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From the New York Times Magazine, April 13, 2008:

The Art of Politics: Obama Art

By Rob Walker, illustration by Peter Arkle


Whether or not Barack Obama would make a good president, it’s clear that he makes an excellent muse. It’s hard to think of a political candidate in recent memory who has, in real time, inspired so much creativity, exercised free of charge and for the campaign’s benefit. Perhaps this suggests something about Obama — or maybe it suggests something about his supporters.

The examples are many. One of the most prominent is the limited-edition print created by the Los Angeles artist Shepard Fairey in January. Fairey is best known as the creator of the “Obey Giant” imagery that, beginning in 1989, spread on city streets around the world by way of posters, stickers and stencils. (Disclosure: I contributed an essay to Fairey’s 2006 book, Obey: Supply & Demand, an extensive survey of that project and of his career so far.) Fairey made a brief statement when he unveiled the portrait, noting his “great conviction that Barack Obama should be the next President.” Poster sales, he added, would underwrite “a large statewide poster campaign.”

In addition to popping up on many streets, the image later made its way onto a T-shirt, created in collaboration with the San Francisco street-wear brand Upper Playground — and apparently onto the radar of the Obama campaign. The candidate himself sent a thank-you note, and his campaign had Fairey create a new poster that became the inaugural offering in an “Artists for Obama” section of the online store. Fairey told Creativity Online that while he has been politically active, there’s something new in the enthusiasm he now professes to feel. “I just thought it was time to stick my neck out,” he said. A variety of other artists apparently feel something similar. A California art duo known as the Date Farmers created an Obama screen print in an edition of 300; add the pro-Obama prints by Sam Flores, MAC and Munk One, and you’re on your way to a hipster gallery show.

Meanwhile, of the Black Eyed Peas created a video that remixed an Obama speech into a song, with a variety of music-celebrity contributors joining in on the candidate’s oft-cited slogan, “Yes, we can.” It’s had more than 6.5 million YouTube views and inspired spinoffs, including a “No, you can’t” video by the satirical Billionaires for Bush. As Advertising Age has noted, a variety of ad-world “creatives” (it’s actually a job title in that industry) have also cooked up freelance online videos and the like, free. The grass-roots end of the creativity spectrum has included, which offered T-shirts on which baseball team logos were tweaked to read “Obama” (until Major League Baseball intervened), and a D.I.Y. “O’bama” St. Patrick’s Day dress recently featured on

Creative types have backed politicians before, and Obama does not have a monopoly on such expression even in the Democratic primary. (There’s Jack Nicholson’s somewhat strange pro-Clinton clip made up of spliced-together movie performances, for instance.) But the Obama endorsements seem not simply expressions of support, but of something more like fandom. Dan Ariely, a behavioral-economics professor at M.I.T. and author of the recent book Predictably Irrational, has gone so far as to compare it to romance, citing research about the early stages of dating as a comparison point: “When we get partial information about others we tend to fill in the gaps optimistically; we assume that they are wonderful, just like us and that they share our exact values and preferences.” He figures part of Obama’s charm may be the way fans are filling in the blanks.

This bring us to perhaps the most delightful piece of Obama-inspired creativity, the Web site This is nothing but a series of statements about the wonderful things Obama has done for “you.” He left a comment on your blog, picked you up at the airport, built you a robot, thinks you are cute and, sweetly: “Barack Obama has a balloon for you.” The site has been read as support — and as a satire of crush-blind Obama supporters. Of course this ambiguity is what makes it so pleasing. Because perfect little things like this are invariably converted into profitable objects, a deal has been struck to release an illustrated book based on the site. The stated goal to get it into stores before the Democratic convention reflects a reality lurking behind the political optimism: all the creative expression in the world doesn’t guarantee that we’ll ever find out what sort of president Obama might be.

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