Thursday, December 6, 2012

Iconography (Part 2): "Hope" Meme

Besides what's on our currency, by far and away the most iconic depiction - and phenomenal marketing success - of any politician in American history, this image was a viral success during the 2008 US Presidential campaign. Designed in 2007 by street artist turned graphic designer/illustrator Shepard Fairey, this stylized collage (acrylic + stencil) portrait of Obama and ensuing variations of the “Hope” remains immediately recognizable. But viewed through the lens of iconography, what is it about this image that made it so particularly effective? Dovetailed with the previous image of Alex Ross' 2008 painting of Obama in the ultimate hero motif as Superman we can start to deconstruct some familiar symbolic themes, but just as importantly, where did it come from?

One indelible link is found within the Social Realism art movement. In the Depression era there arose a distinct body of works infused with a strong sense of Regionalism that championed the working class and poor, and addressed to the political dimensions of social themes such as class struggle, justice and protest. In photography the two examples above portray these themes: on the left, “Sharecropper” by Walker Evans (1936), and on the right “Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange (1936).

Similarly we have two examples from another medium, murals, that was frequently used as a platform from which to broadcast the concerns of the movement to the people in the proverbial village square. Above is “Tragic Prelude” by John Steuart Curry (1940) from the Kansas State House showing the abolitionist John Brown sermonizing at Harper’s Ferry; and underneath is a detail from “Omnisciencia” by the Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco (1925).

Another artist commonly associated with the Social Realists was Iowan Grant Wood , who's “American Gothic” (1930) has been the subject of many a parody, including “AK Gothic/Tolovana Hotsprings" from Anchorage-based photographer Nathaniel Wilder.

But there is another answer to the question as to where Fairey got his idea. After the campaign the actual source was sussed out, and an ensuing lawsuit settled with Associated Press photographer Mannie Garcia. Which brings up an important aspect of dealing with iconographic content...

There is a veritable maze of legal issues associated with the related concepts of appropriation and parody that become enmeshed with fair use versus copyright infringement (a case in point being this series of postings which is covered by the provisions afforded for educational purposes). Here is a good opportunity to explore Creative Commons as a viable alternative licensing system for authors, artists and educators. While this might be seen as somewhat tangential to the initial topic, I view it as a crucial component of any classroom discussion of contemporary art, especially within the context of the internet...

Here is a compilation of just a fraction of the visual remixes that followed in the wake of the success and popularity of Fairey's design (here's even a do-it-yourself template). Thus the "Hope" poster constituted a phenomenon known as a "meme," or more specifically an "internet meme," as each successive take on the original concept expanded upon its initial meaning and intent as social commentary and criticism.

Another interesting factor with these images is to consider the scope and reach of them as compared with the the historical iconic works previously posted. Originally the viewership of these paintings was limited to those few, rare people who could be in the physical presence of the pieces themselves, and for many it was the only time they would ever see an actual work of art. Contrast that restricted audience with our contemporary society, visually saturated and awash in technological advances that can vastly increase the dispersion of imagery via television, film and the internet.

Which in turn leads me directly to the second subject of our discussion and the third installment of this series to be posted tomorrow morning.

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