The Audacity of Everythingby Sean O'Toole / 04.09.2009
Fancy that, I thought, looking up at the poster. Everyone is remixing everyone. Case in point: a poster advertising a gig by veteran punk rocker, Jello Biafra. The former Dead Kennedys vocalist, whose 1979 song California Uber Alles warned that “Zen fascists will control you/ 100% natural/ You will jog for the master race”, is due to play a gig with his new band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine, in the German port city of Hamburg this Saturday.
But it wasn’t really Biafra that made me stop, stare and push click, much as I admire him. Rather it is the weird constellation of references in the promotional poster he is using to catch the eye of unwitting passersby. At face value, the visual language of his poster is easy enough to decipher. The poster is a riff on street artist Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope poster, released around the time of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
As political posters go, Fairey’s creation is uncomplicated, arguably even formulaic, which, paradoxically, is why it turned out to be a real winner. Graphic experimentation is one thing, communicating a simple, declaratory message to a mass audience is quite something else. (You may wish to look up the dictionary definitions of “advertising” and “propaganda”.)
Given the unavoidability of his subject, Fairey’s poster naturally garnered widespread attention, very little of it edifying. The New Yorker ‘s always-graceful art critic Peter Schjeldahl is an exception. Writing earlier this year, he said of the poster: “It exploited a familiar graphic device – exalted and refined by Andy Warhol – of polarizing photographs into solid darks and blank lights, thus rendering volumetric subjects dead flat. Mentally restoring those splotches to rounded substance makes us feel clever, on the important condition that the subject excites us enough to elicit the effort.”
Warhol and his colour saturated, larger-than-life celebrity portraiture is a fair reference point, but art history isn’t the only place to go looking. Fairey’s poster forms part of a rich lineage of political graphics that use photographs as their source. The most obvious reference here is Cuban photographer Alberto Korda’s March 5, 1960 photograph of Che Guevara, which subsequently found its way into countless graphics, some of which no doubt inspired the anti-apartheid posters of Nelson Mandela, many of which drew on a Eli Weinberg’s photographs.
There is of course more to Fairey’s Hope poster than graphic precedents. Like Korda, who never made a peso from his image (until recently, and he donated that to Cuba’s healthcare system anyway), Fairey’s poster is premised on a cunning sleight of hand: the Hope graphic is constructed around an April 2006 photograph of Obama by Mannie Garcia. Everyone of course overlooked this fact, including the photograph’s author, because, well, the poster was for a good cause.
Then in February things got ugly. Fairey sued Associated Press, Garcia’s employer, the lawsuit aimed at clarifying whether his usage of the image was fair. Associated Press have countersued, arguing Fairey, whose branded empire includes a clothing line, knowingly “misappropriated The AP’s rights in that image”.
Which, not so coincidentally, hints at another vector of meaning in Biafra’s poster. In late 2006, Obama released his second book, The Audacity of Hope, its subtitle telling the reader that it contained his “thoughts on reclaiming the American dream”. By the end of August 2008 these musings had morphed into bullet points for change, Obama now the official Democratic Party nominee for the hot seat in the White House.
Politics, perhaps more so than music, is the realm par excellence of the remix. Big ideas are routinely made incrementally smaller, sliced into fractions, reduced into sound-bytes, until all we have is a riff, a melody, an audible something that is a barely remembered memory of what was. Which might explain how The Audacity of Hope, like an influenza virus, has spawned a whole subgenre of coughs and sneezes.
Aside from The Audacity of Hype – variously, the title of Biafra’s forthcoming album and a headline to a scathing 2008 New York Times op-ed piece railing against Obama’s Democratic Party acceptance speech – there is also The Audacity of Greed, a book about greed and its role in this current, almost great depression of now. What next? The Audacity of Witnesses, by Judge Nkola Motata? The Audacity of Flight, by Brandon Huntley, the South African asylum-seeker in Canada? Personally, I’m hoping a publisher will commission the biography of Julius Malema. Its title is already written: The Audacity of Everything.