Moving Beyond ObamArtby Sharon L. Butler
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.
According to DC journalist and Grammar.police blogger Kriston Capps (who, though unable to attend, weighed in via e-mail), during inauguration week every gallery in the capital featured some kind of Obama-inspired artwork in the windows. Another DC-based artist noted that even artists long associated with abstraction turned to portraiture to memorialize the President-elect. Multiples were printed up and, despite the art market downturn, sales to inaugural crowds were brisk. Shows like “Manifest Hope” presented ObamArt from across the country. The renderings ranged from merely sentimental (Barack and Michelle in an embrace, farmer Obama reading in a cornfield) to pruriently kitschy (dripping, muscular Obama emerging from the ocean). Virtually all were irony-free—very uncharacteristic of the art community, which had assumed a reflexive position of political critic and outsider during Bush’s two terms. We all agreed that the outpouring of Obama imagery symbolized the art community’s collective desire to abandon its sardonic distance and become an unqualified cheerleader for this new embodiment of optimism and inclusion.
Like the rest of America, the art community has been energized. Some participants felt inspired to move beyond the narrow confines of the art world to try to effect change on a broader scale through political activism. Virtually everyone in attendance confessed to their seduction by the relational-aesthetic spirit of collaboration, community, and world-making. To help us all weather the difficult times ahead, a couple of participants suggested that artists should angle for grant funding to cover the insurance costs of non-profit organizations and collectives so that they could organize exhibitions in the soon-to-be-vacant gallery spaces throughout the city.
Yet not all the Obama-era art world scenarios that we discussed were warm and fuzzy. We took note that the visual language (color, typography, and simplified imagery) of the new ObamArt bore a disturbing similarity to propaganda graphics of the Maoist and Russian Revolutions. Of course, Obama’s success is important to all Americans, and it’s still too early to find fault with his policies. But the electorate’s soaring confidence in the new leader of the free world—based on personality rather than job performance—is unlikely to remain so high, and even if it did, it might not be healthy for liberal democracy. In any case, it is unrealistic to
expect that Obama can deliver enough in these disastrous times to maintain anything close to his remarkable 79% Inauguration Day approval rating. Now that he is actually in office, the euphoria of hope alone won’t be enough to meet the big and complicated challenges that Bush has bestowed. Accordingly, the starry-eyed art of the past twelve months is bound to give way to more complex, resonant art practice. Indeed, even our future interpretation of Obama portraiture, like the evolution of the “happy face” image in the seventies, is likely to change, and may evolve into something less buoyant as his administration’s policies unfold.
In this vein, we briefly discussed the notion that art, explicitly or implicitly, broadly reflects the deeper political sensibilities of its generation. Clear examples include Picasso’s impassioned Guernica and Jasper Johns’s laconic Flag. Dada’s snideness and Cubism’s deconstruction limned the collapse of traditional order signaled by the end of the Gilded Age and the carnage of World War I. Grant Wood’s American Gothic exudes a hard-bitten stoicism that reflects the futility of government policy during the Great Depression. More subtly, Abstract Expressionism was arguably the pressure-release valve for the obscure but pervasive anxieties wrought by the nuclear age and the Cold War, and Minimalism could be seen as a mechanism for transcending them. And most curators seek to produce exhibitions that encapsulate the zeitgeist.
In the George W. Bush era, art practice moved decisively away from the permanent object toward contingent installations that relied heavy on conceptual scaffolding. The September 11th attacks bear some transparent blame: they obliterated the Twin Towers, a seemingly indestructible visual icon of America’s greatest city, and thus cast doubt on the permanence of everything—New York, the United States, world order, the world itself. Nowhere—at least in the art world—had this collective epochal despondency, resignation, and exploration of failure been more brilliantly, if unintentionally, revealed than in the Guggenheim Museum’s lethargically titled exhibition, “theanyspacewhatever.” Ten artists collaborated with curator Nancy Spector to create a show made up largely of incorporeal ideas and empty space. Douglas Gordon’s faux sage existential notions on the walls (“You’re closer than you know,” “Nothing will ever be the same”) seemed calculated to convey the profundity of banality and vice-versa—a Bushian notion if ever there was one.
President Obama will inevitably undo the Bush gestalt, and that may mean an end to the degree of art world cynicism immortalized in shows like “who select and organize their exhibitions, galvanized with a new sense of inclusion, patriotism, and collaboration may find renewed interest in a less ephemeral modality than the disembodied concepts that have become so prevalent during the Bush years. Of course, no one can predict exactly what will happen, and some people were reluctant to guess, but even up against a devastating art market shakeout, everyone was animated and ready for change. Perhaps our preoccupation with failure will be replaced with a fascination for skillful prowess; visceral or visual approaches may oust the prevailing inclination toward cerebral rhetoric. Judging by the cautious enthusiasm that suffused the conversation at Pocket Utopia, we have the audacity to hope that the art and exhibitions we produce will move beyond the simplistic propaganda of ObamArt to reflect the genuine historical gravity of our time. Let’s hold onto that conceit.
Many thanks to Pocket Utopia “think tank” participants, including Chris Albert (Maykr), Martin Bromirski (Anaba), Carolina Miranda (C-Monster), Barry Hoggard (Art Cal, Bloggy, and Culture Pundits), Stephanie Lee Jackson (Pretty Lady), Paddy Johnson (Art Fag City), James Kalm (James Kalm Report), Matthew Langley (Matthew Langley Artblog), Bill Riley (wilrilart), Kevin Regan (kvnrgn ), Adam Simon (Fine Art Adoption Network), Lars Swan (newcleanblog), Austin Thomas (AT World), Hrag Vartanian (Hrag Vartanian), Kai Vierstra (Dairy), James Wagner (ArtCal, James Wagner, and Culture Pundits). Thanks also to the artists, curators, and curious parties who sat in, including MoMA curator Christian Rattemeyer.
About the Author
Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.