February 4, 2009

Pocket Utopia Salon report: Moving beyond ObamArt

After suffering through eight years of dangerously misguided Bush administration policies, we all heaved a sigh of relief when Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States. That Bush’s presidency dragged the nation into peril and disrepute certainly made the American people eager for a new administration. But it was President Obama’s conspicuous brilliance, extraordinary charisma, uncanny cool, and historic standing as the country’s first African-American president that invested his victory with such poignant hope. On Inauguration Day, the capital was so jammed with exuberant onlookers that media reports described scenes of pedestrian gridlock and cell-tower overload. The art world, like the rest of the country, is smitten.

From our swooning embrace of Barack Obama and his family, a new genre of art has emerged: ObamArt. Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous 'Hope' posters, Robert Indiana’s 'Hope' logo based on his well-known 'LOVE' statue from the sixties, and countless other artworks, many shown at the 'Manifest Hope' exhibition in Washington, radiate an earnestness and sincerity at odds with the art community’s traditionally critical distance. On January 18th, Austin Thomas and I held a salon at Pocket Utopia in Bushwick to discuss the phenomenon, and to consider how our art making and exhibition practices might evolve in the ebullient age of Obama. We styled the event a 'think tank' in light of its political content, put out an open invitation to all art bloggers, who are arguably the best informed members of the art community, and a formidable group showed up to prognosticate.

We discussed how, at first, the Obama-themed paintings and posters were generated to raise cash for the campaign. But then artists, themselves enchanted and no doubt genuinely keen to mark this moment in time, began capitalizing on the public’s infatuation with Forty-Four. Although presidential portraits are usually commissioned shortly before they leave office, the iconic Shepard Fairey image became part of the U.S. National Portrait Gallery’s collection even before Obama was sworn in. Elizabeth Peyton, whose solo show of apolitical celebrity portraits had been hanging at the New Museum since October, tacked on a painting of Michelle Obama and her daughter Sasha after Obama won the election. Not only did the museum add what is generally agreed to be a mediocre piece to the show, but it then put out a press release casting the painting as a celebration of Obama’s victory. Rumors circulated that the painting later sold for $60,000. Artists, it seems, came to realize that Obama euphoria was good for sales as well as the soul.... Read the entire story in the February issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

Related link: Time Magazine's Flickr gallery of ObamArt.


Good and much needed story. As an art historian in Ohio who blogs about art(and campaigned for Obama here), too many people suggested I blog about ObamArt and I couldn't get myself to do it. I certainly enjoyed all of the images we all saw in the last year or so, but to blog about how present it was seemed rather redundant.

I felt this way about the Manifest Hope show. I didn't go, but was in DC during the inauguration. When I aw pictures from the exhibition, I thought, "How are these images any different from those on t-shits, buttons, cap, scarves, and other items being sold om the National Mall?"

Like you, I hope we move beyond this popular style and resist adopting it as a new American style. Not only because the style is reminiscent of communist art (I actually find myself fascinated with Russian and Cuban Poster art), but because I look to artists not to adopt the commercial styles but to lead new artistic discussions.

Many artists are not in galleries. Many of us show online on artists' sites. I have been doing political art for about a decade, although an artist for several more than that.

I did art protesting the war on Iraq, torture, etc. during the Bush Administration. I also have done a couple, about Israel, most recently, in protest of Israel's attack on Gaza. (I'm a Jew.)

I felt strongly about the new President Obama, on Jan. 23, 2009, sending drones into Pakistan. I did a piece of art, completed on Jan.26, "who will tell President Obama?" that it is illegal. I started mailing a few at a time, xerographics. We can support the President, but art as point-of-view,of dissent of policy, still needs to happen.

Sometimes a response is needed faster than an art show. And who gets into a show, etc. is another topic.

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