 1930s or of our own day.
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Of course, artists greater than Fairey, English, and Barber have shifted from denouncing tyrants to bleating at their feet—for instance, Jacques-Louis David, whose paintings helped send Louis XVI to the guillotine and who then went on to flatter Napoléon in some of the most obsequious paintings known to Western art. Such a choice between abject hero worship and dehumanizing agitprop shows once again, as it did 70 years ago, what happens when artists become courtiers and put themselves in the service of ideology. But to realize the dangers implicit in an art (or politics) that sorts its subjects into class enemies and anointed ones requires a knowledge of history that Fairey seems not to possess.
Whether Fairey himself understands this is unclear. One of his most popular “sampled” images, pried from the public domain, was an amiably grinning skull, which sold in large numbers until its source was revealed: the elite “death’s-head” division whose ruthlessness it symbolized, the S.S. Totenkopf Division.
The graphic revolution—the sheer quantity of images we navigate daily—feeds a particular kind of idolatry: the worship of power. Art, like the temple prostitutes of old, is a seductive handmaiden to demagoguery. It is not benign.
© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey